News

Dead men do tell tales

By Dwight Bellanfante Observer staff reporter

Sunday, November 07, 2004    

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There was a time when the mere mention of the word 'cemetery' or graveyard would fill many with fear and trepidation; and there are still some who see them as being inhabited by spirits of the dead, or "duppies" as they are popularly called in Jamaica.

But cemeteries are also a reservoir of history, where the interred bones of the great, the well-known - including both good and infamous men - as well as regular folk who made their own distinct contribution to life in Jamaica, speak volumes. Dead men do indeed tell tales.

To visit the famous cemeteries of Jamaica is to revisit both the ancient and recent past, while unravelling the tapestry that is Jamaica's history.

Among the most famous and historic local cemeteries are the May Pen Cemetery on Spanish Town Road in the capital city's west end, the Jewish Cemetery at Hunts Bay, the Chinese Cemetery, and the St Andrew Parish Church Cemetery in Half-Way-Tree, St Andrew.

While Jamaica's national heroes are buried in the National Heroes' Park at Heroes' Circle, just below Cross Roads in Kingston, cemeteries such as May Pen house the remains of Kingston's early elite as well as poorer classes - bizarrely referred to as "strangers" - for which there were both an upper and lower category.

It is clear from the early records that all dead persons are not buried equally. Among the interesting insights into Kingston society in the 19th century was the practice of burying persons according to their denomination and class.

As a result, the Handbook of Jamaica notes on page 288 that various churches were allotted a certain number of acres of land at the May Pen Cemetery to bury their dead.

Either because of their numbers or importance, the Episcopalians were allotted 24 acres out of a total acreage of 46. Less endowed were the Wesleyans, who got two acres; United Methodists, one acre; and the Roman Catholics, five acres. Six acres were reserved for paupers.

The May Pen Cemetery was established some time in the latter half of the 19th century. Historical references indicate that lands were purchased in 1851 with a sum of money voted by the Legislature for the purpose of building a cemetery for the parish of Kingston.

Jamaican Law 21 of 1874 was passed for the "establishment, regulation and management of the Kingston cemetery... certain lands and hereditaments called May Penn in the parish of St Andrew were purchased... and vested in the Municipal Board of Kingston".

The jury is still out on how exactly it got the name May Pen but from all accounts it would appear that it derived its name from the Rev William May, the rector of the Kingston Parish Church in 1744 who served for 32 years. He had responsibility for burials in the city and had to designate various areas called "palls" with a range of prices for different categories of persons.

Added credence is given to this by the fact that he married Eliza Pennant from a family of large landed proprietors in Clarendon. The name might refer to the Rev May, and Penn could have been a variant of Pennant, her maiden name from which both the cemetery and May Pen, the Clarendon capital got their names.

Throughout the 1800s leading into the 1960s, May Pen Cemetery was the leading burying ground where the bulk of the dead from the capital and other nearby parishes were laid to rest.

The words "with interment at the May Pen Cemetery" became the most repeated statement on death announcements on radio or in the print media for some time.

But today, May Pen is just a shadow of its former glory, often overrun with bush. Few burials are held there now, and it has been known, on occasion, to be the dumping ground for victims of Jamaica's inner-city violence.

Mayor of Kingston Desmond McKenzie, who is gravely concerned about the state of the cemetery, is currently spearheading a drive to restore May Pen's former glory. The aim is to raise some $50 million, which is what it is estimated it will cost to do the job, McKenzie notes.

The Jewish cemetery at Hunts Bay is usually much better kept than May Pen. But during a recent visit, there were sections where fairly high grass had crept upon some of the graves.

Many of the country's leading professionals, businessmen and leaders are of Jewish ancestry, and the Jewish community is one of the most influential minorities in Jamaica's history. Names such as Matalon, Hart and Delisser come readily to mind, connoting wealth and power.

According to the history books, in the days of Spanish colonisation, converted Jews came to Jamaica, one of the few countries in the Spanish new world to allow them in, during the brutal Inquisition. In those days, immigrants literally had to prove that they had pure Catholic blood, and this excluded Protestants, Muslims and Jews, among others.

When Jamaica was captured from the Spanish by the British in 1655, they did nothing to expel or limit Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Europe. As a result, the Jewish population flourished and among their lasting monuments was the establishment of several cemeteries across the island, especially in areas of large Jewish settlements including Kingston, Spanish Town, Port Royal and Montego Bay.

The oldest of these is the cemetery at Hunts Bay, which was founded by the Jews of Port Royal in the latter part of the 17th century when a prominent Jewish community existed there. It was located across the Bay because Port Royal's water table was too high to facilitate the digging of graves.

It is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the Western Hemisphere and the oldest denominational cemetery in the island.

However, there is no evidence that bodies were interred at Hunts Bay after the 18th century, since the latest inscription on the tomb of one Moses Ferro bears the date 1771.

In 1938, the cemetery was re-consecrated by Rabbi Silverman, then spiritual leader of the Jewish community. According to historian Ainsley Henriques, it contains the remains of Alexander Bravo, the first Jew elected to the Legislative Council in Jamaica.

Among the famous Jewish families associated with the building of cemeteries were the Barrett and Hart families of Montego Bay.

"However, many Jews were buried in church cemeteries so you will find Jews buried at Anglican, Presbyterian and other church grounds," says Henriques.

Like the Jews, the Chinese have become an integral part of Jamaica's life and culture since they were brought to the island as indentured labourers to pick up the slack created when freed African slaves bolted from plantation life after emancipation.

They did not take to the sugar industry, certainly not the planting and the reaping (cutting) of sugar cane, but soon became ensconced in commerce as shop owners, among other vocations.

According to the Rev Easton Lee, a noted authority on the Chinese in Jamaica, the only remaining cemetery that could be described as exclusively Chinese was the Chinese Cemetery at Waltham Park Road in Kingston.

Among the burial practices observed by the early Chinese Jamaicans when burying their dead was to dress them in their best clothes and provide them with some food and money to sustain them through the afterlife, as is widely done in China.

Lee rubbished the local myth that the Chinese are afraid of dead people. "In China, death is sacred, the only people who are allowed to handle you in death are the people associated with your birth, meaning close relatives, or people who were ritually prescribed," he explained.

But the myth might have come about because sometimes dead bodies were not touched until the proper person was available and people came to believe that the Chinese were afraid of death, adds Lee.

Nowadays, however, most Jamaican Chinese belong to Christian faiths and so are buried in church plots, Lee noted, but practices such as "burning incense and Lotto (fake) money" are still observed at Chinese funerals.

The St Andrew Parish Church in Kingston houses the oldest Anglican cemetery in the island where one can find many reminders of Jamaica's colourful past.

Interred there are the remains of historic figures including Archbishop Enos Nuttall, the first Archbishop of the West Indies after whom the Nuttall Hospital in Kingston is named.

He was born in England in 1842, came to Jamaica in 1862 and died in 1916.

Other well-known people who are buried there include Jamaica's first native Governor General Sir Clifford Campbell; Bishop Percival Gibson, the first black Bishop of Jamaica and outstanding Kingston College headmaster; and Reginald "Reggie" Carter, the actor famous for the "Maas Ted Blackbourne" character on the CVMTV series Royal Palm Estate. His ashes are interred at the cemetery's columbium (place for storing ashes), which is a growing trend in modern burials locally.

Among the unusual tombstones at St Andrew Parish Church is that of paleontologist Lawrence J Chubb, whose final resting place is marked by a large free-form rock formation. Other tombstones range from grand edifices adorned with angels and the cross - etchings that were popular in years gone by - to more modest tombstones.

One of the most well-known and popular edifices is dedicated to Lewis Galdy, a church warden who, legend has it, was swallowed up by the earthquake of 1692 at Port Royal and ejected into the sea where he swam around before being rescued by a passing boat.

The inscription on his tomb at the St Peter's Anglican Church in Port Royal reads: "Here lies the body of Lewis Galdy who departed this life at Port Royal on the 22 of December 1739 at the age of 80 years.

He was born at Montpelier, France, but left his country because of his religion. He was swallowed up by the great earthquake of 1692 but by another shock thrown into the sea and miraculously saved by swimming until a boat took him up.

"He lived many years after in great reputation beloved by all who knew him and lamented in death."

Galdy's tombstone is a popular spot to visit during a trip to Port Royal but perhaps the leading cemetery today is the modern Dovecot Cemetery in St Catherine. Founded in the late 1970s, it has become the final destination for Jamaica's nouveau riche, or anybody who, as they say, is anybody.

Dovecot, followed by its younger neighbour, Meadowrest, is now the destination of choice for many. Unlike traditional cemeteries, though, there are no grand edifices or tombs. Instead, bodies are identified by simple inscribed metal tablets.

While many African retentions are observed at the funerals of Afro-Jamaicans, such as passing the child of the departed over the coffin, many of these have become interwoven into popular culture, including inner-city culture.

Perhaps the grandest manifestation of this is seen when famous dancehall entertainers, or so-called 'dons' are buried. In Jamaica, 'dons' have been buried with liquor, money and even on occasion with snippets of a lover's pubic hair, no doubt to ensure a happy and pleasurable afterlife.

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