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Commemorating Dia de los Muertos on the ‘island of bones’

A special program starting at the Key West Library informed more than 80 local residents this week about the history of burials and graveyards in the Keys, commemorations of Dia de Los Muertos around the world, and restoration work at the Key West Cemetery.

Dr. Corey Malcom, lead historian at the Florida Keys History Center, reviewed the history of Key West. The island, originally called Cayo Hueso or “island of bones,” has seen gravesites that include shorelines, backyards and church yards as well as the City Cemetery, established after a hurricane in 1846 washed away the primary burial ground on the southern shore.

A man stands in front of a crowded room in front of a screen that reads The Many cemeteries of Key West

Along with the private and church burials, he also reviewed lesser-known sites like the African Cemetery along Atlantic Boulevard in what is now county-owned Higgs Beach Park, and the military cemetery on White Street.

In the end, he showed a map with red dots marking where burials have taken place throughout the island, throughout its history. “Key West is, indeed, the island of bones,” he said.

A man stands before a screen with a map of an island and many red dots.

Archivist and senior librarian Breana Sowers gave an overview of Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday when people honor and celebrate those who have passed. And the Key West Library shared its ofrenda, honoring loved ones who have passed with photos and tokens.

A woman stands in front of a colorful screen that says Dia de Los Muertos and celebrations of life.

Afterwards, the group marched to the Key West Cemetery and received a tour featuring the graves of island pioneers Sandy Cornish and Ellen Mallory, and an update on restoration efforts.

A woman stands in a graveyard with several people behind her.

The program was a partnership among the Library’s Florida Keys History Center, Save-A-Grave Guardians and the Historic Florida Keys Foundation.

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AdultsArts & CultureFlorida HistoryKey West Library