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The Boneyard of Colon Cemetery

The Colon Cemetery in Havana, Cuba, named after Christopher Columbus, is well known for its many elaborately sculpted memorials and mausoleums, but it is also notorious for overcrowding.

Since its opening in 1876, more than a million people have been buried here, and being an active cemetery, fresh bodies arrive here every day. To make room for the recently dead, old graves are dug up every three years and the remains are boxed and stored within the cemetery’s premises. But back in the late 19th century and the early 20th, the bones were most disrespectfully dumped out in the open.

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American soldiers pose on top of nearly two hundred thousand skeletons at Colon Cemetery, Havana, Cuba. Circa 1899.

In the past, long before the Colon Cemetery was founded, Havana did not have a formal burial ground. Instead, the dead were laid to rest in the crypts of local church catacombs. In 1806, Havana's first cemetery, Espada, was opened in response to the growing population and the resulting scarcity of church land that could be used for burial.

Throughout the early to mid-1800s, cholera epidemics frequently broke out across the world from Asia to Europe, Great Britain and the Americas, as well as east to China and Japan, causing millions of deaths. Cemeteries throughout the world were flooded with dead bodies, and Espada Cemetery too began to feel the pressure. When cholera outbreaks intensified in 1868, Havana locals realized that they would need a larger cemetery. Less than a decade later, the Colon Cemetery was opened and the Espada Cemetery was closed.

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Two hundred thousand skeletons - Cemetery Colon, Havana, Cuba. 1899. Photo credit: Library of Congress

But the relief from congestion that the new cemetery brought was short lived. The dates in some of these postcards show that the boneyard was already famous by the 1890s, less than twenty years after the cemetery was founded.

According to some sources, the price of a grave at the cemetery was $10 for five years. If after that period the family of the dead couldn’t cough up the rent for the next five years, the bones were dug up and tossed into a bone pile in one corner of the cemetery. The bone pile continued to grow until it became a morbid tourist attraction among American soldiers stationed there during the Spanish–American War of 1898. These postcards mailed to their sweethearts at home show men standing on top of the pile and holding some poor person’s skull and hipbone. Some soldiers also took bones from the yard and paraded through the streets carrying them, until the American military commander General Brook put an end to it and ordered the boneyard to be covered.

The bonepile has since been disposed, but if you ever visit Colon Cemetery, go round the back and you’ll still see piles of bones in dumpsters waiting to be stowed away in neat little boxes.

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If the family of the deceased doesn’t pay the yearly rent, the remains are dug up and the headstones are piled up like this. Photo credit: Byron Howes/Flickr

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The remains are stored in boxes. Photo credit: jenni t/Flickr

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