by The Belize City House of Culture and Downtown Rejuvenation Project
Most people know where the Yarborough and the Lord Ridge Cemeteries are located, but how many people know where the Contagious Disease Cemetery is located in Belize City? If your answer is, you don’t know, don’t worry, because I am in the belief that most people have never heard about this cemetery and its location.
I had heard about this cemetery and knew the vicinity of where it was located, but I had never visited it. A friend and I have been making plans to go visit this cemetery for a while. He knew a lady who knew the location. So, on October 2nd we finally decided to go visit what was remained of this forgotten cemetery.
Visiting cemeteries is not for everyone, but if you find history slightly interesting, you might find cemeteries interesting a well. Why I find it interesting is because we often read or listen to stories about historic people, but that is only in a book and that is intangible, but when you know where the remains of a specific historic person's location, it makes that intangible person becomes tangible. I believe that is why some families bury their beloved family members on their property. If I am not mistaken, the Mayas bury their dead under their homes.
I must say that I did not have high expectations of what I would find. I thought we would find some pieces of gravestones strewn over a muddy area in the back of someone’s yard. After driving around Faber’s road for a while, we finally found the house of a lady that would take us to see these gravestones. Our contact was not available, so she made arrangements with her daughter to guide us. Apparently, the gravestones were not too far from our contact’s home on Faber’s Road. Actually, it was right around the corner. I won’t be stating the exact location of where these graves stones are located because I am not sure what is the long-term plan for these graves and to preserve the privacy of the people who lived near these graves.
Upon reaching the location, we were taken to what seemed like an alley in an area that was obviously congested with houses that were in dire need of repairs. What struck me as I was walking through this curved alley was that both sides of the alley had very high fences made of corrugated zinc sheeting (I don’t recall what it was exactly) that seemed to have been put up not long ago because they were in remarkably good condition. As we walked through the alley to our destination, I wondered why the fence were so high? What were behind them that whoever installed them did not want people to see? The area was residential, and it was obvious that most of the residents were financially challenged, but someone had invested in the fence for this alley. The alley’s ground was also in remarkably good condition. The ground still had its brown gravel hue. It looked as though it had been given a nice layer of gravel not long ago and it had been compacted by many feet over time.
As we continued to walk through this alley that had a curve, we eventually passed the curved portion and I was able to see the end of the alley. “There it is” our guide said. I was a little confuse because I didn’t see anything just a backyard. My eyes looked around trying to find the gravestone that was supposed to have been in front of me. I was looking for a white gravestone the type I had grown accustomed to see at Lord Ridge Cemetery and I had installed for both of my parents a few years before. Then suddenly, it came into focus, a large slap of grey granite lying on the ground. I could not see it before because the colour disappeared into the foreground and background. As I took off towards the slab like a heat seeking missile streaking across the sky towards its target, I realized that I had seen the same type of granite slab at Yarborough, but those were made of a brownish/reddish hue granite. This one was gray (photo 1&2). As I was inspecting the first and then looking for others, our guide said, “here is another one”. I realized that in my enthusiasm to reach to the first gravestones, I did not see the one which was at the entrance of the property. This one was even more beautiful (photo 3 and 4) because it was made from the brown granite and it was the standing version. Apart from some graffiti that was sprayed on it, the granite, which was one hundred and fifty-one years old, was still glistening as though it had just been installed the day before. The structure was about three feet high with a base of two-feet by two-feet. The structure looked as though it was designed to put something on top that was removed a long time ago. There was a third one that we had passed in the alley that was partially covered by the alley fence. That one was flat on the ground and made from the brown type of granite (Photo 5). Because of the way it was positioned, we could not see and inscription on it. As we were looking at the third stone, our guide mentioned that there was another one and pointed over the fence of the alley. As we peeked through the fence into an adjoining yard, located under a tree and some bush, we saw a tall dark structure. Our Guide asked us if we wanted to get a closer look, and of course we said yes, because our discovery was getting better and better with each gravestone. As we departed from the alley and circled around on Faber’s Road, I could not help but thinking how close this structure was to the street, a mere twenty feet or less. I had passed this area many times and never knew this gravestone was there.
As we made our way towards the structure, my eyes were fixed on the ground so as not to step in the mud and the debris on the ground. As we arrived in front of our objective, I gradually looked up, my exact words were “I think we have found the Holy Grail of gravestones”. Yup, my exact words. This thing was massive and impressive. Standing there under a tree and shrub with an old washing machine next to it (photo 6). It stood about six feet tall with a base of two feet by two feet and made of grey granite as well. That thing was not a gravestone, but a monument, an obelisk I thought. I have never seen a gravestone that large. I had seen Mr. Waight’s gravestone under the “hammans tree” at Yarborough, which at the time I saw it for the first time was impressive, but this one was even larger.
Looking for old gravestones may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you find these things interesting, the feeling is similar to when an archeologist discovers an ancient stela in the middle of the jungle. Gravestones are no less; they are stelae of contemporary dead people. The epitaphs tell the story of the deceased similar to how a stela tells the story about an ancient Mayan king or high priest. This stela told the story of Robert Niven, who departed this earth in 1890 at the age of 47. His full epitaph is on photo 7. From this size of this gravestone and the inscription, he must have been a very important person, or must have been loved by many.
I would estimate that based on the size and height of this monument, the total weight must be some 3,000 lbs. What I found surprising was that with all of that weight, and taking into consideration that Belize is built on mud, and that this gravestone had been there for one hundred and twenty-nine years, it had not sink or listed one inch, or so it seemed. It was quite level. I wondered what kind of foundation it must have had so as to cause it not to sink after all of these years.
According to the Memorial Inscriptions of Epitaphs of British Honduras produced in 1907 by John Purcell Usher, he located ten gravestones in the Contagious Disease Cemetery. We found four of them on October 2nd. The rest may be behind those high fences that lined the alleyway we walked through. I was thinking that the residents that live on top of the Contagious Disease Cemetery should come together and see how they could turn this area into a tourist attraction. I am sure this area has good potential from a historic point of view and could be turned into a revenue stream for the residents.
My recommendation is that the proper organization should located and relocate all ten graves to the Yarborough Cemetery before those properties are sold and the graves desecrated.
I would like to thank Ms. Rema Matura for assisting with the tour.