There is something alluring about a cemetery, especially one that has fallen into disrepair. It merits the term “graveyard” and all the doom and gloom that the word implies. If the grounds are as well manicured as a miniature golf course, the place might look more marketable in a mortuary brochure but would be sadly lacking in character.
Fortunately for me, the home for Key West’s departed had oodles of charm with its weatherbeaten headstones and overgrowth. True, it didn’t have the kind of windswept desolation I encountered on Inishmore off the west coast of Ireland, but that’s hardly a fair comparison. On an island rife with sunshine, pastels, and Jimmy Buffett, you would be hard pressed to come up with a more authentically rustic presentation of the dead.
The cemetery is walking distance from the heart of Old Town yet far enough away from Duval Street to keep disrespectful revelers from using it as a place to piss out their beer and rum drinks. Just to be on the safe side, they did put up a sign at the entrance admonishing visitors not to dropkick the tombstones or lie down on the graves for photo ops.
They needn’t have worried about me. I travel alone so there was little risk of me getting caught up in any pack-animal hijinks. Both the living and the dead could rest easy as far as I was concerned. I was only there to quietly groove on the fate that awaits all of us.
Now you might think of me as a terribly morbid fellow but I can assure you that it’s simply not true. I did not dwell on the varying degrees of decomposition among the interred and only gave a passing thought to the possibility of claw marks on the inside of a coffin from someone who woke up from a deep coma just a little too late.
What interested me was not so much how they died but what little I could from the dates and sentiments on the headstones. A good thing too as they don’t make it habit of putting the cause of death under the person’s name and certainly don’t use it to determine what part of a cemetery one gets buried. Imagine the indignity of a woman unable to be laid to rest next to her husband in Cancer Corner because she got hit by a train.
What I often saw were generations of families share the same patches of real estate. As a Jennings, I found this eternal closeness endearing but odd. It’s common practice in my family to put a healthy distance between oneself and one’s relatives upon reaching adulthood and where we’re put after keeling over is of no concern to kinfolk.
I wandered among the graves of beloved parents and grandparents, veterans of both world wars, and those rendered anonymous by time. Rustic charm can have its drawbacks, especially in an old graveyard in the hurricane belt. Decades of wind and rain can wipe the names and dates from headstones, leaving me with no clue as to who they were or when they lived.
Judging from the size of some of the unnamed graves, they probably contained the bodies of children. It’s depressing to think about kids’ lives cut so short so I didn’t. Instead, I convinced myself that they were circus midgets killed when being shot from a cannon went horribly wrong or sat on by the sideshow fat lady.
That made me smile but even then I did so with reverence.