Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Tour of the Key West Cemetery by Jane Newhagen






LUCY BURDETTE: when you get to know someone in Key West, you often find you have multiple connections. And this is true for our guest today, who introduced me to my wonderful tarot reading character, Lorenzo AKA Ron, fished me into writing the newsletter for the Key West Friends of the Library, belongs as I do to the Key West Writers Guild, and answers my questions about the Key West cemetery. (And if you visit Key West, make sure you put the cemetery on your bucket list.) With Halloween coming, I thought you would love to meet Jane and get a taste of her cemetery tour! Welcome Jane!

JANE NEWHAGEN: I’m a taphophile—a person who is fascinated by cemeteries, funerals, gravestones and the like. We’re not a morbid bunch, rather we’re interested in the stories that lie behind the monuments and the individuals who lie beneath the ground.

It won’t surprise you, then, when I tell you that for fourteen years I was the Archivist at the Key West City Cemetery. I was responsible for patching together information about the graves there dating from 1847 when the cemetery was founded. Five years ago, I started the Cemetery Strolls. Held on three Saturdays during the winter season, the strolls are guided tours to significant gravesites where volunteers tell the stories of those who are buried there.

One reason I enjoyed being Archivist was because of a special plot that led to my writing three historical novels, Sand Dollar, Pieces of Eight, and Chambered Nautilus. It’s not coincidental that the first one, Sand Dollar, starts out just before the great hurricane of 1846 when the original cemetery was blown away with bodies in the trees and gravestones coming to rest halfway across the island. All three novels are based on the lives of the permanent residents of Lot 49 on 4th Avenue in the cemetery.


Yes, the cemetery streets are named just like city streets. There are eight numbered avenues and Palm Avenue. They’re crossed by Clara, Magnolia, Violet, Laurel, and Higgs Streets. The Catholic section is in the north corner and the Jewish cemetery in the east corner, but you’ll find people of all faiths and ethnicities buried side-by-side throughout the cemetery.

The gravestone most tourists want to see belongs to Pearl Roberts. Pearl’s frequent complaints of ill health led to her being written off as a hypochondriac, but Pearl was right. She died in 1979 at only 50 years of age and her memorial marker on the family mausoleum reads, “I Told You I Was Sick.” Gloria Russell’s memorial is there, too. It says, “I’m just resting my eyes.” I often say that myself, and I think of Gloria whenever I do.


Thomas Romer (1783-1891) is buried on Fourth Avenue. He was an African-Bahamian who served in the War of 1812 as a privateer. His headstone attests to his 108-year life and his standing as a “good citizen” for sixty-five years. We choose to believe that the reference is to the fact that he became a naturalized American citizen at the age of forty-three, not that he was a good citizen for sixty-five years and not so good for the rest of his life.


William Curry’s monument is the most imposing one in the cemetery. Curry (1824-1896) was a very successful businessman and became Florida’s first millionaire. His descendants live here today. Some years ago the big urn on top of the monument was pushed over by an encroaching tree. It took scaffolding and a crane to restore it to its rightful place. As you can imagine conservation and restoration of these old monuments is an ongoing job. It’s expensive, too. The Historic Florida Keys Foundation manages conservation and restoration and relies on grants and contributions from the Cemetery Strolls for funding.


Some of the statues are more expressive than others. The face of the lovely angel memorializing Mary Navarro appears to weep when climactic conditions are right. Her family was visiting New York City in 1901 and she warned her daughter Rosa not to go near the window. Rosa did and fell to her death. Mary died of a broken heart not long after. The monument shows the mother angel admonishing the child angel to behave.



Sadly, we don’t know who is buried in some of our graves. Maybe the markers were wood and deteriorated over time. Maybe the cemetery sexton was illiterate or didn’t have a sense of the importance of his records. Most of the early graves were in family lots and at the time “everybody knew” where the Curry or Lowe or Roberts lot was, so that’s what is written on the burial card. Today there are dozens of lots with those names and, without more information, it’s anybody’s guess where those individuals are located.


You can see my enthusiasm for the history of Key West and its people. It was my great pleasure to research and write my three historical novels: Sand Dollar, Pieces of Eight, and Chambered Nautilus. They’re tales of old Key West and firmly grounded in historical facts. In fact, I followed the pattern of the earliest family members as seen in their cemetery plot and fictionalized their stories. They’re available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon. I hope you’ll take a look.

I also had the privilege of writing the text for After Life ~ Images from the Key West Cemetery. It’s a visual presentation of the cemetery with photographs by Carol Tedesco and Roberta DiPiero. It’s also available from Amazon.


Are you a lover of cemeteries? Do you have a particular favorite?

Jane Newhagen was born and raised in Denver, Colorado and graduated from Brown University. She’s lived up and down the east coast and Paris, France and came to Key West in 2000. Jane received the Richard Heyman Recognition Award from the Anne McKee Artists Fund of the Florida Keys for Pieces of Eight and again for the third novel in the series, Chambered Nautilus.

Jane recently retired from working at the Key West City Cemetery after fourteen years as Archivist. There she organized and digitalized burial records. In her spare time she volunteers for Take Stock in Children, a scholarship program for gifted, needy students. She enjoys classical music, traveling, and is a voracious reader.


50 comments:

  1. This is fascinating, Jane . . . your books sound quite intriguing and I look forward to reading them.

    I haven’t wandered through many cemeteries but the angel statues there are fascinating. You always see them when you pass by . . . .
    It’s sad that there are so many unmarked/unknown places . . . . After so many years have passed, I don’t suppose there’s much chance of figuring out who’s who?

    I’m curious to know how much the recent hurricanes affected the cemetery . . . .

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    1. There was a lot of damage to vegetation, but mostly Hurricane Irma didn't damage the graves. The exception was a couple of sheds that were built to shade grave plots when families visited. It was once the custom for whole families to go to the graveyard and clean their graves and plant there. Even eat lunch! The sheds provided welcome shade, especially in the summer.

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    2. I know of a family that celebrates birthdays of the deceased. They visit the cemetery and drink mimosas!
      Libby Dodd

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  2. The Key West Cemetery has long been a favorite haunt of mine. Most old cemeteries are. They tell a unique story of human history. I'm always fascinated by the memorial markings and what they say about the living and the dead.

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  3. Thanks for that tour, Jane! What era are your historicals set in? And after that 1846 hurricane, did they make the graves any differently than before so hurricanes wouldn't be as damaging?

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    1. My first historical novel, Sand Dollar, begins just before the Great Hurricane of 1846. The trilogy follows the fictionalized lives of the women of Richard Randall. Mary is the first. Pieces of Eight tells the story of Julia and Chambered Nautilus tells Sarah's story. When I began the series, I vowed to follow the skeleton (pun intended) of the family as it is found in the grave plot.

      As for your second question, after the big hurricane, they established a new cemetery near the highest point on the island, Solares Hill. Only a few headstones remain from the first cemetery.

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  4. I love cemeteries - so peaceful. This one looks fascinating.

    Mary/Liz

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  5. I so enjoyed reading this - thanks Jane, Lucy! Our favorite walking place in our town is the cemetery -- started in 1672(!) as a small town burial spot and grew over the years, beautifully landscaped during the Victorian era, as they did, to include a beautiful pond and walking trails. It's a great place to bird (orioles, kingbirds...) in the spring. My favorite gravestone has just one word engraved om it: STONE.

    Next time I'm in Key West, I plan to visit the cemetery. And I'll be looking for you books.

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    1. If you want to prepare for your visit, the books are available on Amazon in paperback and for Kindle. Search for them by my authorial name, Jane Louise Newhagen.

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  6. Thank you for having me here this morning. I'm looking forward to sharing stories of Key West and its cemetery.

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  7. Thanks so much for telling us about the Key West Cemetery, Jane, and welcome. I love the old burying grounds too, and we have a great one not far from my house. It is Mount Hope Cemetery, resting place of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, not to mention George Eastman. It was established in 1838 but there are older graves, remains removed there at some time.

    I love the Civil War area, the Jewish area with all the rocks on the headstones, the sad monuments to veterans of every war since,the families with the heartbreaking little stones reading infant son or daughter, the huge number of burials during the time of the Spanish flu.
    Cemeteries are a true historical record.

    My favorite cemetery of all time is Pere Lachaise in Paris. It contains so many literary and music figures such as Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Colette, Jim Morrison(!), and not the least, Gertrude Stein. I looked all around for Alice B. Toklas, and finally found her name on the reverse of Stein's headstone. Sad.

    I love that you based your characters on the inhabitants of plot 49, and I look forward to reading your books.

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    1. We love Pere Lachaise cemetery too, Ann. And I bet Jane has visited there as well, as she's a Paris nut along with key West!

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    2. Ann, I lived in Paris for five years during the 70s and spent a month there in the fall two years ago. Yes, Pere Lachaise is incredible. The Passy Cemetery is at the Trocadero. It's on raised ground and you have to walk around it to get in. It's much smaller than Pere Lachaise and has some charming monuments, as well as a gorgeous view of the city. Often I've found nannies pushing strollers in the shade and quiet of the cemetery...an interesting metaphor for the circular nature of life.

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    3. The memorial to holocaust victims is incroyable. I cried as I walked thru it.
      I explored the Passy cemetery last time I was there. So lovely. Faure, Manet and Natalie Barney are all there. Debussy too.

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  8. Oh, this is so beautiful..thank you. And I had no idea those two epitaphs were real! (Oh! Taph! I just realized that. Huh.)

    The wonderful JOhn Harrison asked me to write an essay about Cambridge's Mt. Auburn Cemetery two years ago...I was apprehensive. Why would I do that,I wondered? And then, touring the beautiful spot, I was inspired. The book of essays is called Dead In Good Company. (I wrote about Fannie Farmer. Lucy, you know?)

    And Jane, do you know Jane Langton's iconic YA novel called The Diamond in the Window? A chambered Nautilus plays a pivotal role. SO recommended. And now to look for YOUR books!

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    1. Hank, I can see that you're hooked! I still treasure and use my Fanny Farmer cookbook. I'll check out Jane Langton's book. Thank you for the reference.

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    2. I have an essay in that book, too, Hank. It's a lovely collection of photographs and true stories.

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  9. My wife and I have made a point of visiting ancestors' graves in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and doing some cleanup. It can be very restful to wander around or find a place to sit. We were up in the mountains over Labor Day and spent a very peaceful hour sitting on the stone wall at the wooded burial ground in the small community where her parents met and are buried.

    The Archivist position would have been a great one for the conversation about professions for protagonists!

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    1. I often visit cemeteries when I travel. The city of Colma near San Francisco is a complex of cemeteries created when it was decided San Francisco didn't have room for them any more. You could spend days--even weeks--visiting them. Most recently I saw the graves of Levi Strauss and Wyatt Earp there. Interestingly, Earp is buried in one of the Jewish cemeteries. Although he wasn't Jewish himself, his wife was and he is buried with her and her family.

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    2. I once had a hospice patient whose husband was a retired Colma gravedigger. He had a few stories to tell!

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    3. And so do you Ann, please please record or write your memoir.

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    4. I'd love to know some of the stories from the early days of Colma. What a strange civic decision to remove (almost) all the cemeteries in a big city and put them elsewhere! They left the graveyard at the Dolores Mission, a small lovely place.

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  10. Welcome, Jane! One of my favorite cemeteries is Old Burial Hill in my hometown, Marblehead, MA. Hundreds of Revolutionary War soldiers are buried there, and it provides a gorgeous view of the harbor. Growing up in town, we would take field trips there to do gravestone rubbings. Is there a graveyard on your must-see list that you've yet to visit?

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  11. Believe it or not, I've never visited the graveyards of New Orleans. Every time I'm set to go something (storm) intervenes. One of these days!

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  12. I just had a friend visiting from out of state and took her to see the Gorham, Maine Burying Ground, which has some lovely examples of tombstone folk art. Several veterans of the Revolutionary War are buried there.

    Key West Cemetery sounds fascinating, Jane. The kids and I are considering spending Christmas in Key West; your books sound like the perfect ones to read before a trip south!

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    1. Julia, I spent a Christmas in Key West ten years ago, and it was wonderful! My daughter and her fiance lived there at the time, and his family and our family celebrated Christmas away from home for the first time ever. It was magical.

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  13. Those old New England gravestones are remarkable with their drawings of skeletons and deathly poems.

    I would recommend reading my novels before you come because they are filled with historical facts that will make the trip more meaningful. They reflect the culture and historic events of the mid-1800s through 1929 when Sarah died. Read Sand Dollar first and Chambered Nautilus last.

    The Historic Florida Keys Foundation offers guided tours on Tuesdays for just $15 per person. You can reserve at (305) 292-6718. The volunteer guides are extremely knowledgeable and personable.

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  14. I loved your trilogy! So wonderful to meet you at Jungle Reds. If I could have had just one or two more professions, I think I would have been an archeologist. Digging and discovering about ourselves through burial rituals... how fascinating. -- I was an archivist early on. In Tampa, our cemeteries were segregated not only by race, or religion, also by ethnicity; Sicilian, Cuban, Anglo, African American. There are a few exceptions. One of our most noted graves is that of William Ashley and Nancy Ashley. It reads " "Master and Servant" then reads, "Faithful to each other in that relation in life, in death they are not seperated. Stranger consider and be wiser. In the grave all human distinction of race or caste mingle together in one common dust. To commemorate their fidelity in each other this stone was erected by their executor, John Jackson, 1878."

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  15. How lovely. Do you know anything about John Jackson? When did the Ashleys die?

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    1. William Ashley was a City Clerk in Tampa in the early 19th century. His marker does not give birth or death dates. It is located in Oaklawn Cemetery in Tampa. Nancy, his companion/wife, was interred circa 1878. The grave was reopened and she was laid to rest next to him. John Jackson was also a civic leader from that era. In downtown Tampa there are Ashley Streets and Jackson Streets. I like to imagine the streets were named for Nancy Ashley and for Mahalia Jackson -- a girl can dream.

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    2. Where would we be without our dreams?!

      I drove to Tampa and left my car there, then flew to Washington, D.C. during the recent evacuation for Hurricane Irma. Didn't have time to go cemetery hopping. :-( Maybe next time I'm there will be under calmer circumstances.

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  16. I find cemeteries beautiful and so interesting. The stone artwork, the inscriptions, the gardens, all of it. Just a mile or so from us is the beautiful Glenwood Cemetery. The Hughes family (Howard, et al), Gene Tierney, civil war veterans, and many historical movers and shakers who wound up in Houston. And just folks. They still have some plots left to purchase. When we lived in Metairie, LA we used to visit some of the old graveyards near downtown. Fascinating. Never made it to the big fancy Metairie Cemetery but used to drive by it all the time. If you visit the old St Louis Cemetery #1, 2, or 3 do NOT go alone. Crime was rampant there and I doubt that has changed. Always go with a group, the bigger, the better!

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    1. Sadly, some cemeteries have become havens for criminals, especially those with raised vaults. We were cautioned not to visit the old "White" cemetery in Antigua, Guatemala without a police escort. The police were happy to join us; I suppose it was better duty than some others. I never felt threatened in the Paris cemeteries, although there was no visible police presence. I've spent many hours alone in the Key West cemetery and always felt quite safe. It's a shame we even need to have this conversation, but that's how it is.

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  17. The gravestone we heard about on the Conch tour is no longer there after it was stolen several times. I don't remember the exact wording but it was for a husband who was hardly ever home nights. His wife wrote something like "At least now I know where you are." We loved that story!

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    1. It said, "At least now I know where he's sleeping." Actually, the family removed it. I think the younger generations weren't amused. It was gone before I got here, but people are still talking about it. Regrettably, it's still mentioned in some of the guidebooks. You can see how often those are updated! :-)

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  18. Hi Jane, and thank you, Lucy, for hosting Jane today. Jane, your stories and photos are fascinating. I feel like I know the Key West Cemetery from Lucy's books, and hope I get to see it on a future visit.

    I love London cemeteries, as you might guess. Of course Highgate is spectacular, but I have a special fondness for Kensal Green. And on my visit in September I was staying just a minute or two from the Brompton Cemetery, so I spent a couple of hours exploring. Although the walks and paths are well maintained, many of the markers are completely overgrown and deteriorating. I hate to think of that history lost forever!

    London cemeteries always feel very safe, by the way!

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    1. I've never visited the London cemeteries. I'm sorry to know that some grave sites are falling into disrepair. It's an enormous undertaking to maintain a cemetery, especially a very old one. If, as in Key West, families are responsible for the maintenance of the graves and the city is responsible for streets and walkways, it becomes very complicated. What happens when a family dies out or moves away? It often falls to the cemetery to maintain them, but then funds can become the limiting factor. Unfortunately, in the old days they didn't have perpetual care funds.

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  19. I love visiting historic cemeteries ... always so interesting to read the inscriptions...in the mining country near Grass Valley, CA we visited a one where all the accolades were made to the husband of the deceased on their headstones..."here lies Jane, the wife of Sean who was a great husband, miner, father, and he paved the way for blah blah blah" it was so amusing to see almost all of the same type of sentiments on all the ladies gravestones!

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    1. And a little annoying, I'd guess, since those pioneer and early settler women were heroes in their own rights!

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  20. I love the Key West cemetery and the cemetery strolls. I recommend to everyone to go if you every have the chance.

    The most amazing cemetery tour I was ever on was the Colon Cemetery in Havana. Simply amazing!

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    1. I was there, too! It is a stunning cemetery, at least within the gates. Then outside the formal Colon Cemetery, there are more graves and they are falling into ruin. At least that was the case when I was there six years ago.

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  21. I had no idea that there the name for what I am is taphophile. I have loved cemeteries for as long as I can remember. I think it began when, as a child, I accompanied my parents to the cemetery on Memorial Day as they lay the flowers on family graves and told me about those I'd never even known. Even at a young age, I was interested.

    I try to visit cemeteries in different places. I have been to the Key West Cemetery, and I was on a tour, which was really helpful in enjoying it the most. Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond was full of fascinating graves, with creative uses of monuments, like the tree sculptures in one family's plot. There are lots of Confederate connections in the Hollywood Cemetery, with Jefferson Davis being buried there, along with others on that side, but there is also the tenth President of the United States, John Tyler. Of course, he was sympathetic to the Confederacy. But, Hollywood Cemetery is large and much more than its Confederacy connection. My favorite grave there is the Iron Dog, a statue of a Newfoundland dog guarding a young girl's grave. And, there are some beautiful views of the James River. Last year when in New Orleans for Bouchercon, I went took a tour of the St. Louis Cemetery #1, where the burial site of voodoo queen Marie Laveau is, and the crypts are crowded together and create a mood of history pressing in around you. I am hoping to go to England in the next couple of years, and, of course, Highgate Cemetery is on of the places I most want to visit.

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    1. Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, "Show me your cemeteries and I will show you the kind of people you have." It's certainly true that our cemeteries are repositories of our history. I hope today's young people will learn to walk their pathways and observe the stories that are written in stone there.

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    2. Jane, I meant to add in my above comments that I am excited to check out your books.

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  22. I'm surprised no one has mentioned what may be the most famous burial at the Key West Cemetery: Elena Milagro Hoyos, who was loved even after death by "Count" Carl von Cosel.

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  23. I forgot to mention in my earlier comments that one of my favorite books is Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. What tales the residents of the cemetery in that book have to tell. I hope someone else here knows the book, too. It's an oldie, but a goodie.

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    1. I'll have to check out the Masters book, too. Thanks!

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  24. Thank you all for an interesting and educational discussion. Roberta, you're just great for having invited me to the blog. Thank you so much. I hope everyone has a peaceful, restful evening. Jane

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