American Funeral Director — May 2010
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Celia Cruz
Alexandra Kathryn Mosca

“La vida es un carnaval” (“Life is a carnival”) go the words to the song made popular by the singer known affectionately the world over as the Queen of Salsa. For Celia Cruz, life truly appeared to be a continuous round of merriment. From her colorful clothing, outlandish wigs, spindly high heels, spontaneous dance routines, vivacious presence and spirited music, Cruz embodied a zest for living.
When she died in the summer of 2003, her flamboyant funeral also symbolized the gaiety in her life. Cruz’s funeral was more a celebration of a life well-lived than a somber rite. The public adoration was of a kind that has not been seen since the death of Princess Diana, befitting a woman who, to Latin people the world over, symbolized musical royalty. “I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again,” said funeral director Dominic Carella of Frank E. Campbell, who headed the team in charge of Cruz’s funeral arrangements.

Cuba – Where It All Began Born Oct. 21, 1925, in Havana, Cuba, as one of 14 children, Cruz’s musical talents were evident early on.

Every chance she got, Cruz would sing, whether it was at family gatherings, school assemblies or community events.

Like many Cubans, her family was of modest means and encouraged their daughter to set her sights on a stable career as a teacher. A determined Cruz had other ideas. Encouraged by a relative, Cruz entered a talent show and won. Bolstered by the victory, she went on to study voice and piano at Cuba’s Havana Conservatory of Music.

Emulating the musical style of Paulina Alvarez, a famous Afro-Cuban singer, it wasn’t long before Cruz had a following. In 1950, La Sonora Matancera, a popular Cuban music group, invited her to become a member.

After joining, Cruz met Pedro Knight, the group’s trumpeter, who would become her husband. Cruz remained with the group for 15 years, headlining at Havana’s famed Tropicana nightclub and performing on radio and television.

Cruz and Knight defected from Cuba in 1960, a year after Castro came to power. Two years later, they married and came to live in the New York area.

Cruz remained a fierce critic of Castro’s reign in Cuba for the rest of her life, something which caused her music to be banned from Cuban airwaves.

Queen of Salsa “La vida es un carnaval” (“Life is a carnival”) go the words to the song made popular by the singer known affectionately the world over as the Queen of Salsa. For Celia Cruz, life truly appeared to be a continuous round of merriment. From her colorful clothing, outlandish wigs, spindly high heels, spontaneous dance routines, vivacious presence and spirited music, Cruz embodied a zest for living.

By Alexandra Kathryn Mosca Left: Celia Cruz poses with her Grammy for Best Salsa Performance at the First Annual Latin Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Sept. 13, 2000.

(Photo by Vince Bucci © Getty Images) Right: The carriage bearing the casket of salsa singer Celia Cruz leads the funeral procession down Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

Moreover, Cruz, who subsequently became an American citizen, was never permitted to return to her beloved Cuba.

Although Cuba banned her, America embraced her with wide-open arms.

Cruz had a career that left an indelible impression upon the world of music.

She went on to produce 70 albums, working with the most popular Latin artists of the day, including Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colon, Paulina Rubio, La India and Marc Antony. But she garnered some of her biggest successes from her collaboration with Tito Puente, “King of Salsa,” who dubbed Cruz “Queen of Salsa.” Cruz not only sang salsa, but jazz, mambo and Latin pop, as well. Among her many hits were “Quimbara,” “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” “Yerberi to Moderno” and “Que le Den Candela,” as well as a popular remake of “Guantanamera,” perhaps Cuba’s most popular song. This musical prowess earned Cruz a dozen Grammy nominations, of which she won three. In 1987 Cruz was honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Four years later, Miami renamed a portion of Calle Ocho, the main street of its Cuban community, Celia Cruz Way. In 1994, President Clinton awarded her a National Endowment for the Arts Medal.

Along the way, Cruz also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Smithsonian Institution. With so much momentum, it seemed as if she could live forever.

The Music Stops Cruz died of a brain tumor July 16, 2003, at age 77, in her Fort Lee, N.J., home. It had been decided in advance that her remains would be prepared at Campbell’s, after which a private visitation would take place. Cruz’s remains would then be flown to Miami so that her huge base of Florida fans could pay their respects in an open casket visitation.

The funeral directors at Frank E. Campbell were on standby, having been notified several hours before that Cruz’s death was imminent. News crews were also at the ready, camped out and waiting when the Campbell’s hearse arrived to pick up Cruz’s body at her penthouse, where 200 camera crews and satellite trucks, some for Spanish television, were already waiting.

Campbell’s directors, led by Dominic Carella, were assisted by both the

N. J. State Police and the Fort Lee City Police, to ensure that the removal of Cruz’s body went flawlessly.

Cruz’s remains were taken to Campbell’s, where she was embalmed and dressed in the first of four colorful outfits she would wear during the visitation period. Her remains were then placed in a limited edition, double walled, 48-ounce bronze casket, manufactured by the Iowa based Meany Casket Co., weighing 700 pounds. The next afternoon, after a private visitation, Cruz’s remains were shouldered out of Campbell’s main doors, past a hoard of fans and media, and loaded into a hearse bound for JFK International Airport, accompanied by a police escort. Carella, then general manager Kevin Mack and funeral director William Harley, who served as Cruz’s cosmetologist, wardrobe coordinator and Spanish interpreter, accompanied the remains. Three of Campbell’s floral designers were on board, as well.

Viewing In Miami That evening, when Cruz’s casket, along with the Campbell’s funeral directors, arrived at Miami International Airport, they were met on the tarmac by Miami police. After the casket was transferred into a waiting hearse, the procession, accompanied by the police escort, wended its way through Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity. Thousands of fans were waiting at this sacred site for Cubans, which had been a personal favorite of the singer, when the hearse came to a stop on the Shrine’s circular driveway. Cruz’s casket remained inside, with the tailgate open, in order for Msgr. Augustin Roman to impart a blessing. After the blessing, the group made its way to Freedom Tower on Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami, where throngs of fans awaited her arrival.

The choice to hold the public visitation in the Freedom Tower (Casade la Libertad) was laden with significance, for it was there that many Cuban- American émigrés were processed when they entered the United States in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Campbell’s directors and floral designers worked through the night to transform the huge utilitarian banquet-like room, in which Cruz’s body would lie in repose. While they worked, an estimated 100,000 mourners began to line up for the next day’s viewing.

The next morning, when the work was done, the setting resembled a garden featuring Cruz’s favorite colors of purple and white. Seventy-foot columns were decorated to look like palm trees.

Even the restrooms had a floral motif.

A Cuban flag was draped over the front of the building, the entrance to which was surrounded by more than 100 floral pieces. The public viewing began promptly at 10 a.m. Overnight, the number of fans hoping to pay respects to Cruz had grown in size to an estimated 500,000. Waiting hours in the hot Florida sun, some shielded themselves with umbrellas. The line of mourners included people from the world of entertainment, politics and Miami’s vast Cuban community.

Among the mourners were fellow Cubans such as singer Gloria Estefan, her husband Emilio and talk show host Cristina Saralegui, as well as musical legends from the world of pop, Afro- Cuban, salsa, Latin and jazz.

In addition to the flowers, Cruz’s casket was flanked by both the Cuban and American flags, as well as large photo portraits of her life. Her husband of 41 years, Pedro Knight, stood by her casket as he had stood by her in life. Cruz’s music could be heard in the background, courtesy of a live disc jockey, and many in attendance clapped along.

At times, a respectful silence would ensue, broken by shouts of, “Celia,” or, “Azúcar!” (“Sugar!”), her signature word. When viewing ended at 6 p.m., a procession of mourners followed the hearse, on foot, for the 2-mile trek to Gesu Catholic Church, Miami’s oldest Catholic parish. Many of the fans who lined the route tossed flowers and sugar at the hearse as it slowly passed by. Father Alberto Cutie, a charismatic young Priest, who once had his own talk show on Telemundo, celebrated the funeral Mass in which 1,000 people crowded into the 800-seat church. A highlight among the dignitaries and entertainers who spoke was the reading of a letter from President Bush by Housing Secretary Mel Martinez.

Frank E. Campbell’s – New York The next morning, Cruz’s casket was placed into a specially constructed pine shipping container for the return trip to New York. Campbell’s directors were joined on the flight by Cruz’s relatives, managers and record executives. From their first-class seats, the group watched as the airline workers prepared to load Cruz’s casket onto the plane. In what Carella remembers as a “breathtaking” sight, teary-eyed workers lined up alongside the casket, saluting Cruz and placing flowers atop. After the casket had been loaded, the workers clapped in unison.

The public wake in New York was almost a carbon copy of the Miami fanfare, with an equally impressive turnout. Carella believes it to be one of the biggest funerals New York City has ever seen. In addition to the scores of fans, the services in New York were attended by a mix of musical luminaries, politicians and celebrities, which included Patti Labelle, La India, Jon Secada, Paquito D’Rivera, Jose Luis Rodriguez, Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith, Johnny Pacheco and Ruben Blades. Latin-Americans of diverse ethnic backgrounds lined up along E. 81st Street, waving flags, flowers, notes, album covers and various mementoes of Cruz’s life. Almost half a million people waited in line for more than five hours to get into the famed Frank E. Campbell’s funeral chapel for the chance to see Cruz’s remains and pay their respects. Over the course of the day, almost 100,000 visitors passed through the doors.

Cruz’s funeral took place the next day, July 22, 2003, a day that both New York’s governor and New York City’s mayor declared “Celia Cruz Day.” It was a hot summer day – fitting weather for such a sultry singer.

From time to time, the sunshine was punctuated by heavy showers; seen by some as a sign of the heavens shedding tears. As they had done in Miami, mourners began gathering on the streets the night before. By morning, thousands of fans lined both sides of Fifth Avenue along the route to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to catch a glimpse of the funeral cortege.

Cruz’s casket, draped in the Cuban flag and visible inside a glass-enclosed carriage, passed solemnly through the streets, drawn by two white horses. A large casket spray in purple and white, adorned with Cuban flags, covered the top of the coach. As the carriage passed, fans took photos, honked horns, waved goodbye to their idol and shouted, “We love you Celia!” As in Miami, some of the crowd threw sugar packets and shouted, “Azúcar!” Some, moved by the spirit, broke into spontaneous dance.

A Catholic funeral Mass was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue at 11 p.m. Ten professional pallbearers shouldered Cruz’s casket reverently on their into the church, where the Cuban flag was replaced by a pristine white pall. Mayor Michael Bloomberg escorted Cruz’s widower into the church, where a mix of 2,000 family members, celebrities and fans filled the pews.

Loudspeakers set up outside the church allowed fans to hear the 90-minute Spanish Mass led by Josu Iriondo, New York’s auxiliary bishop, who was joined on the altar by more than aDozen white-robed priests, including Miami’s Father Alberto.

In his homily, interrupted at times by applause, Bishop Iriondo spoke of Cruz’s humble beginnings and illustrious career; how she had inspired Latinos the world over by her music, as well as her life and success and her boundless spirit. “She never distanced herself from ordinary people, and the higher she flew, the higher those people flew with her,” Iriondo said. “Celia prophetically said she would live forever, and she will. You haven’t left us, Celia. We don’t see you, but we feel you, because like divine sugar, you live on to sweeten the coffee that is your people.” Despite the Catholic Archdiocese objecting to nonreligious music, Patti Labelle sang “Ave Maria” and Victor Manuelle sang Cruz’s song “Life Is a Carnival” to a standing ovation.

Resting With Many Music Greats With some area roads closed and people lined 10 deep on the overpasses, the long procession, composed of 18 limousines, five flower cars and 25 Chevrolet Suburbans, provided by Cruz’s record company, made its way to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where Cruz would join other music greats such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan, in eternal slumber. Thousands of fans and hordes of media had already gathered for the committal service, which took place in a spacious area with several tents. Loudspeakers were set upon a platform. As Bishop Iriondo finished the final prayer, rain poured down upon the more than 3,000 people gathered at the site.

Cruz’s mausoleum took a year to complete. When it was finished, she was permanently entombed in the modern granite structure. Open and airy, with two-foot windows on either side, it was Cruz’s wish that even in death she would be accessible to her legions of fans. The many fans who visit are afforded a view of the interior in which Cruz’s sarcophagus, inscribed on top with the words “La Guaracherade Cuba” (“The Rhythm of Cuba”), is visible. On a shelf inside can be seen mementos and photos of the happy life she lived.

Enduring Legacy Five years after her death, Cruz’s life and music continue to be honored in a number of ways. In 2005, the Smithsonian mounted an exhibit called “Azúcar!

The Life and Music of Celia Cruz,” which toured nationally. In 2007, “Celia,” a musical of Cruz’s life, opened off Broadway before setting out on tour.

In addition, her last recording “Regalodel Alma,” which was released after her death, won the 2004 Grammy for Best Salsa/Merengue Album. The words on the last track of the album, a reworking of Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 hit “I Will Survive,” turned out to be more than appropriate: “In the soul of my people, in the skin of the drums, in the hands of the conga player, in the feet of the dancer, I will live on.” Indeed, Cruz’s words and music do live on.