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Wanton disregard for our cemeteries
The evolution of a society is said to be measured by observing the way it treats its elderly and its dead. In T&T, we seem to have fallen dismally short on both counts. Our aged are subjected to general contempt and sometimes outright callousness, while the memory of our ancestors is sullied by our disregard for their dust.
As a historian and researcher, I have more often than not found our older graveyards to be rich with history, artwork, architecture and recollections of those gone before. I have tramped across many of the better known cemeteries as well as the obscure, forgotten ones where tangles of brush cover the crumbling grave markers and the roots of flourishing trees burst marble and wrought-iron monuments asunder with precision and certainty.
In other more civilised nations, the cemetery is both a shrine to the past and an income-earner, since many have been transformed into tourist attractions. Pere Lachaise in Paris for example, hums with the voices of tourists, jostling with each other to view the tombs of famous people such as Doors lead singer Jim Morrison and literary great Oscar Wilde.
Others like the magnificent Colon Cemetery in Havana, Cuba, are open-air art museums where visitors wander in rapt awe of the masterpieces sculpted in a bygone era, transforming blocks of granite and marble into majesty.
There is money to be made in this seemingly morbid fascination. Tour operators, maintenance staff and even souvenir salespeople all earn a healthy living from the interred dead. A recent pretentious announcement by the Ministry of Tourism’s Heritage Tourism Special Committee hinted that a UK-based firm had expressed an interest in local “dark tourism,” which is a sombre yet lucrative industry.
Even so, I doubt whether the esteemed members of the committee would dare spend hours alone in Lapeyrouse Cemetery in the heart of our capital city, tripping over masses of discarded syringes left by the transient drug-addict population, or encountering the more permanent residents, the vagrants, who make their homes in our metropolis of the dead.
And yet, for all the taboo associated with bereavement and the resultant wanton disregard shown to our cemeteries, they are remarkably fascinating. Take Lapeyrouse Cemetery, for instance. It sprawls across prime real estate which was but agrarian when Picot de Lapeyrouse founded Trinidad’s first sugar plantation in 1786.
In those far-off days, a muddy little graveyard called the Campo Santo (Holy Ground) served the district, while another burial place existed near the sea in what is now Columbus Square.
The real growth of Lapeyrouse began in 1813 when a contractor named Littlepage was engaged to erect a stone wall enclosure around a new burial ground since the old Campo Santo (now assumed to be Mahatma Gandhi Square) was rapidly filling up. Incidentally, the rustic stonework of this wall is now being lost under a coat of cement being plastered on it.
The new necropolis eventually grew to encompass a full 20 acres by the end of the 19th century and is an important repository of our diverse history. One enters under the venerable arch of the main entrance on Phillip Street which itself dates from 1867 and was a gift of the munificent Hypolite Borde—a wealthy planter whose brother Pierre Gustave Louis Borde was the cemetery keeper and one of our earliest historians.
Once inside, the air of grandeur and olden times becomes evident. Walking down the main street alone, the sightseer is greeted by towering gothic vaults which are themselves miniature chapels. While the 1900-dated edifice belonging to the de Verteuil clan is in quite excellent shape, the more imposing mid-1800s Blanc Trujillo vault is now miserably vandalised, all but one of its stained-glass windows being shattered and the intricate wrought iron badly rusted.
Those who overcome a sense of repugnance and step inside must do so warily since a gaping hole in the floor plunges down 15 or so feet below the surface, leading to a charnel house where the human remains have been discarded and which is now being used as a refuse tip and toilet by the resident vagrant.
Towards the end of the main street one may turn right at the conservative yet impressive Ionic pillar which marks the grave of a well-known freemason into an avenue of tombs which were raised to the remembrance of the great and powerful of the land.
Here rest the remains of William Hardin Burnley (1780-1850) who was once the richest man in the island and whose influence was so great in London that he was able (unsuccessfully) to petition Parliament for the re-introduction of slavery in 1841.
To fully examine the wonders of Lapeyrouse would require many volumes, and while the most impressive of the cemeteries of T&T, it is but one of many which tell a story.
In the middle of San Fernando lies Paradise Cemetery. Though founded much later than Lapeyrouse, it is a significant history book of the colonial plantocracy of the sugar-belt Naparimas. Though poorer in imposing monuments than Lapeyrouse, Paradise has its own unique setting amidst ancient samaan trees, all but two which have vanished at its northern contemporary.
Though in a better state of maintenance than most graveyards, Paradise cemetery has suffered terribly from neglect. This is exemplified in the collapse of its extraordinary mortuary chapel in 2010. This structure was a small church erected by the local RC parish when the cemetery opened in 1868. Aside from being a venue for hundreds of funerals, it covered two burial vaults—one containing the mortal remains of the Lambie family of Vistabella Estate and the other dedicated to clerics of San Fernando who died between 1875 and 1931.
The chapel became a football between the Borough (later City) of San Fernando and the church, neither of which assumed responsibility for its maintenance—a responsibility from which they were pitifully absolved when this historic funerary building came tumbling down after a heavy rainfall, destroying the 19th-century marble memorials and unique wooden alta/coffin trestle inside.
Countryside graveyards fare no differently. At the historic St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Princes Town, nettles and rubbish threaten to consume the cemetery, while a toilet has been constructed within inches of the tomb of two reverend ministers who perished in the service of the parish during the late 1800s.
A mixed blessing was the “restoration” of the ancient cemetery attached to the St Joseph RC Church, which contains the oldest tombstone in the island (dated 1682). A remarkable plethora of markers inscribed in French, Spanish and Latin, it was sanitised with a healthy lashing of concrete which was poured with a generous hand over the walkways and even on a couple older gravestones, giving the place the air of a peculiarly anomalous parking lot.
The caring parishioners deserve some credit however, for not touching the historic 1839 tomb of the grand-daughter of General Monagas, of Bolivarian fame, which was protected from future vandalism by having its own special enclosure constructed.
Neglect is not the only danger suffered by our old cemeteries. The march of time and the need for development also loom ominously. Although luckily renovated and preserved a little over a decade ago, the updating process of the old St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Couva necessitated bulldozing a section of its cemetery to make a parking lot which destroyed many historically important tombs.
This is also the case in San Fernando where over the last eight decades or so, the town’s first burial ground on Chacon Street, (the Spanish-era Plaza de San Carlos dating from 1786) was gradually covered by homes, a basketball court, private hospital, commercial buildings and lastly, a community centre; thus obliterating all traces of the cemetery where tombstones inscribed in French and Victorian English could be seen as late as the 1940s.
The old Anglican graveyard on Chancery Lane also shared this fate, as it was levelled in the 1950s to make way for a building that was later a branch of Hi-Lo food-stores and is now a private tertiary-level institution. The uncaring manner in which we treat our cemeteries is symptomatic of our growing nihilism as a people.
Tobago fares slightly better on the preservation front, although when my friend Seema Mootoo recently visited the invaluable slave cemetery (famous as the last resting place of the witch Gang-Gang Sarah) at Golden Lane, dirty laundry was piled haphazardly on Sarah’s tomb, while others are vanishing under a creeping dune of dirt and disjecta membra.
The people who have erected homes smack dab in the middle of the cemetery have the right idea however, since they are known to accost visitors for an unofficial fee to view the monuments. The loss of our national history and the apathy of our people to save it never ceases to shock and dismay me. I hope that one day we will come around, and that right soon, before what little is left of our ancestors is cast into the landfill of forgetfulness.
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