Key West Cemetery: Where Last Words Are Sometimes One-Liners

Dec 30, 2016

This story originally aired July 19, 2016. 

When Patty Tiffany leads tours of the Key West Cemetery for the Historic Florida Keys Foundation, there's one gravestone that gets a lot more attention than the elaborate grave sites and mausoleums at the cemetery, which dates back to the middle of the 19th century.

That would be the grave of B.P. "Pearl" Roberts. It's a simple stone with a famous inscription: "I Told You I Was Sick."

"I think the idea of combining humor with tragedy is what makes it so appealing," Tiffany said.

Patty Tiffany says when she leads cemetery tours, B.P. Roberts' headstone is the most popular stop.
Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN

Cemetery sexton Russell Brittain gets a lot of inquiries about that grave.

"If I had a dollar for every person who's asked me where that monument is," he said, "I'd be a multi-millionaire."

Roberts died in 1979. Over the decades her marker has become the best-known in the cemetery. 

The Key West Cemetery was established in 1846 and is still active. Brittain says there are an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 gravesites, even though the cemetery was initially designed for 15,000. Graves reflect the long history and diversity of Key West and range from simple markers to elaborate mausoleums.

In recent years, on one of the newer mausoleums in the cemetery, a collection of newer epitaphs has quietly gone up, many of them  offering their own wry commentary.

There's one that says, "If You're Reading This, You Desperately Need A Hobby."

Another says, "I Always Dreamed Of Owning A Small Place In Key West."

A couple of them are literary references. Like "So Long And Thanks For All The Fish," which is from "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" series by Douglas Adams. Another says "GROK — Look It Up." That's from "Stranger In A Strange Land" by Robert Heinlein.

All of these epitaphs are on one wall. Brittain said there was no intentional effort to group them together. But he has noticed that they're all on the end of the mausoleum, which is reserved for cremation burials.

"I'm not sure why" the new, unusual epitaphs started appearing, Brittain said, "but maybe it's because they've been cremated and they thought they want to leave their mark on history."

Brittain said he hasn't received any complaints about the epitaphs — although he did get a question about one of them.

"When I submitted the order to the bronze foundry," Brittain said, "they called me back and they said, 'Are you sure this is what you want on this headstone?'"

Amy Culver-Aversa says she chose an unusual epitaph for her late husband, Giorgi, because when she visited his grave, she wanted to laugh.
Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN

That was the marker for Giorgio Aversa, who died eight years ago.

This is the epitaph: "Jesus Christ, These People Are Horrible."

His wife Amy Culver-Aversa chose those words.

"The reason why the epitaph reads like this is because we would go out socially sometimes or we would meet people and he'd go, 'Jesus Christ, these people are horrible!'" Culver-Aversa said. She said Giorgio would say that "20 times a day."

And there was another reason she chose such an unusual epitaph for her husband, who died by suicide.

"Because of the tragedy of his death, I didn't want that to be the last marker," she said. "So to go and visit him, I wanted to laugh."

Brittain said his concerns about the epitaph were alleviated when he realized where it would be in the mausoleum.

"It just happens that it's on the very top. It's about 10 feet in the air," he said. "And if you don't know it's there, you won't see it."

Culver-Aversa said a couple of people questioned her about the headstone. But when she explained it, they understood.

"I think it has more of a tether to the heart than some one-liner that, you know, you picked out of a cemetery book," she said.

And, Culver-Aversa said, it has the intended effect. When she visits Giorgio's grave, she laughs. And that makes her want to visit more often.