‘Duppy afraid of me' - May Pen Cemetery provides shelter to the living as well as the dead
For most Jamaicans, it is a way of life that would be unthinkable, but, forced by circumstances, it is a life which Karen Thomas has lived for the past 14 years. She lives in a cemetery.
As she stirred a pot with leftover curried chicken back and rice, Thomas listened attentively to an old radio atop a nearby tomb which would serve as her dining table for a lunchtime meal in the May Pen Cemetery in west Kingston.
Her house is an old concrete frame, bereft of windows, doors, and even a sturdy roof; which in yesteryear served as one of the administrative quarters for cemetery staff.
Likes it there
The lack of infrastructure and amenities does not bother her. Nor is she worried about the large rats that run amok in the cemetery plagued by criminals from nearby parts.
"Me just like right here so. I don't have any problem here; only the gunman them me 'fraid of," Thomas laughed, as she spoke of a past life somewhere in Portmore, St Catherine, before taking up residence in the cemetery.
"I lived in Portmore but, trust me, me no like Portmore. Me just stay here and gwaan hustle me little money a' town," said the woman who operates a stall on nearby Orange Street.
"People in Portmore you can talk to but I am more comfortable here. I don't want to leave," said the woman, as she invited our news team into her 'home'.
Inside the dilapidated structure, there is no bed, and bags of cement, steel and other material used in the construction of graves were strewn about.
Thomas sleeps in one of the rooms she shares with at least four other men. Sometimes she sleeps on a chair or on the floor; and there are no toilets so she and her housemates relieve themselves in bushes. She is not intimate with any of the men who share the dilapidated building, she claimed, though Thomas indicated that her midday meal would be shared with the hungry men.
"I go on the road and sell my biscuits and popcorn and dem ting there in the day and come back here in the nights and sleep. That is how I make a little money a day time," she said, her attention shared with the radio as she spoke.
'Cash pot' draw
It is minutes before the midday 'Cash Pot' draw; and if 14 play it would mean that Thomas would be able to buy stock for her stall from the winnings. Unfortunately, it did not play, and Thomas laughed at her disappointment before moving to share her lunch.
Samuel Cunningham, one of Thomas' four male housemates, has been living at the May Pen Cemetery for so long he cannot recall.
"Long, long time me deh yah now, man. Whole heap a years. I don't even check pon it, me just a gwaan live," said Cunningham.
"Me no 'fraid a duppy; dem 'fraid a me. Me bury dead so how me fi 'fraid a dead. Is the living me 'fraid of," added Cunningham.
Asked whether he and the others who live in the cemetery guard it against grave robbers who recently broke into two graves at the cemetery, Cunningham declared: "We a nuh caretaker, and even if we a did caretaker dem woulda bruck it same way."
The problem of persons living in the cemeteries in the Corporate Area has long been a challenge for the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, but Town Clerk Robert Hill told The Sunday Gleaner that the issue is not as clear-cut as it seems.
"We don't know if they are homeless, number one," said Hill. "Because, whereas we need to improve the security and the boundaries of the May Pen Cemetery, a lot of persons go there to rest and relax. These persons may look to you as homeless but they actually reside around the area."
According to Hill, there are very few cases of homeless people living in the May Pen Cemetery, and it is the responsibility of the inspector of the cemeteries to report the matter to the relevant agencies in order to have such individuals removed, medically examined, fed and placed in a care facility.
"But as far as I am concerned, if a man a hold a sleep on somebody's grave, he is not homeless," said Hill.
"Admittedly, we can do more to secure the perimeter of the cemetery, which because of the environment is a bit difficult. But we are taking steps to do so early in the new financial year," said Hill.