Higher Ground

Key West Cemetery

As the time for my trip to Key West neared, I did some preliminary reading so I’d have a general idea of the lay of the land. From skimming a Wikipedia article I learned that Key West Cemetery was on Solares Hill, the highest point on the island. The cemetery’s location was built at elevation to avoid the horror and recurring inconvenience of flooding.

Excellent, thought I. I like cemeteries, and I like high points from which to gain a view of my surroundings. We were thus pleasantly surprised to learn that the cemetery was mere blocks from our hotel (Eden House). And so we resolved to climb the hill and explore the gravesites.

A few minutes’ stroll of no perceptible incline whatsoever and we found ourselves at the entrance to the cemetery. Amy and I checked our map. We consulted the convenient self-guided brochure provided by the gatehouse. Yes, this was indeed the burial ground on the hill.

Or more accurately: “hill.”

You see, Key West is in fact spectacularly flat. Flat, as in pancake. There is no hill to speak of; the increase in elevation amounts to a total of about 11 feet. (Had I read the Wikipedia article with more care, I would have known that.)

This became a running in-joke between us for the entire trip. Every time there was the slightest roll to the street we were bicycling or walking on, we complained about the steepness of the hill and the arduousness of the climb. I, for one, found it hysterical.

Coffin-shaped grave monument.

I love the truth-in-advertising nature of this particular monument. It’s a COFFIN, by god. Above ground. Because we’ll be golldarned if we’ll have another flooded grave even if we ARE on the top of the highest hill in town. No pussy-footing around the harsh realities for this one.

Epitaph, Jewish Section of Key West Cemetery

The cemetery also has a Jewish section, quite different in feel from the rest of it. The grave markers are simple, sober granite affairs organized in sensible rows. Kaddish stones, a custom I’ve always found touching, were everywhere.

Mausoleum facade, Key West Cemetery

On the other hand, this family mausoleum just outside the Jewish section features some dead folk with senses of humor. Note the two epitaphs: “I’m just resting my eyes.” and “I told you I was sick.”

Small headstone, Jewish section, Key West Cemetery

By contrast, here’s a small, modest, virtually anonymous gravestone from the Jewish cemetery. It’s so minimalist (no dates) that I wondered if it were for a stillborn child or even a pet. Yet it, too, had a visitor’s stone.

Low iron gate and small American flat, Key West Cemetery

Graveyards are liminal places, on the border of life and death. I found this slightly rusty gate and flag evocative of that passage between here and the beyond, between now and then.

Epitaph, Jewish section, Key West Cemetery

Amy pointed out the yin/yang nature of this headstone, and I wasn’t too proud to take a picture myself.

Statue, Key West Cemetery

Much of the cemetery is just this side of a shambles. It’s maintained, but barely. Nature encroaches, things are a little disorganized and not-quite-seedy. Nonetheless, it’s lovely in its own way, and clearly beloved of both local residents and visitors. This is not unlike Key West in general and so it seems entirely fitting.

If you are in Key West, I recommend you go see it. But watch out for that hill, it’s a killer!

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2 Responses to Higher Ground
  1. [...] an easy and convenient way to get around: bike lanes are common, the weather’s great, and—as previously noted—Key West is flat like [...]

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