One is not sure how many countries have a cemetery that holds the level of notoriety as the May Pen Cemetery in Jamaica. Yes, the United States has Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, just outside Washington, DC; France has Père-Lachaise in Paris; there is Highgate Cemetery in London, England; and the cemetery at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Some cemeteries resonate with deep meaning, including those mentioned above as the burial ground of the famous and the brave, as well as those associated with particularly tragic events such as the Jewish Holocaust. But the May Pen Cemetery in Jamaica is an enigma.
Back in the day, May Pen Cemetery was the main burial ground for citizens of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and a number of well-known and even famous Jamaicans are buried there. A source described it as “one of the oldest public cemeteries in the English speaking Caribbean in which persons of all nationality are interred.”
Notable personalities buried there include pioneering Jamaican musician and trombonist, Don Drummond. But as a Jamaican newspaper story stated a few years ago, “May Pen Cemetery, one of Jamaica’s largest and oldest, has fallen upon hard times.” The parlous state of the cemetery is demonstrated by reports that Drummond’s “exact grave site cannot be located.” Imagine, the grave of one of Jamaica’s most important musicians in its most famous cemetery is lost!
What is now May Pen Cemetery, in an area once known as Littleworth, was used, among other things, for horse racing. In about 1804, horse racing was taken to Knutsford Park, which was in turn replaced by Caymanas Park in the middle of the 20th century. Knutsford Park has since been transformed into Jamaica’s main business district, New Kingston.
According to the Jamaica History Weebly website, “horse racing was among a variety of sports authorised by Governor’s patent to be held every year at Littleworth as far back as 1718.” Other activities held at the venue included “Cockfighting, Bullbaiting, Cudgelling, Playing for hats. Dancing for Knots, Wrestling for Belts, Troll-Madam, Coits, Leaping, Pitching the Bar, the Raffling Plate.”
Early editions of the Handbook of Jamaica, first published in the late 19th century, stated that the “property was purchased in 1851 with a sum of money voted by the Legislature for the purpose of providing a new burial ground for the parish of Kingston.”
Law 21 of 1874 formalized the management of the cemetery and a board was created for that purpose, “subject to the power of the Governor to make regulations and special orders.” The Superintendent of Cemetery, who had operational responsibility for the burial ground, earned a handsome £120 per year.
The same 1874 law divided the cemetery among various Christian and other religious traditions, with the largest portion given to the Anglicans. “This law further provides for the assignment of portions of the burial ground to the several religious denominations,” the Handbook of Jamaica recorded.
Among the church groups were the Roman Catholics, Wesley, United Methodists, Congregationalists, United Presbyterians and the Salvation Army. Two Baptist congregations in the city, East Queen Street Baptist Church and the Native Baptists (Lyle’s Chapel) were accorded small portions.
There were the Burial Ground for the Parish (Anglican) Church, Gardner’s Ground for the London Missionary Society, Cow Pen Ground for the Wesleyan Methodist, Griffith’s Ground for the United Methodist Free Church, Pinnock’s Ground for the Wesleyan Society, Roach’s Ground for Baptists and the Native Baptist Chapel Ground.
The Spanish and Portuguese Jews Ground and the German Jews Ground were also designated.
Importantly, a section was 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, the largest outbreak occurring in the early 1850s.
By March 1905, figures show that 1,369 persons were buried at the May Pen Cemetery. The overwhelming majority, some 844, were paupers. The Church of England (Anglicans) had 422, Roman Catholics were next with 20, Baptists having 18, and the Presbyterian Church of Jamaica with 10. All the others had single digits. According to the records, there was one “Mahomedan.”
Apparently, your religion, your status and your class follow you in death!
Nowadays, May Pen Cemetery is a shadow of its former glorious self and not even paupers wish to be buried there. How and why this has come to pass is not much of a mystery. The rich, the elites, the well to do and most of the middleclass have long left Kingston for the higher climes of St. Andrew. Their departure left the parish of Kingston, the heart of the city, largely as the abode of the poor and the struggling. Once sought-after neighborhoods have since become synonymous with decay and crime. New residential areas arose as a result of land capture and squatting and the attendant social ills that often result.
All this had its own impact on important landmarks of Kingston such as May Pen Cemetery. Maintenance and upkeep ended. Churches and the city’s government reneged on their responsibilities. Couples often do unmentionable things on its tombs. It is the home of the homeless, where it is a convenient if haunting refuge. Thieves smash tombs and steal their contents; apparently, major targets for these thieves being gold and items for the illegal scrap metal trade.
In March 2016, the Jamaican government announced plans to renovate the old burial ground “to encourage and facilitate increased use of the more than 200-acre property, of which 130 acres have been utilised for burials.” There is hope for the “restoration of graves which have been vandalized.” A special committee “has been established to spearhead development of the plans.”
More persons, in different parts of the world, are expressing greater interest in their ancestry. Burial grounds are an important source of information and are being embraced as sacred elements of that legacy. May Pen Cemetery is among the most significant artifacts of Kingston and the nation’s history. It is a massive shame it has become what it has.