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There's Room for One More in the Boneyard

Culture: In Key West, relatives make more space in family plots by digging up, boxing and reburying bones of ancestors. Officials consider banning the practice.


KEY WEST, Fla. — In the buttery light of late afternoon, the Key West Cemetery is a pleasant or spooky place, depending on how you feel about cemeteries.

There are the brilliant orange flowers of the poinciana trees, the sweet-smelling white flowers of frangipani trees and the green of tall, stately Washingtonia palms.

But all is not well here.

There is the story of a crazy old German who fancied himself a count and who dug up the body of the young woman he loved and kept it in his bed for seven years. More about that later.

In a recent report to the City Council by its cemetery advisory committee, there was a reference to a local practice of burying people that is unusual, some would say creepy. "Abhorrent," according to others, the report said.

Families here have handed down their plots through generations. When the space for, say, six caskets is filled, the next generation, loathing the thought of being buried among rootless beings in Miami, sometimes resorts to a longtime custom.

The bones of a predecessor are dug up and placed in a wooden box 2 feet by 14 inches, the size used by all four of the town's funeral homes. The box is put inside the casket of the grave's new resident, or is buried in a little hole at the bottom of the grave.

Now, elected officials have to tread carefully in Key West when dealing with customs.

"People like to stick their noses in other people's affairs," fumed Jack Carbonell, 79, growing red in the face. He said his family plot has 15 bodies and fewer graves.

After a hurricane in 1846, officials decided to build the cemetery on higher ground in, yes, the dead center of town. The storm had unearthed caskets at a graveyard near the beach. Most bodies were washed out to sea. A few ended up in trees.

Today the cemetery has a chaotic layout, with graves pointing this way and that. No more than a few could be said to be in rows.

Many of the tombstones are made from cement that is gray and black from weathering. There are big ones and little ones, some of them askew from the earth having settled. Some stones are broken, others missing. Stone crosses and statues of angels tilt crazily.

Gravedigging is supervised by a cheerful, rotund little man, Billy Gates, who looks like a basketball with legs and who wears a baseball cap proclaiming, "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

He knows a lot about the 70,000 people buried here. He can tell you about B.P. "Pearl" Roberts, 1929-1979, a local hypochondriac, who had the last word with her tombstone's epitaph: "I told you I was sick."

And he can lead you to the grave of Edwina Lariz, 1923-1986, whose stone declares: "Devoted Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias."

When gravediggers find bones, Gates stops the work immediately. The funeral home contacts the family. If recycling is chosen for the family plot, the gravediggers take out the skull and other large bones and then sift through the soil for the little ones.

"We have to go through the dirt carefully and get every last bone," Gates says.

One family plot with room for seven graves has 28 people buried there.

There are still about 115 burials a year, about half a dozen of them in graves that are shared, according to the sexton, David Gray. The time-sharing began to drop off when the city started constructing crypts four high in a corner of the cemetery, he said.

The harbinger of stranger things yet in the cemetery, at the corner of Graveyard Alley and Passover Lane, is a "sausage tree," named for its large, sausage-shape fruit. The purple flowers, which bloom only at night, have an unpleasant odor, like something moldy.

It was near there where Count Carl Von Cosel stole a body one night in 1933.

Von Cosel, who was a tinkerer and an inventor, became a radiologist at a now defunct Key West hospital. In 1931 he did chest X-rays of a beautiful young woman, Elena Milagro Hoyos, who had tuberculosis and an unhappy life. She had married at 18 and her husband left her soon thereafter for another woman.

Von Cosel fell in love with her, but she died two years later at the age of 22. He was 56 then.

For two years he visited her grave daily and could be seen talking as if she were alive, waiting patiently as if he were listening and then talking, gesturing as he tilted his head this way and that.

Then the pain of the separation became more than he could bear. One night he stole her body and took it home, where he tried to restore her beauty with a concoction of beeswax and silk with some makeup on top.

He dressed her in a wedding dress and placed her in a bed he had bought in hopes that she would someday marry him. He played music on a small church organ alongside her bed.

The scheme was discovered seven years later.

City officials put the body on public display. Books at the Key West library describe the bizarre affair and include photos of throngs of people smiling and leering as they shove each other to get a glimpse of the body.

The woman's family had her reburied secretly in the cemetery, under one of its paths, it is rumored, so Von Cosel could not find her again.

Von Cosel was never prosecuted. He died a few years later in Zephyrhills, Fla., writing his memoirs while seated in the cabin of a wingless plane he bought before Elena died to take her to a South Sea island.

There are various monuments and historical headstones in the cemetery, but none to remind people of the Von Cosel story.

As far as the present-day practice of digging up bones and placing them in caskets with newer residents, the cemetery advisory committee has not decided what to do. Some longtime residents say the city should leave well enough alone.

"My mother and father are buried on top of my mother's mother," says Carbonell, the cemetery's sexton from 1962 to 1980. "If we see fit to put one on top of the other, that's family business."

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