By Katrina H. Nichols
The Key West City Cemetery is loved by many. It’s even a sought-after destination for tourists, who have given it a four-star rating on TripAdvisor. The cemetery sits on 19 sun-bleached acres between Frances, Angela, and Olivia streets and Passover Lane, and many visitors notice an odd juxtaposition; the cemetery has perfectly maintained monuments right alongside crumbling headstones and cracked or sunken concrete graves. Some plots are well cared for, so why not all? The answer comes down to ownership.
The primary responsibility for the upkeep of each grave site lies with the family of the deceased, according to Russel Brittain, cemetery sexton for the past 15 years. The trouble is, many families are far away or long gone. There is no one else to care for those graves. The City of Key West owns and maintains the mausoleums in the cemetery, but the ground plots are a no-man’s land unless there is local family to care for them.
Brittain said, “There are so many graves without headstones and I would like to resolve that and have certain areas cleaned up and repaired as much as we could.”
He estimates the most urgent areas on his list would cost about $10,000 to resolve. Those funds would have to be raised or donated. Or added to the city budget. Seeing a need, several local citizens and local organizations are raising funds to help with repairs to certain graves.
The Historic Florida Keys Foundation is one. They have an agreement with the City of Key West to provide preservation services for the cemetery. The foundation’s volunteers and staff offer walking tours of the cemetery twice a week to raise funds for cemetery preservation and to print the self-guided tour maps.
Diane Silva, executive director of the foundation said, “the main problem is lack of perpetual care and all the lots are individually owned plots.”
Therefore, the foundation’s preservation efforts are only on graves that are abandoned. She runs legal notices to make sure no one objects. So far only one family has been found. Usually there is no one.
“If anyone loves gardening and painting there is always restoration work that can be done that way,” Silva said.
Simple fixes like pulling vines off the wrought iron fence, picking up trash, turning over flower pots that collect water, are all helpful. She suggests anyone who wants to assist, should contact her by email or check in with the sexton first.
In addition, some individuals in the Frances Street Neighborhood Association have taken an interest. Donna Wheeler lives on Frances Street, which abuts the cemetery. It makes her sad that so many tourists, especially, see the cemetery in disrepair.
“I want the tourists to see something pristine,” she said. “Although, it’s getting better … it takes money and man power.”
Wheeler has participated as a presenter with the cemetery strolls offered by the Historic Florida Keys foundation. Recently, those strolls raised about $5,000. The strolls are only given in January, February, and March, with volunteers sharing the history of the Key West well knowns like Ellen Mallory, the Porter family plot, and Sandy Cornish.
While others are focused on saving statues and monuments, Brittain is focused on the graves. He has a long list of sites he wants to fix. There are five small areas in the cemetery that hold the remains of babies. Some have unmarked graves. He feels those areas deserve special care and would like to see them fixed up soon.
“My priority is repairing and preserving the baby areas,” he said.
For more information about renovation volunteer work, or to make a donation, email Diane Silva at [email protected].