Strange Bedfellows

To say that burial customs in Key West are eclectic is an understatement. After the hurricane of 1846, the Key West Cemetery was moved to higher ground. Before that time the cemetery had been on the beach. To everyone’s dismay, the hurricane had unearthed many of the graves, so the city fathers moved the cemetery to higher ground near Solaris Hill, the highest point on the island at fourteen feet above sea level. Approximately 100,000 people are buried on that nineteen acres in the center of town, and there are approximately 100 more buried there each year. There is a Catholic section, a Jewish Section, and the USS Maine Memorial (Remember the Maine).


On February 5,1898, The USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor killing 260 American sailors. Whether this was an Act of War or an internal explosion in the ship is still being discussed by historians. Regardless, it led to a declaration of war on Spain. dm3829Twenty bodies of sailors were brought to Key West for burial and are interred in the USS Maine Memorial. Others buried inside the iron fence of the Memorial are several other Spanish American War veterans, some Civil War era veterans, veterans of other wars, two British airmen killed in a motorcycle accident in Jacksonville, a Brazilian sailor, and a woman and a baby. There is a fetching metal statue of a nineteenth century sailor in the middle of the site, that is also a reminder of how young our sailors are when they enlist (Picture:  State Archives of  Florida/McDonald).

My family gravesite is across the way and down the street. The oldest grave is that of my Great Grandfather who came to Key West as a child of five in 1837. In later years he became sheriff of Monroe County and had four daughters, two of which were my Great Aunts who lived with us when I was a child. Their sister, my Grandmother put on her second husband’s gravestone “Gone But Not Far Away” which we always find amusing. Her first husband, my grandfather died in the 1906 hurricane. He and his brother went out to secure a boat and never came back. My father was 6 months old. There is also an unmarked grave of a woman. Nobody knows who that is. The gravesite has been badly neglected over the years. My Mom used to pay someone $2.00 a month to tend the graves. And she would come to our house once in a while to collect the money. A few months after my father died, a bronze plaque came in the mail showing that my father was a veteran of World War II. It was nice to know that the country hadn’t forgotten.

The Key West cemetery is a great site to visit. Easy to navigate by bicycle, it has some lovely statues of angels, cherubs and lambs. dm6500The graveyard’s oldness and quiet feel of abandonment gives it a spooky appearance, great for a ghost tour on Halloween

(Picture:  State Archives of Florida/McDonald).

At Higgs Beach between West Martello Tower and the White Street Pier, there is a marker for a site that experts think is the only African Refugee Cemetery in the United States. dm6467It is a remarkable story. In 1859 President Buchanan ordered American steamers to stop any American-owned slave ships. Three were captured near Cuba and 1400 African men, women and children were brought to Key West for sanctuary where the local townspeople provided them with shelter, clothes, food and medicine. Despite efforts 295 of them died and U.S. Marshal Fernando Moreno paid $1617 for their burial and thousands more for the support of the others. He petitioned the U.S. Government for repayment but none was ever received. The Africans were in Key West for about three months and were then sent to Liberia. Some died in transit, and most of those who arrived stayed in Liberia and did not return to their homes (Picture: State Archives of Florida/ McDonald).

In 2002, archaeologists performed a Ground Penetrating Radar Survey of the beach, where eleven shallow graves were discovered.dm6381 In 2010, 100 more graves were found further inland. There is a nice memorial now and the site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This is a photo of when it was first discovered. (Picture: State Archives of Florida/ McDonald). The respectful burial of the refuges is a reminder of Key West’s reputation today for acceptance of any person or lifestyle. The motto for the island is “One Human Family.”


3 thoughts on “Strange Bedfellows”

  1. Okay, your title caught me…again, Joanne! Your blog made me think of that irreverent (but none-the-less hilarious) recipe and how-to book on Mississippi funerals, “Being Dead Is No Excuse.” Most of the Deep South (including really deep south Key West, for sure) are chock full of colorful, quirky stories of folks long gone, but alive again in stories re-told. I guess that’s why some of my favorite writers hail from The South. Thank you again for sharing your stories. I just love ’em! — Mary

  2. Kinda makes the expression “Float your own boat” come to life. I sometimes wonder if graveyards have outlived their purpose, to keep coffins and contents corralled. What a great piece. Thanks for sharing.


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