Traditional Sand Cemetaries

It is only in the twentieth century that beaches have been seen as an asset

Read about the historic
Watler Cemetery
here

In days gone by, there were no community graveyards in the Cayman Islands. It was the practice for each family to be responsible for the safe burial of their dead. During the eighteenth century people started to set aside a small portion of their land to serve as the family graveyard.

As good soil was scarce and needed to grow crops, it could not be spared for such a purpose. Much of the remaining land was made up of very hard coral limestone rock, which was extremely difficult to excavate with the simple tools available. Fortunately, the answer lay on the shoreline, where the deep, infertile, sandy soil had less value and was relatively easy to dig. It must be remembered that it is only in the twentieth century that beaches have been seen as an asset. The early settlers preferred to live away from the threat of flooding which they represented.

Throughout the three islands, numerous family plots can still be seen between the road and the sea. One noteworthy example is the Watler family cemetery at Prospect on Grand Cayman, which was donated to the National Trust for the Cayman Islands in 1991. It contains a number of early house-shaped grave markers, faced with crushed coral and limestone daub. They are similar to the ones that have been found in England and Wales dating from mediaeval times, and others (from the early 1600's) found elsewhere in the British West Indies.

The wooden coffin lies buried underneath the stone slab, which supports the monument. The name of the deceased was inscribed on a mahogany panel set into the wall of the "house". It is likely that wood was chosen in preference to stone because the local people were skilled carpenters, not stonemasons. Due to the climate in the Caribbean, it was essential that bodies were interred with speed.

Close to Watler Cemetery is another plot that is believed to be the oldest still existing in Cayman. It lies, virtually unnoticed, in a small wooded area on land belonging to the United Church of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. It is many years since it has been used or cared for, and the old gravemarkers are deteriorating. Many of the names that once appeared on them, however, were noted down and are held in the Cayman Islands National Archive.

As the islands' population grew, so it became necessary to allocate space for community graveyards. By the nineteenth century, each major community had allocated a plot, again on the shoreline. These remain in use today, although the style of graves has been adapted to withstand storm damage. The cemetery on Little Cayman was completely destroyed during the dreadful hurricane of 1932, when every grave was washed away. Such was the force of the storm that even a lead coffin, long buried, was lifted and carried over 1,000 feet before being deposited six feet above ground in the branches of a tree.

To wander around these quiet sites is to touch the history of the area. On the outskirts of George Town, in the cemetery at Dixie, one can see the graves of several citizens who made their mark in Cayman. Close to the central gate, set flat in the ground, is a modest slab bearing the name of George Stephenson Shirt Hirst. Born in Sindh, India, on 9th November, 1871, he died in Cayman on 8th June, 1912. An energetic and well-loved Commissioner, and its Chief Medical Officer, Mr. Hirst took a keen interest in the people and their history. He kept notes and improved both civic and medical amenities on all three islands. Annie Huldah Bodden, the first woman to be elected to the Legislative Assembly, is also buried here, as is Marco Giglioli OBE, the first Director of the Mosquito Research and Control Unit (MRCU). His work has made a tremendous difference to the daily lives of all islanders. Perhaps none, though, have an epitaph to equal that of a young man who died aged 22, but is remembered because he "Loved people and laughter."

It would be hard to imagine a more peaceful place than the cemetery at Boatswain Bay. At the end of a country lane, the fresh breezes carry the sound of waves breaking on the shore and the rustle of the Seagrape leaves. Frangipani trees, known as "graveyard trees", flower above the neatly swept and raked sand. The main cemetery in West Bay is a much busier spot. Visitors regularly take the footpath along one boundary to the beach, and the traffic on West Bay Road creates almost constant background noise. Two respected ministers are buried here with their wives - Reverend Joseph Blackman and Reverend John Gray. Among the professionally produced gravestones, it is possible to see others where the simple inscriptions were clearly etched by hand in wet cement. Some graves are no more than sandy mounds, carefully edged with conch shells and bearing no names at all. The cemetery at Spotts contains the graves of two early Chief Magistrates (or Custos) of the islands - James Coe the Elder and the Younger. Each served for several years between 1823 and 1855.

Bodden Town United Church Cemetery contains several unmarked traditional gravestones, but the main Bodden Town Cemetery is now, unusually, situated between a modern main house and its service buildings. At Gun Bay, a delightful small cemetery lies behind the church. It has clearly been in use for many years, as the house-shaped gravemarkers under a Firecracker bush testify to its long use.

At North Side, the wide, windswept graveyard was the original site for the church and has served the community for many years. Two traditional gravemarkers at the edge of the site are those of William Grant Tatum and his wife, Mary. It is believed that William, of English or Irish decent, arrived in Cayman with his brother, Moet, in the 1840's. Both married local girls, and William and Mary eventually settled in North Side. They were not related to the original North side Tatum family, who were among the very first settlers, listed as "Free people of colour" in the 1802 census. In Old Man Bay Cemetery, however, there are three gravemarkers that are believed to be those of three Whittaker sisters, descendants of five Whittaker brothers who came and settled in Old Man Bay around 1840.

Last Updated: 23 Nov 2011