The statue of Jesus Christ is gone and replaced with that of the Virgin Mary. The name on the tomb has been covered with marble-like putty, but you can still make out several of the 13 letters.
It wasn’t until the tattooed gravedigger bent over and dragged a stone planter back in front of the once-extravagant mausoleum that any question about its owner was cleared up, however.
“It’s been sold to another family,” the gravedigger said as he tugged on the planter.
He stopped pulling when he saw the inscription on the back, which was really the front because the stone had been turned around.
“Look. Look,” he said. “Pedroso. Jacinto Pedroso. Agosto 24, 1955. That’s when he died.”
But Pedroso is no longer inside his tomb. Last year, his grandson, José Valdés-Fauli, a Miami-area businessman, discovered that Pedroso’s remains had been moved to a common grave at the cemetery and his tomb sold.
Valdés-Fauli contacted the Cuban government and received what he thought was a positive response. In July, a Havana historian, Eusebio Leal, sent Valdés-Fauli a letter promising to investigate his complaint.
Valdés-Fauli wants to believe that the rapprochement between President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro will help resolve the matter. “There is more interest in cooperation on solving issues,” he said.
But so far, nothing really has been done, as a visit to the cemetery made clear just days after Obama left Cuba and flew on to Argentina.
Yossel García, the gravedigger, hopped onto Pedroso’s tomb. He stood where the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus had been positioned, commanding the attention of those who passed by. The statue fell during a storm a few years ago. It had been replaced with the Virgin by the next family, he said.
People purchase the tomb thinking that these people are no longer here. And then the owner turns up five years later.
Miguel Pons, cemetery deacon
But the new family never put a body inside. García felt the corners of the tomb. He dragged his fingers along the edges. He felt dirt, but no seal.
“It’s empty,” he said.
There are no statistics readily available on how many cases there are similar to Pedroso’s. The cemetery where he was buried at the age of 72, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Colón Cemetery, is one of the largest and most renowned in the Americas. The 138-acre site is known for its striking iconography and extravagant marble statues that can extend several stories high. It is filled with the dead from families whose prestige and wealth made many eager to leave Cuba for exile as the communist government of Fidel Castro consolidated power in the 1960s.
Resale of the plots is not frequent, said Miguel Pons, who’s the deacon at the church in the center of the majestic cemetery, but it does happen. Sometimes the sale is legitimate, said Pons, who conducts 30 funerals a day at the cemetery, each lasting about five minutes.
Some families sell the tombs for extra money to eat or pay for a trip to the United States, he said as he took a break from the steady stream of burial services.
A tomb in good condition, he said, can fetch as much as $2,000, which is about eight years of salary for the average Cuban.
But there are also those who take advantage of vulnerable families, selling fake deeds to tombs that appear to have been abandoned. He said he warned people who came to him asking about purchasing plots to make sure they were seeing real titles, which could be as extravagant as the tombs themselves.
“It’s a risk, because people purchase the tomb thinking that these people are no longer here. And then the owner turns up five years later. Then you have a problem,” he said.
A tomb in good condition can fetch as much as $2,000, which is about eight years of salary for the average Cuban.
Pons said that when a family returned to find their loved one’s name scratched off the tomb and the remains removed, the new owners were kicked out. The new remains are taken to a common grave and that family loses its money.
He said he wasn’t aware of the Pedroso case, however.
Jacinto Pedroso came from a prominent family of bankers. In 1913, he founded the bank and real estate business that would eventually become Banco Pedroso. He was a leader of the prestigious Havana Yacht Club. When he died, he was laid to rest among many of Cuba’s elite in a cemetery that today is filled with hundreds of elaborate mausoleums honoring Cuban politicians, revolutionaries, firefighters, journalists and even Americans who died in Cuba.
The designs are ornate. There is a tomb that honors a woman who died playing dominoes and another that includes a large statue of an owner and her dog.
Valdés-Fauli was visiting the island for the XII Havana Biennial Arts Festival when he discovered that his grandfather’s name was no longer on his resting place.
His first thought?
“They took everything away from us,” he said in an interview from Miami. “And now they’re even taking the bodies away from us.”
He was heartened by the letter from Leal, the Havana historian. “As a fervent believer in the resurrection of the dead and the afterlife, I am more concerned about the damage done to the memory of your grandfather than about the fate of his mortal remains, which God will decide,” Leal wrote.
But Valdés-Fauli also acknowledges worry about the delay in resolving the matter.
García, the gravedigger, remembers when the Jesus statue fell. He said it was during a heavy storm a few years ago. He looked away and then back.
“The statue is still here,” he said. “It’s in the back.”
The life-size statue is seared into García’s memory because he had to carry it to the repair shop. It’s a long walk, 10 minutes or so, even without a statue on your back. The statue now presides over a small courtyard that has the feel of another cemetery, for discarded statutes.
It’s not in such bad condition. A few fingers on the right hand are missing, but it’s mostly intact. It could be repaired, but García doubts whether it will ever be, though that is one of Valdés-Fauli’s goals.
“It’s been here for many years,” García said. “No one has touched it.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly described Valdés-Fauli as a former mayor of Coral Gables, Florida. It also incorrectly said a statue that once adorned the grave of Valdés-Fauli’s grandfather was missing fingers on its left hand. The fingers are missing from the right.