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KEY WEST’S OLD CEMETERY

The Spanish discovered stacks of Indian skulls on the island of Key West and called the place “Cayo Hueso” which means “Isle of bones.” It’s a fitting name when you consider that human bones seem to be scattered all over this island town. The first public cemetery in Key West was established in the sand dunes of Whitehead Point. In 1846 a hurricane destroyed this cemetery washing bodies from the graves and depositing bones in the sands along the beach. Another early cemetery was the Key West Post Military Cemetery containing 468 burials, which were removed in 1927 and transported by tugboat to Pensacola where they were reinterred in the Fort Barrancas National Military Cemetery.

Small graveyards and lone tombstones have been found all around the island but the one that has become a major tourist attraction is Key West’s Old Cemetery. This unusual graveyard was started in 1847 on nineteen acres of land in the heart of town and contains somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 graves. The exact number cannot be documented because of so many unmarked graves, lost records, and Key West’s bizarre burial customs.

The first thing a visitor to Key West’s Old Cemetery will notice are the above ground, white-washed tombs stacked one on top of the other, some three or four tiers high. The same thing has been done underground where family members are stacked one on top of the other. The local name for this space saving practice is “multiple internments.” In one family plot with seven spaces there are 28 known burials and in other instances old bones have been removed when new remains were added to a grave. In many cases people have buried their deceased loved ones in somebody else’s grave. Some families have even sold “internment rights” to their plots, sort of like those time-share deals offered by Florida condominiums.

This recycling of burials has resulted in human remains getting mixed-up in the excess dirt and hauled off to the dump. The big problem is Key West’s heat and humidity which causes rapid deterioration of remains and caskets should a grave be disturbed. It is not unusual to find pieces of old caskets or bones when a new grave is dug. One concerned sexton in trying to get state regulation over the cemetery sent photographs to the legislature showing green slime running out of one crypt and down over another tomb. These problems finally became such a serious matter that the county health department feared ground water contamination and sealed off all the hand pumps in the cemetery.

Even with its problems the old cemetery represents the eccentric character of Key West and this is what attracts the tourists. All ethnic backgrounds can be found among the burials and there are Catholic and Jewish sections.

One of the cemetery’s predominate historical features is the bronze statue of a sailor overlooking the graves of 27 sailors killed during the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor.

In the Otto family plot you’ll find the resting place of Doctor Otto who was the medical officer at Fort Jefferson, and the graves of Elfina a pet Key deer and three Yorkshire terriers.

Who hasn’t heard of Sloppy Joe’s Bar? Sloppy Joe Russell died while fishing with Ernest Hemingway and is now at rest in a box-like tomb. Not far from Sloppy Joe is the tomb of General Abraham Lincoln Sawyer who died in 1939 at 77. His final request was to be buried in a full size tomb. He wasn’t really a general; he was actually only 40 inches tall, a former carnival midget.

Beneath an archway inscribed with “A Los Martitires de Cuba” you’ll find a memorial to the deceased heroes of the 1868 insurrection against Spain. Over in the Catholic section is the Toppino mausoleum. The Toppino construction company built the overseas highway between Miami and Key West. Florida’s first millionaire, William Curry is at rest beneath a tall, elaborately decorated marble shaft. You’ll also find Mary Mallory in this cemetery, although her obelisk has toppled over. She was the mother of Senator Stephen Mallory who served as the Confederate Navy Secretary. On Fourth Avenue in the graveyard is the statue of Earl Saunders Johnson, the shoes are really his shoes encased in plaster. On down the rows of graves there is the one of a black Bahamian named Thomas Romer with the inscription “Good citizen for 65 of his 108 years.” There is an airplane on top of one crypt, which over the years has been painted different colors. The most talked about inscriptions in the cemetery is one that says, “Devoted Fan of Julio Iglesias” and the marble tablet for Pearl Roberts, which says, “I told you I was sick.” Pearl’s crypt is the most photographed in the cemetery, but it leaves us wondering if the folk yarns about her being the local hypochondriac are true.

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