Cemeteries: A silent journey through Kingston’s past

A shrine being taken over by shrubbery at the Calvary Cemetery in Kingston (Photo: Don Waysome)

Since its establishment in the 17th century, Kingston and its citizens have for many years interred the dead in cemeteries across the city.

Cemeteries, from the viewpoint of many, are morbid reminders of death and sadness – the final stop in paying respects with one’s hope to never set foot in another.

A mausoleum for one of Jamaica’s founding families, the Issas, at the Calvary Cemetery has seen better days as the facility has been repeatedly vandalised and left without upkeep.

However, BUZZ is of the unpopular opinion that there is no greater teacher of past experiences than a cemetery.

Luckily for us (and you), sections of Kingston are still perfectly preserved in time, as the dead refuses none who wish to learn.

With over 150 years as the capital of Jamaica, Kingston has seen its fair share of tragedies and disasters; the deaths arising from these, range in the thousands.

Devastating imagery in the wake of the 1907 earthquake that levelled much of Kingston (Photo: Allen Morrison, National Libray of Jamaica)

The welcoming silence of a cemetery makes the skin of some crawl with fear and uncertainty – fuelled by decades of ‘duppy stories’ – Kingston’s cemeteries hold some of the world’s most interesting histories.

Overgrown bushes take more prominence at Kingston’s largest cemetery, May Pen (Photo: Mark Llewellyn)

Old Jewish Cemetery

Arguably holding the distinction of being the oldest in the island, and the oldest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, the Old Jewish cemetery can be found at 1 Hunt’s Bay Road in St. Andrew.

Reminiscent of its aged history, sections of the Old Jewish Cemetery have been crumbling (Photo: TheDailyBeast.com)

In the latter part of the 17th century, when Port Royal was a bustling metropolis and the commercial hub of the British Caribbean, the thriving Jewish community dedicated a cemetery for the final rites and rituals of its people to be performed.

Many of those tombs are still preserved at the Old Jewish Cemetery, bearing inscriptions in three languages:  Portuguese, Hebrew, and English.

A tombstone bearing Portuguese and the signature skull and crossbones inscriptions at the Old Jewish Cemetery (Photo: The Jewish Star)

Many of the remaining Jewish tombstones either bear ornately chiselled rose and hourglasses, trees being cut down by a hand bearing an axe, or a skull and crossbones.

After the devastating Port Royal earthquake of 1692, Jewish burials continued for a few more years into the 18th century, with the last tomb belonging to Moses Ferro – bearing the date 1771.  

Old Naval Cemetery

A memorial at the Old Naval Cemetery (Photo: Mark Llewellyn)

Built on top of what remains from a much older cemetery, the Old Naval Cemetery was put into commission by the British around 1742.

The facility, found just outside of the sleepy town of Port Royal, was constructed in the aftermath of the former city sinking under the sea during the devastating 1692 earthquake.

Victims of the deadly Yellow Fever epidemics that plagued Kingston in the 18th and 19th centuries are also buried at the Old Naval Cemetery.

The sea has begun reclaiming sections of the Old Naval Cemetery in Port Royal. These grave markers, shown submerged and nearly covered in mangroves, are some of the victims from the 1692 earthquake (Photo: Mark Llewellyn)

More recently, efforts to conserve the location’s rich history have come under threat as the Kingston Harbour reclaims sections of the cemetery.

St. Andrew Parish Church

The second oldest cemetery within Kingston can be found on the grounds of the St. Andrew Parish Church, built in 1664. With over 7,000 burials on the 8 ¼ acres, this cemetery is the largest private facility of its kind on the island in continual use. 

Kingston’s second-oldest cemetery can be found on the ground of the St. Andrew Parish Chruch (Photo: TravelNotes.com)

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.

A section of the historic St. Andrew Parish Church cemetery (Photo: TravelNotes.com)

It stands to this day as a popular internment plot for Kingston’s affluent – and is a prized focal point of interest for genealogists, historians, researchers and archaeologists who seek insight into personalities of the past, customs and culture over the last 350 years.

May Pen Cemetery

Kingston’s most famous (or infamous in equally as many eyes) cemetery, the May Pen Cemetery, can easily be seen from the busy Spanish Town Road thoroughfare that cuts adjacent to the massive property.

Entrance to the May Pen Cemetery in Kingston (Photo: Jamaican Ancestral Records)

As one of the oldest public cemeteries in the Caribbean, the May Pen Cemetery is one of the only burial sites where persons of all nationalities, races, religions and faiths are interred.

The final resting place of iconic Jamaican cricketer, Oneil ‘Collie’ Smith at the May Pen Cemetery in Kingston (Photo: Mark Llewellyn)

Established on 200 acres of the derelict Littleworth Race Course in 1851, burials began some years afterwards according to ‘Law 21’ of 1874. By then, May Pen Cemetery was the most popular burial site of its kind in the Caribbean – with partitions and special plots called ‘grounds’ reserved for several Christian denominations, Jews, Muslims and others from across Europe (English, Spanish, French, Irish, German and Portuguese) who called Jamaica home.

A Dutch tombstone in memoriam to Ché van Beaumont, who died in 1937, stands perfectly preserved among the rubble at the May Pen Cemetery (Photo: Mark Llewellyn)

Importantly, a section was deemed the ‘Pauper Ground’, for the burial of the poor and indigent. There was even a section for victims of cholera, which affected Jamaica periodically back then, with the largest outbreak occurring in the early 1850s.

In the advent of Kingston’s well-to-do elites leaving the downtown district for the cool hills of St. Andrew, the May Pen Cemetery was frowned upon and largely reduced to a pauper’s plot. So much so was this stigma that by 1905, nearly 76% of all persons buried there were classified as ‘poor and indigent’. 

Iconic Reggae pioneer, Cecil “Prince Buster” Campbell is one of many notable Jamaicans buried on May Pen Cemetery’s massive grounds (Photo: Mark Llewellyn)

There have been recent attempts to resurrect May Pen Cemetery to its former glory, as records show many influential Jamaicans including pioneering musician and trombonist Don Drummond (BUZZ has learned his remains were moved recently).

Calvary Cemetery

The entrance to Calvary Cemetery (Photo: Don Waysome)

On the other side of Kingston, Calvary Cemetery, sprawled along Slipe Pen and Lyndhurst roads came into existence in the late 1800s. Some records obtained show one of the first burials, Rose Escoffery, taking place in the 1880s. Burials at the quiet and scenic Calvary Cemetery are still common today.

Brigg’s Park

The entrance to Brigg’s Park, Jamaica’s only military cemetery, is restricted (Photo: Jamaican Ancestry Records)

Briggs’ Park, the only military cemetery on the island, has been a part of the Jamaica Defence Force’s (JDF) Up Park Pen (now Up Park Camp) estate since 1900. The JDF also houses a special cemetery at its Newcastle Training Depot since the late 1800s for soldiers and recruits alike.

Chinese Cemetery

The Chinese Cemetery along Waltham Park Road in Kingston is the largest single burial ground of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean for Chinese nationals and their descendants. 

The largest single burial ground for Chinese and their descendants is found in Kingston. (Photo: Chinese Benevolent Association)

With burials starting in 1912, to date, over 3,600 persons have been interred at the 11.5-acre property – managed and maintained by the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA).

Like many other cemeteries in the city, the Chinese Cemetery has endured periods of upkeep and disrepair over the 100+ years it has existed – coming into being after the great 1907 earthquake that levelled much of Kingston.

Daniel Lee, one of thousands of Chinese and Jamaican-Chinese descendants finds his final resting place along Waltham Park Road (Photo: Chinese Benevolent Association)

National Heroes Park

Officially designated a botanical garden, National Heroes Park is the last stop in Kingston on our BUZZ cemetery tour.

Attention! The Jamaica Defence Force’s Guard of Honour stands unwaveringly at the entrance to the National Heroes Park in Kingston (Photo: Uncommon Caribbean)

As the largest open space on the island, the park’s 50 acres also serves as the final resting place for several notable Jamaican figures, including founding fathers Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante; freedom fighters Marcus Garvey, Paul Bogle, Sam Sharpe, and George William Gordon.

The tomb of National Hero Norman Manley in Kingston (Photo contributed: Flickr)

Established in 1783, the park, originally a race track called Kingston Race Course – renamed to what stands after Jamaica’s independence in 1962 – is also the last resting place of other past Prime Ministers, athletes, entertainers, poets, sculptors and painters, and even mass fire victims. 

The final resting place of Jamaica’s first National Hero, Marcus Garvey (Photo: Atlanta Black Star)

With the exception of Briggs’ Park and the St. Andrew Parish Church, all the above-mentioned cemeteries are open to the public and available for tours.