108. Key West Cemetery

Historic Marker number 108 located at the intersection of Windsor Lane and Passover Lane.

Before 1845, the city cemetery was located at Higgs Beach next to West Martello Tower. In 1846, the Havana Hurricane hit Key West with seven foot storm surge waves that washed over the island accompanied by category 4 winds. See Historic Marker # 40. It destroyed 794 buildings out of a total of 800 and devastated the cemetery burial grounds. Many of the dead bodies were washed out to sea and never recovered. A few unfortunate souls were found stranded in surrounding trees.

A year later, in1847, the city established a new location for the cemetery. Nineteen acres located at the foot of Solares Hill were dedicated for the new city cemetery. Solares Hill is in the Northeast section of Old Town and was a logical location because it had not been heavily developed and the land offered the highest natural elevation on the island.

A century and a half after its inception there are an estimated 100,000 bodies interred in the cemetery. At first glance the burial sites appear to be primarily above ground. In actuality, you can burry two bodies below ground in each gravesite with three more above ground in enclosed graves.

The cemetery is divided into parcels that reflect the cultural diversity that continues to characterize the city of Key West today. It is comprised of several historic sections including the Catholic section, Jewish section, the USS Maine Plot dedicated in 1900, and the Los Martires de Cuba, a memorial for the freedom fighters who fought in the 1868 Cuban revolution. In addition to these defined areas, African-Americans, Cubans, Americans, Europeans, rich and poor, are interred throughout the burial grounds.

There are a number of large, flat, ground level, marble slabs covering grave sites in the older sections of the cemetery. Many of the slabs originated from grave markers that were rescued from the destruction of the first cemetery on Higgs Beach.

An unusual gravesite feature is the small, open air, metal roofs that dot the grounds. The roofs usually cover gravesites of combined family members. The roofs are unique to the Key West cemetery and are thought to be a tradition carried over from Cuba. The usage of the roofs was threefold. It was a common tradition to spend holidays at the cemetery cleaning family graves and communing with family members who had passed. Many of the grave sites had hand pumped water and the roofs created shade for the outing. The roofs also helped identify the location of specific family gravesites. They also created shelter from inclement weather for the resting place of ancestors who had toiled in Key West's sub-tropical climate most of their lives.

The Key West Cemetery is equally known for some of the inscriptions on its grave markers. One of the best known grave marker inscriptions is “I told you I was sick.” A newer marker reads, “If you are reading this, you need a life”. The cemetery remains a record of Key West's fascinating history, humor, and heritage.