The South Park Street Christian cemetery is an oasis of calm amidst the infernal cacophony of modern Kolkata. But it’s a spooky place, even in the middle of the day. Only a gaggle of argumentative crows to break the silence and … was that a squirrel that just darted behind a gravestone?
It opened in 1757 on what was once a patch of marshland. Park Street, the road leading to it, was originally called Burial Ground Road. It was one of the largest cemeteries in the world that didn’t occupy the grounds of a church. It was also the largest Christian cemetery outside of the US and Europe. A plaque says it closed in 1790 although its last resident arrived sometime in the the mid-nineteenth century. It is now a heritage site protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Many of the tombs are architecturally impressive with a mix of Gothic and Indo-Saracenic styles. They serve as memorials to a wide cross section of the expatriate society of the time. Amongst the professions given in the epitaphs are; breeder of cattle, postmaster, surgeon, jail-keeper, silversmith, translator, schoolteacher, cooper and architect to name a few.
But whilst a posting abroad might have seemed romantic and exotic at the time the tender ages at which many passed through the gates tell a different story.
Captain John Grant was 32 when he arrived in April 1782. Elizabeth Jane Barwell passed away in 1778 at the age of 23 after just two years of marriage. Lieutenant Robin Shepherd and John Savage were also 23 in 1800 and 1808 respectively, the latter struck down by a “malignant disorder.” And little William McRitchie was just 3 years old when he died in 1864.
Indeed well over half the memorials I read were for people who died before their 35th birthday. Lives cut short, dreams unfulfilled. Victims of disease brought about by climate, a lack of understanding of tropical diseases and poor sanitation of the time.
But the tombstones and their epitaphs live on. A little mossy in places but otherwise immune to the ravages of disease. They serve to remind us just how fragile life is and that we should cherish each minute.