Fall in Key West Cemetery
October in Key West is relentlessly colorful - and this without even one leafed tree participating in the season.
It’s really an amazing time of year on the island. Come October, with the humidity lifting a bit we’re opening our windows, letting the norther breeze usher out the last of summer’s lavish weight.
Technically, we don’t “do fall” in the Keys. Not in the traditional sense anyway. But what we lack in leaf color, we make up for in our celebratory traditions.
Halloween is big in Key West, so big, in fact it’s kind of like a season all on its own. Not to be confined to just one day, or even one week for that matter, the better part of our October calendar is laid out as a Halloween celebration. Nearly four weeks of events, parties, and fundraisers, should you choose to attend culminate at the end of the month with our biggest festival of the year - Fantasy Fest.
If you haven’t been, think of it a bit like a hedonistic free-for-all. A jam packed party in the streets of Old Town. This outlines the night of our Fantasy Fest Parade anyway, which is traditionally held on the Saturday night closest to Halloween.
While not quite as wild, the weeks leading up to the parade are not lacking color either. There’s Goombay Festival, in Bahama Village, the very well attended “Zombie Bike Ride”, recognizing Dia de los Muertos, and the hard to miss presence of costumed partygoers wandering the island at all hours of the day and night - in varying degrees of being clothed - or not.
Either way, the start of October does a fine job shaking us awake from the sleepy days of summer.
Aside from our well-advertised fall festivities, there’s a less frequented place on the island that we locals like to visit this time of year. The cemetery.
Now to be clear, I wouldn’t say I identify as dark and stormy. Nor am I overly consumed with the concept of death. I respect death, and those who have gone before. As death is the destination for all of us mortal souls, I believe that respect is perhaps the best coming-to-terms one can hope for. I’m just not eager to partake in this inevitability quite yet. I’ve got things to do.
With that said, the Key West Cemetery is absolutely fascinating. Of course it contains a wealth of history, like all cemeteries, I suppose. But just like living in the islands is unique, so is dying - or more accurately, being dead.
Upon entering the cemetery the first thing that jumps out at you (ahem – pun intended) is that all the structure is built UP instead of DOWN. With Key West being an island, we of course have daily tides - exactly zero homes with a basement (which would require a 24/7 sub-pump) - and a naturally occurring “high elevation” of about 2-3 feet.
The cemetery is built on one of these “high” elevation points. Nevertheless, when on an island you don’t just dig six feet down and expect things to stay where you put them. Consequently, the majority of the dead on our island are “buried” above ground in cement crypts and mausoleums.
There are some but not many, in-ground graves and headstones. Most from long ago, and perhaps evidence of some trial and error experimenting with burials at this low elevation. These graves have largely been cemented over. Likely an effort to prevent the casket from heaving up and reappearing above ground one day, after a particularly high tide or passing storm. A lesson that would be learned fairly quickly no doubt.
One of the most surprising things about our cemetery though, is just how quaint and beautiful it is. It’s the opposite of creepy. Especially on a beautiful fall day in October as the rest of the island is bustling with the seasonal festivities, the cemetery is peaceful, and quiet, and interesting.
While it’s unlikely to see many other living souls there, it is a spot that’s frequented by us locals. For a stroll through, or a book or journal in hand. It’s the perfect spot to find some calm and maybe gain a little perspective on time and life passing by.
Another unique quality of this final resting place, is the distinct lack of gloom. Keeping in sync with the vibrant character of Key West, the cemetery or rather many of those “buried” here made certain that their big personalities and sense of humor would live on. One impressively tall headstone, always draped in an array of Fantasy Fest beads, bares the signature of “Captain Outrageous”. Another simply reads, “ I told you I was sick.”
The mixture of humor and tragedy in this place makes it more approachable and even relatable. Maybe because that reads a lot like life itself.
Despite having no relatives laid to rest here, I like to visit. I consider it a privilege to walk through - spend an afternoon reading headstones, soaking in some of our collective history, and marveling at how when you die on the island you get to, quite literally rise above.
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Despite its small size, Key West holds many points of significance for the United States. One in particular is, “The Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S.A.”
As seen by the sizeable marker erected on this “southernmost” point (or close to it anyway, I explain later) it’s a title that we hold with equally sizable pride here in Key West.
The story of how this giant buoy-shaped hunk of cement came to be however, is rather fitting I think, of a festive and vibrant place like Key West.