The Key West cemetery is a lot like the city itself: quirky, crowded, colorful and full of history.
It’s free, of course, and makes a great stop on an off-the-beaten-path tour of Key West.
The Key West Cemetery is at the center of Old Town – halfway between the Historic Key West Seaport and West Martello Tower. It has several entrances, but you should make a point to start at the northwest corner at Passover Lane and Angela Street because a small office there has excellent free walking tour guides.
With a walking tour guide in hand, the Key West cemetery reveals fascinating stories of Key West and its people.
The cemetery was founded in 1847 after a terrible hurricane in October 1846 washed away the old cemetery, scattering the dead throughout a forest. As a result, the oldest gravestones in this cemetery — built on the highest point in Key West — are actually older than the cemetery itself. They date to 1829 and 1843 and were moved here after the hurricane.
There are few trees in the cemetery and most graves are in above-ground vaults like in New Orleans, and for the same reason — the high water table.
The cemetery is like a town of narrow streets: Instead of houses there are rows of whitewashed rectangular boxes; instead of people there are chickens and iguanas. It is weedy and overgrown with a forlorn air of a forgotten place.
Amid the sun-washed vaults, there are lovely statues of angels and lambs and an odd one of a naked, bound woman.
A prominent monument is to the U.S.S. Maine, which was blown up in Havana Harbor in 1898 killing 260 American sailors. Two dozen of those dead are buried here along with other veterans of the Spanish-American war. An iron fence and gate brought from Washington D.C. protects a neat grassy yard.
A poignant story that reminds us of Key West’s Southern history is represented in the grave for Manual Cabeza, who died in 1921. The World War I vet had a relationship with a mixed-race woman and was tarred and feathered by the Ku Klux Klan for it. In retaliation, he shot and killed one of his persecutors on Duval Street on Christmas Eve 1921. The next day, a posse removed Cabeza from jail and lynched and shot him.
Key West’s Cuban heritage is strongly evident, with a section devoted to those who fought and died in the 1868 Cuban revolution.
There are graves with familiar names that now mark key sites in Key West — Ellen Mallory (Mallory Square is named for her son, Secretary of the Confederate Navy) and Willam Curry (the family’s Curry Mansions is a popular historic B&B.)
There’s the grave of the real Sloppy Joe – “Sloppy” Joe Russell (1889-1941) who was Ernest Hemingway’s fishing guide and a famous Key West bartender.
Not all the interesting graves are old.
- Edwina Larez (1923-1986) has her gravestone forever marked “Devoted Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias.”
- Welhelmina Harvey (1912-2005) was the first woman juror in Key West and a local elected official whose grave gives her the title “Admiral, Conch Republic Navy.”
- A popular stop is B.P. “Pearl” Roberts (1929-1979) who famously had inscribed “I told you I was sick.”
- Nearby, Gloria M. Russell (1926-2000) notes: “I’m just resting my eyes.”
The Historic Florida Keys Foundation offers walking tours of the cemetery twice a week for a fee. For further information and reservations, call 1-305-292-6718 or email [email protected].
Do people see ghosts in the Key West Cemetery?
Of course, they do. Or they think they do. Or they say they do. The most commonly sighted ghost is a Bahamian woman who approaches visitors who sit on graves or behave disrespectfully.
Are people still being buried here?
Yes. The cemetery, owned by the City of Key West, has about 100 burials a year and there are above-ground vaults and cremation niches available.
Why are some graves in disrepair?
According to the City of Key West: The graves are private property owned by families. The family is responsible for maintaining the graves and some families have left town or died out. Sometimes historically, significant gravesites are renovated when grants become available.
How many people are buried in the Key West Cemetery?
An estimated 70,000 people, according to the city.
- Passover Lane and Angela Street, Key West, 1-305-292-6718
- A cemetery guide is generally available at the cemetery office in a handy printed format.
- Hours for the cemetery office are 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays.
Florida Rambler resources for a Florida Keys trip
- Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- 12 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Top 10 pit stops on Overseas Highway
- Beaches in the Florida Keys
Special places in Key West from Florida Rambler
- Free things to do in Key West
- Key West on a budget: Accommodations, restaurants
- Key West Butterfly Conservatory: A tranquil stop
- Audubon House, a lovely refuge in Key West
- Historic Key West Seaport
- Fort Zachary Taylor
- Hogfish Grill: Where Key West locals go for fresh fish
- Key West chickens
- Key West Tropical Forest and Botanic Garden: It will charm plant lovers
- Bike trail from Key West along Overseas Highway
- Authentic souvenirs in Key West
- Key West bars loved by locals
Florida Rambler guide to visiting the Lower Keys
- Florida Rambler guide to the Lower Keys
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- National Key Deer refuge
- Bahia Honda State Park: Good beaches & a great bridge
- Houseboat resort on Big Pine Key
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.