It was July in Key West, and it was brutal. Looking outside, it seemed to be a glorious day. The sun shone brightly and the rich blue sky was strewn with fluffy bits of cloud. Even the colors seemed exaggerated, turned almost technicolor under the Florida sun. A perfect day for a nice stroll through picturesque Key West. Then I stepped outside. Holy hell! It was like getting smacked in the face by a used sauna towel! Camera bag slung over my shoulder, I wrung a breath from the soggy air and set out for Key West's old cemetery.
Why would I brave 90+ degree heat and 1000% humidity under a raging sun? While some may find a cemetery spooky or macabre, which may be true at night under a full moon, in the day it is a mysterious yet frank account of local human history. They are outdoor sculpture gardens filled with dozens or thousands of unique life stories. From decadent family mausoleums to bits of crumbling stone with nearly obliterated inscriptions, these places fascinate me. It is a contemplative mix created from lives cut short or lived long and full, memorialized together in a place the bears a surprising zen-like atmosphere.
My first experience with an historic cemetery was in Paris's famed Pere Lachaise. The place is a veritable maze, its tumbling hills and shady lanes home to memorials to the everyman and celebrity alike. You could easily lose yourself in there for an entire day. And boy did we get right and truly lost in there! After much frustrating circle-turning, my husband finally turned to me and said "How the hell do you get out of here?" I simply quipped "You don't."
Key West's offering is mercifully flat, with intermittent lines of palms and scattered mimosa trees and mostly a neat grid layout: much harder to get lost in. I stubbornly ignored the incessant threat of heatstroke for a good three hours while exploring. Some of it is indeed sad, bearing witness to the unfortunate reality of a time where children often died well before their fifth birthday. There are also couples interred side by side, after a long life together, and memorials to soldiers or other heroes also abound. Inscriptions, if you can still see them, vary from cryptic to poetic to succinct.
Before long I found myself [almost] not too bothered by the climatic torture, taking in the calm and peace inherent to places like this. It was unimaginably quiet, as if the thick air itself held reverence for the place and ensured silence. Every so often you might hear a lone bird, the false promise of a breeze tickling the palms, or the occasional vague hum of tires along a street nearby. Also, in this case, chickens pecking casually about: chickens are everywhere in Key West, and the cemetery is no exception. Despite an initial concern that I might end up joining the permanent cemetery residents, I indeed returned to the bliss of air conditioning, a cool shower, and a very long nap.