Once upon a time, the historic Palm Grove Cemetery, which is the final resting place of late great Liberian statesmen such as Martin Henry Freeman, the first Black president of an American college, and Henry Highland Garnet, who became the “the first person of color to address the U.S. House of Representatives,” was normal — we dare say prestigious — graveyard.
It used to be a neat place, where many of Liberia’s national heroes are buried.
But nearly two decades since the end of the country’s fourteen-year brutal civil war, the cemetery is now a place of ill-repute. For some, it is a toilet; for others a dwelling. For a troubled segment of our society, commonly known as ‘zogoes’, the place is a place where drugs and human bones are consumed together.
But for the larger segment of society, it is a dumpsite that everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to clean up.
A glaring eye-sore it is, to say the least. But more so, the fetid odor of a mixture of human excreta and larger-than-life heaps of garbage pervades the air, greeting motorists and pedestrians. The cemetery’s fractured graves rise and fall like a low-rise town. Plants blooming in Liberia's wet season practically cover the concrete forms, making navigating the uneven ground dangerous, while headstones are too dull to read with open graves awaiting its residents.
If you had a loved one buried there many years ago, you could only be lucky to find their grave. Because of the overcrowdedness of the cemetery, some graves are now repurposed by one family after another, unbeknown to each other, to take turns burying their dead. Others have built graves on top of other graves, due to lack of ground space.
Disrespecting the dead
As a result, Monrovians look upon the cemetery and its apparent dwellers with disgust and fear — viewing them as criminals and drug addicts who disrespect the dead, throughout the year, even on Decoration Day, the second Wednesday in March every year, when families come to paint, refurbish and adorn tombs.
One of those Monrovians is Sam Davies, 55, whose parents are buried at the cemetery. Davies says for the last eight years, he has not been to his people's grave to give it a facelift and it hurts.
His reason was that his parents’ tombs had been burst open and, the last time he renovated it, the tomb-dwelling zogoes did not take too long to remove and sell the steel rods — bursting open the grave again. That was about eight years ago after the last renovation.
“Even to carry on that renovation, I had to pay them — almost like seeking permission before doing the work. And after a week, I returned to see if the graves were intact but, to my surprise, they opened it once more,” he says. “It hurts that I have not been at my parents’ grave for the last five years, but there is nothing I can do. The place is unsafe and hazardous to health.”
Davies’ experiences are shared by many who have had family buried at the Palm Grove Cemetery as past Decoration days would erupt in conflicts between the tomb dwellers and the families of the tombs’ rightful owners. In the end, many, like Sam, stopped going to the Palm Grove Cemetery due to the tombs dwellers' habits of stealing materials used to renovate burst tombs among other things.
Much like Sam, Rufus Berry too has one of his parents buried at the Palm Grove Cemetery. But Berry, an eternal optimist, has for years argued that, with a little vision, it need not cost too much to honor the memories of the dead and address the troubled lives of those who dwell among the graves at the country’s only national cemetery.
Additionally, Berry believes that the cemetery has high potential value to attract African American visitors to Liberia, especially during the nation’s ongoing bicentennial celebration.
“Generals, Supreme Court Justices, and Ministers are buried there. How can you celebrate the 200th anniversary and not maintain the final resting place of our forefathers? It makes no sense at all. It costs so little to maintain the graveyard. I refused to remove my dad from there because we have a duty to protect the Palm Grove cemetery,” he said.
“We have to. In the late 70s and 80s, Palm Grove was well maintained,” Rufus added. “We can create a database of folks who are buried there. Every nation has a national cemetery, where their heroes are buried. For Liberia, Palm Grove Cemetery is that place.”
Before the war, the Palm Grove Cemetery looked like other Liberian graveyards. Tombs were decorated in vibrant colors and provided a final resting place for prominent Liberians, including Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the country’s first president, Hilary Teage, and many other prominent sons of the soil. Even former president William R Tolbert who was killed in a coup d'etat in 1980, is buried there, in a mass grave, along with his officials who were killed just days after his assassination.
But when peace returned, families visiting the graves found them smashed open and stripped of their valuable steel rods. Bodies had disappeared, along with treasures buried with them.
And while Berry and most Monrovians feel it is time that the cemetery got restored to some semblance of sanity — the idea is not entirely new. Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, throughout her two terms of office, tried to fence the entire cemetery. But, according to Berry, that would have given the zogoes more privacy to further decorate the graves.
The four-meter walls were guarded by strong security measures — coiled barbed wire, punctuated with watchtowers and tall metal gates. But over time, the walls came down and the zogoes continued to have their way.
“You hardly find fresh bodies here,” said Jimmy Chie, a veteran tomb dweller, who has lost count of his years living among the dead. He then glances into his second-hand bedroom from the weathered edge of an open tomb, which is the bedroom.
Today, a staggering majority of the graves that once hosted the loved ones of residents of Monrovia and its environs are completely empty.
Jammie, who goes by the name ‘jungle justice, admitted that “Sometimes they smoke the dead bodies’ bones. We can burn the bones and mix the ashes with our drugs and that can make us very bad. It can make us too brave to do anything. Although I have my room [tomb] to myself, many here share theirs with two or three buddies.”
Like several of his buddies, Jimmy earns money by washing cars throughout the day. Others sought employment as commercial vehicle loaders, informal porters, or pickpockets. Yet, others, who stay behind work by getting high on drugs after turning some of the cemetery tombs into a crack den — skillfully cooking and smoking drugs on tin foil. At night, female cemetery dwellers go out to work as sex workers — interacting with male customers who are in search of easy virtues at Center Street, which bisects the cemetery. Now, prostitution has also become commonplace within and among the tombs.
Meanwhile, not everyone who lives in the cemetery is an old dweller; others are newcomers who have arrived as orphans, as a result of poverty, or as a result of having absconded from home due to drug addiction. Most of the older grave dwellers explain that they are victims of the country’s civil war, which left thousands of young men and women who were captured and conscripted as child soldiers, emboldened with drugs. Now, forced to live on the street, they end up at Palm Grove Cemetery. Some say they arrived when they were just children after their parents were killed.
According to them, Palm Grove cemetery dwellers are increasing as many of them are luring friends from the street, using the relative peace and security of the cemetery to indulge in the consumption of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. And the availability of it as a supplement to lure new addicts to become dwellers.
And despite the untidy or stench of human excrement permeating the cemetery, Palm Grove dwellers are not afraid to get pregnant while living in the tombs and giving birth.
The Palm Grove Cemetery, which was enacted by the Legislature on January 29, 1870, on two acres of land, was threatened with relocation, according to a June 1982 complaint filed by Monrovia municipal authorities.
In the complaint to the People’s Redemption Council, the city noted that the cemetery was being used as a waste dump and was so full of graves, making it unsafe to conduct new burials. They even requested permission to close the cemetery and have it relocated to a new burial ground, away from its original Center Street site.
But that did not happen.
During the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, another plan to relocate the Palm Grove Cemetery was halted, this time by the Senate. According to records, the Senate halted the process on grounds that the cemetery was established by law for the permanent hosting and the final resting place for people described as “distinguished citizens, respected patriots, and ordinary citizens.”
The cemetery was enacted under the name “The Palm Grove Cemetery Company of Monrovia” with functions including the right, from time to time, to purchase, receive and hold any real estate, not exceeding ten acres of land, that may be contiguous to the said cemetery, for the purpose of enlarging the said cemetery, as considered desirable by them and may sue and be sued in any of the courts of this Republic having requisite jurisdiction.”
The law establishing the cemetery continues: “All persons purchasing burial lots in the said Cemetery shall become members of said corporation, and shall hold said lots for fee simple: nor shall said lots be seized, attached or sold in law or equity, either for the debts of the company or of the individual owners, but the owners may at any time dispose of their rights in said lots provided that at the time of such disposal they shall have settled all claims due by them to the said company.”
Its earlier board managers were C. B. Dunbar, H. W. Dennis, and W. M. Davis. It is unclear what has become of the Cemetery company.
Back to the cemetery’s untidiness, garbage lines the street not less than three feet high. The large garbage bins placed outside tenant buildings for waste collection overflow spread disease and filth, leaking with fetid water. The garbage encroaches on the right of way for motorists and is now a scavenging ground for an absurd assortment of discarded items.
“Sometimes the dirt can fill this place and we can be so embarrassed, but we have nowhere else to go. This place can be very stinky and life can be miserable,” said Mamie Kamara, who sells cold water and fried plantain chips on Center Street, near Palm Grove.
With the stench oozing from burst septic tanks from upper Center Street, the Police, too, are not exempted from the daily health hazard posed to them and the many other residents who live or do business along the street.