For any city or town the history of its cemetery is important. It has always had added values, from aspects inherent in health to cultural issues. In the case of Havana cemeteries it has been no different. When you talk about them, you immediately think of the General Cemetery of San Lázaro, better known as Espada and Columbus, one of the most recognized worldwide for its heritage wealth. Both have also achieved greater notoriety due to the fact that they have been general necropolises. But they were not the only ones who existed in the capital in colonial times. Between 1817 and 1894 the cemetery of Cerro (1817), los Ingleses (1832), Los Molinos (1833), Atarés (1850), the provincial of San Antonio Chiquito (1868), the Baptist (1887) and los Chinos (1894) were founded, to name just a few examples of the nineteenth century, period at hand.
One hundred and twenty-four years before all the cemeteries mentioned, there was already one in Havana. He was the first, the longest to provide his services, the advance in all aspects. It was the Cemetery of Jesus of the Mount. Today we will dely into the more general historical nooks and crannies through which this necropolis transited south of the city to uncover an important truth, which can even undo established myths.
The Cemetery of Jesus of the Mount
There should be no doubt of the early existence of a formal cemetery in Jesús del Monte, territory of outside the walls of Havana. In 1689 the hermitage El Buen Pastor de Jesús del Monte was erected, on the initiative of Bishop Diego Evelino de Compostela. Seen from today, the existence of a cemetery might seem normal, but according to the custom of that time, it was not. In this case, the founding event was the driving force for multiple issues in the jurisdiction, including the emergence of the local countryside, at a time when it was buried inside the churches, this was a rare fact. When someone was not buried on holy ground for some reason, relatives had to account for the church of death, a year to exhume and bring the mortal remains to one of them. This was a synodal disposition, it can be said that it was the law of the time: “and after they die, at distances from these four leagues, give account to the ecclesiastical judges and priests of the parishes of the part and place where they were buried, so that after the year they may be given ecclesiastical burial […] take the bones to these parishes for this purpose, and pay the priests their parish rights.”1 This, verbatim, was what was established and had to be fulfilled. Bishop Compostela himself designed the order of burials within temples.
The existence of a cemetery in Jesus of the Mount was totally atypical. It is not known whether it was a parish initiative, something unlikely, or a disposition of the mythrated, what is known is that it was of knowledge of it.
In the first book, deck,2 of the important parish archive, is a burial seat dated November 24, 1693 that states: “In the stay of the neighborhood of Arroyo Apollo jurisdiction of this church help of parish of Jesus of the Mount, belonging to John of the Well [illegible] we buried [illegible] called Mary of nation will arará slave of the adodicho [illegible] buried in the new cemetery of this church [illegible] of a mass prayed with present body [illegible] in twenty-four November 1693 and I signed it “Manuel Rodríguez Casanova”.3 There is another in the burial section of Spaniards, dated December 16, 1693 that certifies the burial of a girl named Maria, daughter of Diego Díaz and María Carminati. These two records demonstrate the existence of a formal cemetery on site. In neither case is the exact place where it was located, but it must have been in the vicinity of the rudimentary church or somewhere on the hill of Jesus of the Mount.
Both seats are very important for more than one reason, but the one we are interested in is the one that states that, both bodies were buried: “in the new cemetery of the church”. This is a very valuable testimony, and we are also a sure that jesus on the Mount was never buried inside the temple. The hermitage was first a bohio and was then built of stone and shingles. At this time it was that the first burial notices began to appear in the cemetery.
There is not much more data about this field, but the books in the archive confirm that it continued to be buried and it was always specified verbatim that it was done: “in the cemetery of this parish aid”. Even if this was an enforced formula, if it was categorically said so, it is because it was. Everything confirms the existence of a perfectly configured cemetery, subordinate to a church and which was knowledge of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. At the time this wasn’t normal, something worked differently there. Perhaps it was allowed to be the church help of the Parish Major in a wide and distant rural territory. In the Parish there was an open ossary for cases that specified the synodal arrangement, but an individual of the jurisdiction of Jesus of the Mount had to travel a great distance to reach it.
A strange cemetery
It is also known of the existence of a cemetery called “wood”.4 There are also no references to the place where it was located, although everything inclines to think, by certain quotations, archaeological discoveries and by the analyses that have been carried out, which was located on the skirt or base of the hill and not next to the other cemetery. The directionality of burial was always noted to differentiate the sites and even the social class of the deceased. Unequivocally it was for very poor people, it was these whites, blacks or slaves. In the file it is not difficult to find a burial seat where the beneficiary5 clarified that the individual had been buried in the wooden by act of charity.
From this other garden of the lord there is not much more data than the references to it when one person was buried and a note from 1846, after past the temporary San Francisco de Borjas:6 “the cemetery and atrium have fallen almost all the walls, the other wooden cemetery has fallen.”7
New stages of development
of the Cemetery of Jesus of the Mount
When Bishop Espada began to take the first steps to consolidate a general cemetery in the city and issued the first Royal Orders in the metropolis that would regulate the operation of these sites, burials within temples were suppressed on the island as a health measure, but the implementation and use of cemeteries had to be forced. It was something new in Cuba, here people spent centuries doing something other than tradition and obligation. No one thinks it was a simple process. We had to convince, explain, exhort, break traditions and even, it was necessary to regulate. Notable figures such as Tomás Romay participated in this effort.
The Cemetery of Jesus of the Mount continued to serve normally, met all the requirements that were required to do so, therefore, surpassed and resisted the onslating of the forces in favor of the general cemetery project. It was a league of the city in a high place, buried on earth, was open pit, did not produce air pollution, there was no danger of polluting leaks to the waters, was now exhume at least two years old, already had family vaults and was controlled and administered by the Church. These were crown regulations and he complied with them. There is evidence of all this. Bishop Espada’s project was not the first, as is often stated, previously the Economic Society had promoted one, even construction work began on land near the Arsenal area, but he gave up in favor of the Sword project which was also a member of the Company’s number.
In this period, references about burials in the cemetery of the atrium begin to appear in parish books.8 This may seem like a harmless fact, but it is not. We wanted to make the fact known in a timely manner, so that the site was not understood as a simple burial place. It was a real cemetery and that’s how it had to be considered. This facilitated the investigation, as it indicated, for the first time, where it was located.
Where was the atrium?
What was convenient, immediately became an unknown great unknown that had to be deciphered. To do this, it was necessary to use other methods and investigative tools outside the file. It was necessary to resort to techniques of graphic or visual anthropology. The period engravings showing the church were used. The floor plans that are preserved in the Diocesan Museum of the Archbishopric of Havana were reviewed and reverse engineering analysis and surveys were needed9 in the area occupied by the current church. Knowing what is there and what is left of the old church, which is quite in the case of Jesus of the Mount, you could get to determine the place, within the area, where the object of real estate that we were looking for was located.
The evidence collected revealed the site of the famous atrium. This could only be in the space between the side tower of the time and the left chapel of the temple.
In period images, this space appears to be very small, but it is not physically so if we appreciate it today. It should also be noted that the present temple occupies a part of this ancient land. We must not forget that the Cemetery of Jesus of the Mount was a local necropolis and that its dimensions responded to the needs of the territory.
Summit points for the countryside
The city and its periphery were hit by a devastating cholera epidemic in 1833 that caused great mortality. The general cemetery, which was never a big deal, practically collapsed. It was necessary to open some sites of provisional burials that would allow to assume the lack of facilities for that purpose. Jesus del Monte covered the demands of the territory and a number of diversions from the general cemetery. According to data provided by José Antonio Saco10 and Ramón de La Sagra,11 verified all in the burial books of the parish archive, 147 individuals who died from the epidemic and all those who died in the area for other reasons, without any contrarity, were given Christian burial, demonstrating the capacity and operability of the local cemetery.
In 1846, Havana was punished by Cyclone San Francisco de Borjas. The church suffered considerable damage, but the cemetery was almost destroyed. The bishop and the Civil Superior Government were requested to carry out reforms. Achieving approval was a titanic task. There was already some interest in promoting the construction of a new general cemetery and any such request clashed with those purposes. Fears in unhealthy Havana after the cholera epidemic, plus the demos-trada inadequacy of the general cemetery to take on another event of this magnitude, determined that authorization of the reform should be allowed. The Parish Board was fearless and intelligent, far from the intentions raised, presented a whole new cemetery project, overlapped in the image of “reform”.
The 1848 project
Now the cemetery would circumfer the church, taking advantage of land donated by a board member, which were strangely at the bottom of the temple. Let us look at some aspects – among many others – of the project, as recorded in the original document presented, which is preserved in the Diocesan Museum of the Archbishopric of Havana:
“The cemetery will be built behind the back of the temple after the atrium, forming a parallelogram of thirty front rods and forty in the background.
“The front will bear a cover of stonework and brick whose dimensions form and order of architecture will be as indicated in the aforementioned plane with the respective moldings that the act demands, with its door or iron fence, on a sardinel12 double stone of San Miguel and on the front a marble tombstone with the inscription that designates said plane , with golden bronze letters”.
Everything fits what’s described. There are many more elements that could be displayed, but it is impossible in this space. When the original documentation was fully studied and analysed, it was confirmed that the results of the reverse-engineered atrium investigation had been correct, the definition of its place was entirely correct.
On 23 November 1848 the works were completed. In this way, Jesús del Monte was able to have a remodeled rank 14 cemetery, which met the necessary conditions to provide a good obituary service and that allowed the space to remain active for longer, even though, for many years, Havana had a general cemetery.
1855, attempted a new project
cemetery in Jesus of the Mount
As of 1855, the Cemetery of Jesus of the Mount was nestled within an urbanized area. The environment had become the center of the territory. The parish parish parish grew and the church and cemetery needed to be remodeled to meet new objective needs.
For these reasons, a proposal was generated for the construction of a more remarkable cemetery. Everything seems to indicate – from the details of the investigation – that an attempt was being made to provoke a negative response in order to use it as a pretext to eliminate the cemetery based on the consolidation of a better temple. A new cholera epidemic affected Havana in 1855 and again the Jesusmontine necropolis had to assume its role. This momentarily stopped the efforts of the Parish Board.
The bishop, 15 upon learning of the situation, issued Cir-cular 57 which provided for the transfer of the field to another more convenient place, where the appropriate conditions could be created for his duties. The circular benefited the parish, because it would allow the land to be used for a new temple. In 1857, the formalities of the possible transfer were still “profiled”, as established in Circular 57, even lousy land had been donated, but the provision was delayed. The root cause was that, at that very moment, the powers in Havana were working on the consolidation of another general cemetery.
The Parish Board of Jesus of the Mount made a request to the bishop in 1862. He was now calling for the operations on the left side of the cemetery to be stopped and the transfer of vaults and human remains in the area authorized. This was the space of the old atrium. It was not until April 1864 that a note from the Civil Higher Government was given to the Parish Board, through the tax promoter, that the rights held by the owners of the vaults to be respected are noted. In the event that they accepted the situation, they would be enabled, by mutual agreement, on the other side of the cemetery, the equivalent place to make the transfer of the mortal remains of their relatives, as well as the possibility of maintaining possession. The Board worked tirelessly on this matter. There is written evidence that, once the remains of the place were put into agreement with the owners and exhumed, the land was broken to the necessary depth until no human remains appeared. So much so that today deep work has been carried out in that area and unlike other places related to the old cemetery, no human remains have ever appeared there. This was also why no constructive traces were found in the area during the reverse engineering study conducted.
With this step a large section of the cemetery was eliminated. Now all he had left was the opposite side and the bottom. In 1868, the transfer was still not carried out and the construction of the new general cemetery for Havana was not yet consolidated, but it was already being buried in San Antonio Chiquito, embryo of what would later become the necropolis of Columbus: “Our Cemetery contravening the opinion of many was founded or received the first corpse just on November 9, 1868 […] initially began to be buried in the grounds of the la Currita room, right next to a hamlet called San Antonio Choquito, taking the cemetery the name of the village”.16 This would function as an opposite force for any cemetery project that was presented in Havana, in addition, the struggle for this purpose focused on the figures of Bishop Jacinto María Martínez y Sáez , a man of firm stances, and governor-general Francisco Lersundi and Ormaechea in his second term, another complex figure.
End of the Cemetery of Jesus of the Mount
After the referred space was gained, a new temple was built and completed in 1870. This wasn’t an easy task, but I won’t stop at another story. The transfer of the cemetery or what was left of it was still pending.
In 1878, the parish priest, faced with the inconvenience of the piece of cemetery that remained in Jesus of the Mount, twenty-three years after circular 57 was issued, he informed the bishop and by his means to the civilian higher authorities that, taking into account the deplorable state and exhaustion of capacities: “We have decided that from day twenty the Corpses from those populations and must be buried with coffin are led to the general cemetery of this city and those who do not carry this requirement or are poor of solemnity to the provisional Atarés”.17
The bishop immediately authorized the de-finitive closure of the cemetery after 185 years of serving. As recorded in the church file, the last burials made in the field, correspond to seats 947 / folio 296 and the number 949 / folio 297 of book 10 burial of Spaniards, dated June 3, 1878.
Some important facts
related to the local cemetery
It is impossible to conclude this work without first alluding to some historical facts of the town that had an impact on the history of Havana and Cuba, also related to the Cemetery of Jesus of the Mount.
In February 1723, the third and final of the uprisings of the vegueros,18 this one ended bloody. Eight of the executed growers were buried in the local cemetery.
Another important historical event related to the cemetery occurred in 1835. José Luciano Franco pointed to a slave rebellion in the Horcón district, belonging to the jurisdiction of Jesus of the Mount at that time, which subsequently stimulated a replica in the slaves of the endowments of Jesus of the Mount himself.19 In book 4 of brown and brown burials of the parish archive, corresponding to the period from 13 October 1821 to 22 July 1840, four interesting burial seats can be found in a row and identical, saying: “Seat: 1038, Folio: 191. In thirteen July of a thousand eight hundred and thirty-five years, a black adult of the rebels on the afternoon of the previous one was buried in the cemetery of this auxiliary church of Jesus del Monte jurisdiction of the city of Havana, sent by the captain pedáneo judge of this party D. Ignacio Sedano, without further affiliation, and I signed it. Juan José Pérez de Oliva”. Four of the victims of the uprising also rested in peace in the countryside. Long would be the list, if I tried to allude to the personalities that were buried in the parish cemetery, these are just two samples that, because of their historical importance, I wanted to point out.
Three important authors of the nineteenth century alluded in their works to the cemetery: Domingo Rosaín, Antonio de Gordon and Acosta and Domitila García de Coronado. Pioneers all in documenting cemeteries in our country. His works are a must for any researcher who intends to work on the subject. They all made the same mistake. They described what was left of the cemetery after the project of the new church of 1870. They did not conduct any research on what it was and actually represented this necropolis.
Reading his works, it seems that the Cemetery of Jesus of the Mount was somewhat insignificant and had emerged in 1848. To give the reader a better idea, let’s look at what Domitila García de Coronado said: “This single-courtyard cemetery is rather like a garden in Piza. We’ve had the opportunity to inspect some of your vaults that are beautiful. Only those who owned pantheons were buried there … in short, almost a particular Cemetery”.20 Nothing further from the truth than that claim by Domitila García de Coronado, but nothing can be reproached of the eminent Camagueyana intellectual, she only described what she saw in the place. Now, notice the reader an interesting detail. Domitila said this in 1888, described the good order and condition of the section of the cemetery he met, until he compared it to “a garden of Piza”. However, the parish priest had said in 1878 that he was in a deplorable state, so the bishop commanded him to close. Such a thing confirms that, at the time, what was intended was to finish eliminating the cemetery, because it no longer made sense there. But pantheon owners maintained their possessions until many years later, the necropolis was reluctant to cease to exist.
These criteria have been reproduced to this day, I show you an example: “Initially the necropolis began to be buried in the atrium and in the foothills of the hill where the church of Jesus of the Mount is located, but then the necropolis was erected at the bottom of the temple in 1848 […] being closed on August 20, 1860 […] When the new church of Jesus del Monte was built, a good part of the cemetery was taken for the temple, and therefore the entrance of the necropolis was destroyed, leaving only a small space where there are remains of the chapel”.21 I consider that there is not much more to say about the matter, this is a good example of replicas of criteria not properly verified and loaded with errors. It was published in Bohemian magazine in April 1956. In matters of history, the crossing of sources and information is necessary, it is very complex to be able to reach absolute conclusions and there is always a risk of the erquivocal, a mistake can completely change the vision of things and transcend in time.
In 1897, the bishop addressed a document to the governor-general, ingesting, among other things: “By virtue and to take advantage of that land by building in it something that may be useful to the church he proposes […] authorized for it through the Official Gazette, and other newspapers make known to the owners of those vaults that in the time that V. E. I serve to determine them as a deadline to exhume the repeated remains and extract their tombstones and if they do not verify it after that period to empower the underscript to make that in the appropriate way and V.E.I is right to prescribe it”.22 Below, the note is written: “It was not fulfilled”. But something was done because the cemetery disappeared and in images of the early twentieth century you already see houses on these grounds. This is precisely the area where more remains of ancient burials have been found.
As an epilogue
Often the story that has an impact is not a faithful reflection of the real one. The causes can be multiple, from period interests to unknownness. In the case of the parish cemetery of Jesús del Monte, the current misrepresentations about what it truly was lies in the inadequacies and neglect we have always had in matters of local history in Cuba and by the transfer of analyses made by authors who were not historians. They only recounted what they saw at any given time. It is also a sequel to the epocal positions where the powers were inmiscuous, in these cases the issues that suited them are always made more remarkable. Have no doubt, in the matter we analyzed, what mattered to note at different times were the cemeteries of Espada and then Columbus, so the place was not relevant.
The history of the Cemetery of Jesus of the Mount is worthy of being known and properly disclosed, because it was not a tiny burial place in the city, it was the first rank cemetery in Havana, which served uninterruptedly for the longest time, a record that has not yet been surpassed. He was, among all who has had the city, even if the claim seems strange, the pioneer. Ω
1 Diocesan Synod (1680): “May those who die in the countryside, four leagues in the outline of cities, villages and places be taken to bury and give ecclesiastical burial to the churches”, Havana, Government Printing and General Captaincy, edition of 1844, Constitution VIII, p. 85.
2 Deck book: a unique book where all events are reflected, it can be separated by sections [author dimensioning].
3 Manuel Rodríguez Casanova was a lieutenant priest from 10 July 1690 until 12 May 1695 of the parish aid of Jesus del Monte.
4 Wooden cemetery: the origin of the terminology is unknown, some sources suggest that it was the cemetery where slaves were buried and there were no family vaults, hence “wood”, as synonymous with poverty. Other researchers – peninsulars – associate it with the place where burials were carried out in wooden sarcophagus, this would mean the opposite, because by date it was something deprived of the class with greater resources.
5 The beneficiary: the principal parish priest in charge of a parish, the one who receives all the benefits.
6 See Lazarus Numa Eagle: “Between Hurricanes”, New Word, Year XXV, No. 265, Havana, December 2016, p. 37.
7 Archbishopric of Havana, Diocesan Fund, Leg. 4, Exp.1, year 1848.
8 “Atrium: In the Christian churches it was a porticated courtyard located at the entrance, it served to access it. Many churches still retain an atrium, although its shape is very diverse, in general, it is usually signposted with columns and chains because it is a sacred place.” LAROUSSE Dictionary, digital version (2013).
9 Reverse engineering: A process that is carried out in a purpose or work to obtain information, is intended to determine what its components are, how they interact with each other and what the manufacturing process was. The method is so called because it moves in the opposite direction to the usual engineering tasks.
10 José Antonio Saco: History of the appearance of cholera on the island of Cuba in 1833, Library of Cuban Classics, Volume-II, Havana, Office of the City Historian, 2002, pp. 211-226.
11 Ramón de la Sagra: Obituary tables of Wrath Morbus, Havana, Government Printing, General Captaincy and Royal Patriotic Society, 1833, p. 1.
12 “Sardinel (from cat. Sardinell): 1) Work made of brick singing post and so that it matches in its entire extent the face of each other. 2) Step forming the outer edge of the sidewalk”. Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy.
13 Diocesan File, Archbishopric of Havana: Church of Jesus of the Mount File, Cemetery Project of the Church of Jesus of the Mount of 1848.
14 Rank Cemetery: terminology used in the Royal Orders of the time to establish the official category of recognized cemetery [author dimensioning].
15 Francisco Fleix and Solans (1846–1864). See the Episcopologio of the Catholic Church in Cuba: http//www2.fiu.edu/~mirandas/obispo/bio-f.htm.
16 Elvira Corrales Cerezo: “The Cemetery of Columbus is the eighth of the city of Havana”, Bohemia, Havana, April 11, 1956, p. 36.
17 Diocesan File, Archbishopric of Havana: Church of Jesus of the Mount File, Cemetery Project of the Church of Jesus of the Mount of 1848.
18 See Lazarus Numa Eagle: “The Fact, Its Visual Representation and a True Story”, New Word, Year XXIII, No. 247, Havana, February 2015.
19 See José Luciano Franco: The Slave Trade in the Caribbean and Latin America, Paris, UNESCO, 1981.
20 Domitila García de Coronado: Havana Cemetery: Notes from its foundation, Havana, Literary propaganda, 1888, p. 29.
21 Elvira Corrales Cerezo: ob. cit. in footnote 16, p. 109.
22 Diocesan Archive of the Archbishopric of Havana: Havana, Legajo Parish of Jesus of the Mount.