Ernesto doesn't like cemeteries, but on that day last year he arrived early at Havana's famed Colon Cemetery to clean out his father's grave and prepare it for the remains of his mother, who had just died.
He was shocked to find just an empty casket where his father's remains had been placed five years before.
The gravestone had been shattered to pieces when an tomb raider broke into the grave. The valuable Carrara marble, imported by his bourgeois ancestors early in the 20th Century could not protect the family's remains.
Fear of tomb desecrations — generally for use in religious rituals — is one of the reasons many Cubans in Havana province are increasingly opting to cremate their loved ones.
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Official records show that 6,131 of the 23,641 deaths reported in Havana in 2015 led to cremations, compared to just 90 in 2006, the year in which the first of three crematoriums went into operation at the Cementerio Nuevo de Guanabacoa.
“We had to cremate my mother after seeing that mess,” said Ernesto. “We planned to cremate her and leave the ashes in the family pantheon, but then a friend of a niece who knows about religious rituals warned us that the process of stealing remains starts as soon as you give notice that you're bringing them in, even ashes, and that's why we finally decided to throw the ashes into the sea.”
The theft of human bones for religious rituals has become a way to make ends meet for employees at cemeteries, not just in Havana, but across the island.
“People who work in government stores steal, like those who work in a warehouse. Those of us who work in cemeteries have to eat, too,” said a state-employed gravedigger whose monthly salary totals about 350 pesos, or $14.
Among the illegal cemetery schemes are the resale of tombs owned by families that have left the country and the sale of tomb ornaments, especially the coveted Carrera marble that has not been imported for decades. Fences, crystal ornaments and even flower vases at grave sites also often disappear.
While the island's population is aging at a rapid pace, the funeral services infrastructure has barely been updated in decades. However, the government recently began building a string of crematoriums across the island.
The use of human remains in the Afro-Cuban religion Palo Monte is widely known in Cuba. A priest in the religion, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the bones “are essential. Without human remains there is no spiritual work.
“For the work, we generally use the head, the arms and the legs,” the priest explained. “You can have a full skeleton, but those three elements are the ones used most often. The head to think, the hands to work and the feet to move.”
Experts say that although there are no precise statistics, the last 20 years has seen an increase in religious rituals, especially those linked to Afro-Cuban beliefs, apparently fueled by the deterioration of living conditions on the island.
“Right now a lot of women are coming to us to ‘tie up’ their husbands or resolve a health issue,” the priest said, explaining that ‘tie up’ means keeping husbands from straying. “But we're also seeing a substantial increase in the number of people who come to us because they want to leave the country.”
He explained that for people who want to leave the island, bones from the hands and legs are used: “I can't say how they are used because that's a secret, but for example if the person is going to be walking across borders he will need bones from the feet,” he added.
The priest said the Palo Monte religion is misunderstood.
“Most people believe we work with evil, and that's not so. You can choose to work with evil or good,” he said, adding that the use of human bones in rituals “is not exclusive to us.”
The price of the raw materials for the religious rituals also has been increasing over the past decade.
“The price of the bones can vary. For example, a cranium can cost $80 to $103. The rest of the bones cost less, but we have to keep in mind that whoever does the work also has to eat,” said the priest., who used to work for the government's funeral services agency. During that time, he said, he knew of about 800 complaints for tomb desecrations.
Se Vende, a popular Cuban movie from 2012 focuses on the issue of stealing human bones from the dead: “If we have to sacrifice the dead to feed the living, we'll do it,” said one of the characters in the movie.
Ernesto, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution, never learned what happened to his father. A gravedigger tried hard to persuade him that bones disappear with the passage of time. Inquiries to Colon officials and even attempts to bribe them for information on the whereabouts of the remains also were unsuccessful.
The basic price of $21.50 for cremations may seem inexpensive when compared to other countries, but it must be accompanied with a hefty bribe to speed up the process in a country where the average monthly income is about $20.
“We had to pay $23 to put mother at the top of the incineration list. When we went back for the ashes, we found them on a shelf, in a very rustic vase that had no identification,” said Ernesto.
When he asked the funeral service officials how they could be sure those were his mother's ashes, Ernesto said the official responded: “It's the only one we have, so there can't be any confusion.”
Luz Escobar contributed to this story from Havana.