Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bring Out Your Dead

I am fond of what Italians call the Campo Santo, the Holy Field. More prosaically in death-averse Anglo-Saxon idiom we call it a cemetery, and Key West's is in my opinion a particularly fine example of the type. I like to visit cemeteries when I travel and years ago I was smart enough to get a tour of this one by the Historical Society's Director George Born, who was well informed and armed with a dry wit. Thus it is he left earlier this year for Rhode Island, our loss their gain. Let's face it, a town like Key West, much of which is a 19th century architectural museum for the living would be hard pressed to create in its midst a holy field that didn't inspire flights of fancy in anyone taking a stroll through its avenues: I first got a taste for the cemetery when I worked one summer in the shipping department at Fast Buck Freddie's on Duval Street. It was a matter of a few moments to leap on my scooter and take myself off to a shady spot in the city's best park. I always figured the dead, had they any feelings at all, would appreciate a member of the community of the living hanging out in their midst eating a sandwich and drinking a con leche while perusing the day's news or a toothsome novel: Some of my colleagues wrinkled their noses when I told them where I spent my lunch breaks but I shouldn't have been surprised, most people prefer the company of the living to the peace and gossip free environment of the dead. The cemetery enjoys a central location on the island, where it was put after the original cemetery on Higgs Beach got badly messed up in a mid-19th century hurricane. This was originally on the edge of town but development naturally overtook it and now its in the middle. Indeed they are running out of space and the city recently demolished a condemned house on Olivia Street and is using the space to add a few more vaults. There are quite a few empty vaults scattered around the holy field but they are already sold under what undertakers delicately refer to as the "pre-need" program. And from time to time old vaults can get reused as the ancestors return to the format whence we all came. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," as my Catholic priest used to intone on Ash Wednesday:Key West isn't known as The Rock for nothing and digging isn't easy around here. Furthermore the water table is pretty high so people get buried above ground. It's common enough in many countries but the other well known US example is New Orleans where the same rising damp problem requires the same solution: The city comes in for some grief from time to time from Conch families upset that the place isn't in apple pie order. The city did surround the cemetery with a tall strong fence but that was a move designed to prevent people from sneaking into the cemetery to have sex or perform weird rituals, or simply to get stuck after hours. If you call 9-1-1 because you are locked in after hours, be prepared to wait, it usually takes a good long time to locate the sexton and the key and at the best of times the sexton can be a grumpy man. You'd be amazed how hysterical some people can become when they are trapped in the cemetery after dark. Personally I always liked the idea of a house on Frances Street with the dead for neighbors. Even now a two bed two bath cottage with pool and pool house is for sale for one point six million dollars. Peaceful neighbors at a price.

With all the history of the town to draw on there are well known names in evidence at the cemetery. Two photographs up we see an old Key West name familiar in the Bahamas also; Albury is a well known boat building name in the Abacos. Then there are the kings of fried chicken in the Keys: And Kemp's Riddley turtle had to be named after somebody didn't it? Rare as the turtle is the Kemp family has quite a few headstones around here: The Spottswood family is a solid and imposing a presence in the Keys developing anything not nailed down so it would be proper for them to have a large granitic mausoleum to get planted in:The family who first made their fortune pouring concrete for Mr Flagler's railway are still in town and the Toppino vault was I thought a little over the top in rococo style:
Chacun a son goute. And Higgs Beach had to be named for someone's family in Key West it stands to reason don't it?There are the well known parts of the cemetery, the Martyrs of Cuba, commemorating revolutionaries who died in one or other of the revolutions they kept coming up with, throughout the latter years of the 19th century.

Then we should never forget the Maine, blown up in mysterious circumstances in Havana, creating a Tonkin-like excuse for the invasion of Cuba and the annexation of the Philippines and Puerto Rico in 1898. WMD's are nothing new, when it comes to invasions. This is simply a monument to the American and British sailors who died that day:

There are the famous tombstones of the not famous occupants. I couldn't find the "devoted fan of Julio Iglesias," but I never have been able to locate hers for all she is quoted in the guidebooks. Mr Roberts told everyone he was sick but his tombstone needs refreshing if tourists are going to get their giggle:
I like the private sentiments better and the cemetery is positively littered with those of course:From the sublimely heartfelt to the wildly intimate:The simplest epitaph tugs hardest at the heartstrings:I know the sentiments aren't totally personal on this one but I like the cri de coeur nonetheless. I like to imagine my wife, bereft, echoing these sentiments: Or this one, I'm guessing written to express serenity but it has overtones of hoping for the best:

And of course there is the kid's favorite toy, which always pops up in illustrations of the Key West cemetery, strapped down to deter forcible removal by hurricane or vandals:I came across one vault in the Catholic section set up for a kaffee klatsch, supporting my theory that at least some family members like to hang with their deceased:I was just an interloper in the cemetery, related to no one, vicariously wandering, but I was not entirely alone in my musings:The Key West cemetery is wide open to anyone who feels like checking it out but it does have some rules, as confusing as any I have read. Does one park a moped inside the cemetery and is running at more than five miles per hour outlawed?They banned mopeds and motorcycles after mourners got fed up with people racing through the cemetery using it as a short cut between Frances and Margaret Streets. The picture at the top of my blog I snapped the day before the city commission enacted the ban. Cyclists though still get to ride through: Motorcycles bad, cars good, go figure. Cars can't use the cemetery as a short cut because the Frances Street gate is too narrow, even for a Smart Car I'm pretty sure. That would be cool,"No Mopeds, Motorcycles or Smart Cars." Mitsubishi convertibles are OK, Bonnevilles aren't? Humph.In any event this isn't always a quiet spot for contemplation of one's mortality. It is, as I have pointed out, in the middle of town and that means the sounds of the living carry across it all. Key West is a noisy place to live; it has to be as there is no room at all to swing a sander or a drill without impacting a neighbor. And some bright spark lined up the runway at the airport so aircraft fly directly over Old Town when they come back to Earth:Cultural segregation is alive and well in the land of the Dead where people are planted according to their typecasting :It reminds me a bit of Bosnia Herzegovina where one could identify the sympathies of the villagers by the shape of their tombstones. As they had recently had a great deal of unpleasantness there, they had an abundance of tombstones to identify. My plan is cremation and scattering at sea, entirely ecumenical and anonymous. Though I enjoy cemeteries I do find their occupants' pursuit of graven immortality a little too hopeful. There was one headstone which carried the comment to know him was to love him, if that could have been said of me I might cheerfully submit to interment with a tombstone. However I think I am a little too astringent for such cloying sentiments, nevertheless I do enjoy the simple beauty of the cemetery with its inevitable decay and its flowered statements of loss and grief and remembrance:And as we celebrate Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness this Independence Day Weekend, I shall spare a thought for those who are today what we will be tomorrow.


Sandra said...

I've never ventured far into the Key West Cemetery - thanks for the stroll. There is an interesting old cementery close by my home that I mowed for two summers long ago.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing tour through the Cemetery. One of the places I LOVE to go and just be still. On an Island that has gone from laid back and peaceful to a lot of hustle and bustle... the cemetery is a welcome refuge for the living! Thanks a lot for the tour!