LIVING WITH THE DEAD
Main entrance to Lapeyrouse Cemetery, Phillip Street
“Stop Traveller Stop
Just as you are so once was I
Just as I am so you will be
Prepare yourself to follow me”
~ R. Daniel’s Tombstone (Lapeyrouse Cemetery)
My husband and I visited Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port-of-Spain, together for the first time in September. Aaron used to tell me about his experiences with tourists who expressed unique interest in the Lapeyrouse Cemetery, while he worked as a tour guide in our nation’s capital, Port-of-Spain. He described Lapeyrouse Cemetery as a place filled with beautiful mausoleums and graves. He said that you can tell a lot about a country’s historical experiences, the wealth they possessed during times of economic boom or recession, and the way people showed respect for the dearly departed in a cemetery. If you wanted to see snapshots of our people through various stages in history, then the cemetery was the place to be. So with that in mind, I wanted to see for myself what stories of the past laid awaiting.
It started off as a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning. When we arrived, we drove up the main street right up to the recently painted free mason column that divided the cemetery almost halfway. I started walking from the last street, reading all the headstones and admiring the architecture along the way. Strangely, it was a peaceful place but on my initial walk, I felt the pangs of sadness clutch at my heart. I saw many nameless, what seemed to be forgotten graves sorrowfully existing among some elegant graves. The thought:
“Think of all the tears that were shed in this place.” looped through my mind.
I later learnt that these mass graves were the unnamed victims of The Cholera Epidemic of 1854.
This walk had me pondering on my own existence: “What is the legacy you want to leave behind?”
My mother always says, “Life is for the Living. So live it to the very fullest!”
What a place to bring some perspective on life, as well as inspiration. Yes, that’s right, inspiration! Seeing those graves made me realize that if you’re gonna end up like this, then why not do all the things that bring you joy. No matter how impossible or far-off it seems, make your one life count for something!
Anyway, the walk got better when I neutralized the circulating thoughts in my head to focus on the task at hand—to observe and appreciate the architecture of the graves.
Oddly enough, I did not fear such a vast place, even though we were alone. I enjoyed looking at the intricate marble sculptures that decorated some graves. There were graves that looked like mini mansions, advertising the wealth of families, while the simple, poorer graves provided contrast. Lapeyrouse Cemetery was like an open-air museum, with each grave beckoning to share its own unique story. To bring to life what laid resting peacefully here.
What struck me the most was that closer to the Eastern entrance of the cemetery, the Catholic graves that housed the nuns and priests gave a bit of an eerie vibe. Maybe because the footpath was no longer a road but instead a track of overgrown bush. But we both naively trekked through it to the other side. This is where things actually got a bit scary…
I honestly cannot remember what street it was, but there was a mausoleum that seemed a bit more interesting than the others. On the wrought iron fence next to it, there were clothes drying in the sun—jeans, t-shirts etc. There were two big yellow kegs, possibly holding water. The front door of the mausoleum was chained locked.
We diverted our walk to the opposite end of the long street. That’s when Aaron asked me to go ahead of him so that he could capture a moment of me walking with our ancestors. So once more I ended up next to this same mausoleum, situated at the corner of the street. As I passed the front, noticing there were chicken bones strewn upon the road, I heard a deep growl from the corner. Out of sight was a dog attached to a very long chain lease. Luckily, I had my umbrella with me, so I was prepared to use it as a shield in case the dog decided to chase after me. But it didn’t. Another smaller dog, this one loose, barked at me then ran off timidly behind the mausoleum.
I kept walking, then turned right next to the mausoleum when suddenly, Aaron began signalling something to me. I did not understand what he was saying because of the far distance between us. I shouted telling him I didn’t understand. When he did reach next to me, he said he was trying to get me to be quiet. That’s when I heard what sounded like a padlock and chains being opened, from the inside of the mausoleum! Clearly, someone was resurrecting here, but unfortunately, I made the mistake and assumed the dead was asleep that Sunday morning! Aaron and I started walking quickly away from the mausoleum, partially due to fright, not knowing who or what was about to exit the front door. I turned around, half expecting some M. Night Shamalan plot twist, and instead saw a bare-backed-man retreating the interior of the mausoleum, voicing his slow, ominous greeting:
“This is not a safe place inno!
This is a sccaaaarrryyyyyy place.”
Aaron did not look back and continued walking briskly to gain distance away from what he thought was the voice of the undead.
Then, with a half-wicked smile on his lips, the bare-backed man said,
“Have a niiicccee day!”
Aaron stopped, upon realising it was a destitute person living in the mausoleum and I turned and responded with a cheery voice, “Thank you!” in the hope that he would not be agitated and try to chase us. I walked a lot slower to meet up with Aaron. I wanted to give the impression that I was not scared. That I refused to be intimidated by anyone. We did not know the mental state of the vagrant; nor did we want to find out!
It’s not the Dead you need to fear. It’s the living!
It was a good thing I wore my running sneakers that day, just in case we had to sprint from the vagrant man and his dog. Only in retrospect, it was funny.
We felt a bit unsettled after that. We disappeared down another street to get out of the vagrant man’s line of sight. As we continued, Aaron, who was in front of me turned around to face me with his finger pressed against his lips, signalling to walk very quickly in the opposite direction. Without hesitation, I followed and did an about-turn. Apparently he spotted another homeless man sleeping in one of the other graves. We were not willing to find out anymore. One vagrant man was scary enough. Two was pushing it. The sunniness of the day was broken by overcast clouds looming over the cemetery. The rains were coming soon. We spent the rest of our visit in silence, tip-toeing around the cemetery, keeping a vigilant eye out for any more “interesting characters.” Thankfully, we got out safely. As we drove the car out of the cemetery, the rain started drizzling. I guess getting scared was a plus, because we got out before the rains came. I know now after that experience, watching The Nun will no longer be terrifying for me.
Both Aaron and I are quite interested in learning more about the history of Lapeyrouse Cemetery. So we shall embark on a small quest to find out more, and share with you our discoveries in our future posts.
Wish us luck ‘cause we’re going back!
*Special thanks to the Port-of-Spain Corporation, City Hall for permission to take photos in Lapeyrouse Cemetery