Castro’s tomb, meant to resemble a kernel of corn, becomes an instant attraction

The tomb of Fidel Castro at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba.
The tomb of Fidel Castro at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba.

Visitors have been lining up all week to get a look at the tomb, which consists of a single boulder with a small opening covered by a metal plaque that says simply “Fidel.”

Fidel Castro's tomb has become an instant attraction in this city, the island’s second largest, drawing Cubans and curious foreigners alike.

Following the private funeral of the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution Sunday, people began lining up outside the closed gates of Santa Ifigenia Cemetery despite having to walk about a mile from perimeter blockades that had closed off surrounding roads during the short early morning service. They were rewarded when guards opened the gates late Sunday afternoon and they were allowed to file past. A number of them dropped single roses or sprays of flowers at the foot of the austere granite tomb.

Cuba’s current leader, Raúl Castro, placed a cedar box containing his brother’s ashes in the tomb and the niche was sealed after a ceremony that included a military band and a 21-gun salute. Castro’s death was announced on Nov. 25 after a lengthy illness, although the cause of his death hasn’t been disclosed.

On Monday morning, five tours buses were parked near the entrance to the cemetery, Santa Ifigenia is already a tourist attraction because of the towering mausoleum of 19th Century Cuban independence hero José Martí and other elaborate statues and tombs of revolutionary and independence heroes. But the cemetery visitors were all crowded around "la piedra de Fidel” (Fidel’s stone) as some are calling it.

The boulder came from the Sierra Maestra the stronghold of Castro and other rebels during their fight to oust Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, according to Granma, the newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party. The mountain range that figured so prominently in the Cuban Revolution can be seen on the horizon from Castro’s tomb.

The inspiration for the shape of the tomb was a line from a Martí poem: “All the glory of the world fits in a single kernel of corn.” Corn has long been been a foundation of Meso-American cultures and many indigenous groups in Latin America regarded corn as sacred.

But some Cubans are struggling to see the resemblance of the solid boulder to a corn kernel and have craned their necks looking at the stone from one direction and then another.

“I don’t like it. It looks like an oven,” said one woman. Others see something akin to a bee hive.

An honor guard is posted 24 hours a day and every 30 minutes there is a changing of the guard in front of the tombs of both Castro and Martí.

Martí’s hexagonal mausoleum with a marble walkway was completed in 1951 after a lengthy nationwide campaign to erect a more worthy monument for the independence hero, who died in 1895.

Cubans, long accustomed to trying to read the political tea leaves in their country, have studied the placement of Castro’s tomb in relation to Martí’s. It stands next to the 85-foot-tall Martí mausoleum but it is placed ahead of it, closer to the metal entrance gates to the cemetery. Linking Martí and Castro in death, say some analysts, is an effort to reinforce the idea that Castro’s and Martí’s goals for liberating Cuba were the same.

“In front of José Martí? I wouldn’t have expected anything else from the Cuban government,” said Andy Gomez, a Coral Gables-based Cuba scholar. “You would think he was the one who freed Cuba from all its ills.”

The ashes of Raúl Castro’s wife, Vilma Espín, also a veteran of the Sierra Maestra, already reside in the cemetery at the mausoleum of heroes and martyrs of the Frank País Second Eastern Front. País, urban coordinator for the 26th of July Movement, was killed by Santiago police in 1957.

Although Fidel Castro’s tomb was constructed in secrecy over the past two years or so, there is little mystery about Raúl Castro’s final resting place. His nameplate is already on the mausoleum next to Vilma’s.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi