The original Spanish name for the island of Key West is Cayo Hueso. Punch up the language translation app on your phone and you’ll discover the term means “Bone Island” or “Bone Cay.” The Spanish not only named the island Cayo Hueso because it’s a low-lying island, but because it was supposedly scattered with bones from a Native American burial ground or battlefield. However, the name Bone Island also seems like a foreshadowing of what was to take place in 1846, when a hurricane washed dead bodies out of an earlier cemetery built on the sand dunes of Whitehead Point. The Key West Cemetery was moved to higher ground in 1847 -to its current location at the foot of Solares Hill in the northeast section of the Old Town. Locals say the cemetery is now located in the dead center of the Old Town, but what’s even more fascinating (and macabre) is the fact that a street named Passover Lane borders the 19-acre plot.
The white-washed above ground tombs, winged-angels, ornate wrought iron, red barked gumbo limbo trees and creeping vines of bougainvillea, all make the Key West Cemetery look and feel like a low-grade fever dream. It’s estimated there are 100,000 people buried in the cemetery, but due to unmarked graves and lost burial records the number is probably higher. In some places the above ground tombs are stacked three or four tiers high because of the lack of space. While the cemetery doesn’t feel like the setting of a horror movie, it does have the sort of lurking menace and tropical decay that Tennessee Williams made famous in plays like Suddenly Last Summer and Night of the Iguana.
Key West being Key West, however, the cemetery’s spookiness is quickly tempered with oddball individuality and quirkiness. Where else could you find epitaphs like these: “I Told You I Was Sick,” “I’m Just Resting My Eyes,” and “Devoted Fan of Julio Iglesias.”
Be sure to check out the tomb of General Abraham Lincoln Sawyer. While the name already sounds like some type of alias or stage name, when you learn the man was actually a 40-inch midget whose last wish was to be buried in a man-sized tomb, the Key West Cemetery has gone from being eerie and unnerving to comically surreal.