Race, socioeconomic group, religion, age, and region affect funeral traditions and funeral etiquette.
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In the western world, most funerals are rather somber affairs where people wear dark colors and speak kindly about the deceased. This is also true in Cuba.
What can you expect if you are attending a funeral in this island country? We’ll discuss how both socialist and Catholic practices combine to create a unique funeral experience.
What Happens During a Cuban Funeral?
To understand Cuban funeral traditions, you need to know a bit about the country’s modern history.
The goal of the 1959 revolution was to create a society where everyone was treated the same, regardless of wealth or status. Socialist funerals were meant to be held without mention of religious beliefs. Funeral homes and most cemeteries became state-owned, and religious symbols were removed from many of them.
When the Soviet Union fell, some of the anti-religious practices were loosened, and it became more common for spiritual beliefs to pop up at funerals. Even though most Cubans claim Catholicism as their central belief system, it is more accurately described as Santería. Santería is a pantheistic Afro-Cuban folk religion developed from the beliefs and customs of the Yoruba people, which incorporates some elements of the Catholic religion.
A Cuban funeral is a uniform event that may contain some nuances of Catholicism. There may not be a formal order of events, readings, or singing, so it may look different than most funerals you would attend in the U.S.
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What happens after the death
When a person dies, the family calls the local funeral home to pick up the body and prepare it to be displayed before burial. This is usually done quickly — most bodies are usually buried within 24 hours.
The funeral home dresses the body in clothing chosen by the family and makeup is applied to make the deceased look healthy and peaceful.
What happens at a wake
The body is on view at most Cuban wakes. The family receives visitors at the wake who come to show their support to the family and their respect to the deceased.
Wakes are rather somber affairs and don’t include food or drink. The body is surrounded by simple wreaths, purchased by family members and attendees. Those who advanced the socialist cause may be honored by having a Cuban flag displayed at the wake.
Children attend Cuban wakes and are even often seen hovering around the body. This act of “taking care” of the body falls to the young children in attendance.
After 24 hours, the wake ends. The body is removed from the funeral home, where it will be transported to the cemetery (or at times, the crematorium). Most attendees go to the wake but do not go to the burial site.
What happens on the way to the burial site
On the way to the burial site, the body may be first taken to a chapel where a deacon performs the last sacrament. This is not a formal event. In fact, the deacon usually is given no prior notice that the small procession will stop there on the way to the cemetery.
There is little concern about whether the deceased was Catholic or not. The blessing is given regardless of the past of the deceased.
The blessing ritual lasts only five or 10 minutes, as there is often a long line of bodies to bless. Family members with religious beliefs go inside to accompany the body. Those who do not have spiritual beliefs wait outside the church. Some may also hover by the door of the church to watch the proceeding.
What happens at the burial site
As the funeral car slowly enters the cemetery, the mourners may follow behind on foot. It is a quiet procession, and there are usually no funeral songs performed.
Once the body arrives at the burial site, it is lowered into the open vault. Care must be taken, as the caskets at a Cuban funeral are often cheaply built. (You can find stories of the poorly made coffins breaking during the transporting process.) Some families choose to bury the deceased with small tokens or gifts.
Once the casket is in its final resting place, the flowers are passed from the hearse to the grave. The blooms are sprinkled over the top of the coffin before the grave is closed. Once that happens, the mourners leave the cemetery. No speeches usually accompany the wake or the cemetery service.
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Special requests of the deceased
Some Cubans make special requests for their funerals. For example, some may ask that particular songs be sung at the graveside burial service and others may ask for burial with a bottle of rum.
If you have a special request for your funeral, make sure you create a funeral plan to share with your family members. Let them know whether you would like to be buried or cremated and your preferred location for a final resting place. Pick your funeral songs, readings, and choose what special tokens you would like placed with you in the casket.
Cuban Burial and Legacy Traditions
Since many Cubans’ spiritual beliefs are a mixture of Catholicism and Santería, it is difficult to make a generalization regarding burial beliefs and traditions.
Views on cremation and burial
Most Cubans are buried rather than cremated. Burials are free or extremely inexpensive, as they are paid for by the government. There might be an additional charge if the deceased wished to be cremated.
Mourning and remembering the dead
Cubans take great pains to remember the dead. They visit the grave of their loved ones on special days (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and on their loved ones’ birthdates and death dates.) They clean the graves and leave food, drink, and flowers at each marker. Catholic masses for the deceased are popular in Cuba.
Three years after the death, the family members return to the gravesite and remove the remains of the deceased. The bones are placed in an ossuary, which is a single collective grave. This practice is typically used when burial spots are scarce.
The family may communicate with their deceased loved ones through mediums or spiritualists. Sometimes the dead are said to return to their loved ones in the form of dreams, where they offer advice.
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Cuban Funeral Etiquette
If you have never attended a Cuban funeral, you may be wondering about appropriate etiquette for the event. Since there is an absence of ritual in most Cuban funerals, there’s little that you need to know to prepare yourself for the service.
In most western funerals, attendees wear modest, somber clothes, and that’s the case in Cuba. Funerals are typically “dress events,” as people tend to wear their most formal clothing.
Since you may be walking behind the hearse in the cemetery, you may consider wearing comfortable walking shoes.
During the wake, you’ll have an opportunity to express your condolences to the family members. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” always works well in these situations. If you have the time for a conversation, you may consider sharing positive stories about the deceased.
Talk about a time the deceased was helpful to you or offered sound advice. Relay a time when the deceased made you laugh or put you at ease. Speak positively about the deceased’s contributions or tell the story of your first impressions of the person.
Families want to know that others will remember their loved ones.
What to Do When Attending a Funeral Outside of Your Traditions
Many people are uncomfortable attending funerals, regardless of the situation. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to go to a funeral service in another country, it’s always a good idea to ask someone familiar with the customs for advice.
Like any event of this nature, make sure you turn off your cellphone when you arrive. Speak quietly and try not to draw attention to yourself through your actions or dress.
In most cases, the purpose of a funeral is to show respect to the deceased and to support family members. This is true for most funerals around the world, including virtual funerals.
- Harkonen, Heidi. “Funerals in Socialist Cuba.” Politics and Society. 26 July 2011. www.academia.edu/3077440/Funerals_in_Socialist_Cuba
- “Ossuary.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ossuary. Accessed 10 Nov. 2020.
- “Santeria.” Oxford English Dictionary. www.lexico.com/en/definition/santeria