It’s estimated that as many as 100,000 people have been lain to rest in the 19-acre Key West Cemetery, more than three times the number of living residents in the island city. The cemetery was established in 1847 after a hurricane washed bodies out from their previous location, and many of the graves are above ground (similar to New Orleans) due to the high water table. Today, though, the cemetery is best known for its many unusual gravestones.
Perhaps most recognized among the tombstones is that of local hypochondriac B.P. “Pearl” Roberts, which reads “I told you I was sick.” Literary references abound as well, with one tombstone reading “So Long and Thanks For All The Fish,” a reference to Douglas Adams’s book of the same name. Another reads “GROK – Look It Up,” from Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land.
Other notable one-liners include “Jesus Christ, These People Are Horrible,” “I’m Just Resting My Eyes,” “Devoted Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias,” “If You’re Reading This, You Desperately Need A Hobby,” and “I Always Dreamed Of Owning A Small Place In Key West.”
There’s much more to the cemetery than just punchline epitaphs and conch-shaped tombstones. Key West is the final resting place of “Sloppy” Joe Russell, a well known local bar owner and fishing guide for Ernest Hemingway, as well as “general” Abe Sawyer, a famous little person who requested to be buried in the grave of a full-sized man. There are many Civil War and Spanish-American War graves, a section for Cuban freedom fighters, and a monument to the 260 sailors killed in 1898, when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. Near the USS Maine memorial are the graves of two British Royal Navy Officers. Sadly, they were on leave and died in an automobile accident. Because of the heat, they were interred in temporary graves. Because they weren’t on duty, it was up to their families to pay for transportation. Alas, they couldn’t afford it.
There’s also a twisted—and true—tale of Count Carl Von Cosel, who stole and preserved the body of Elena Milagro Hoyos from the cemetery. The Count, using a combination of beeswax, silk, and makeup, was able to preserve the body, kept in a wedding dress in his bed for seven years. When the woman’s horrified and outraged family learned of it, they had Elena’s body re-interred in a secret spot where Von Cosel couldn’t find it again.
While exploring the cemetery, don’t be startled if you hear a rustling coming from just out of sight. The entire island is overrun with feral chickens, and a great many large iguanas also call the cemetery home, often sunning themselves on the stone markers during the day.
Know Before You Go
The Historic Florida Keys Foundation offers walking tours of the cemetery twice a week for a fee.