San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Behind the Green Door: The Foreigners’ Cemetery

The fading brick wall and ornate iron gate at San José’s Avenida 10, Calle 20, give no indication of what lies hidden behind. No sign or plaque gives away its secret, as if this were a place of shame.

This is the Foreigners’ Cemetery, and at one time, about 160 years ago, it was a place for those “unfit” for burial in the General Cemetery across the street and up the block, consecrated by the Catholic Church for the faithful. All others were kept out. And that meant foreigners.

The coffee culture that began in earnest in the 1840s brought wealth to this tiny republic and attracted foreigners eager to get in on the boom. Many came to farm. Some came as merchants. Others came to work. They came from Germany, Scotland, England, the United States, Lebanon and the West Indies.

There were also Masons among the Tico population who were excluded from the GeneralCemetery, as well as Costa Rican Sephardic Jews whose ancestors fled to the New World during the Spanish Inquisition.

According to a history of San José, the earliest burials were near or around churches; but around 1814, with the growth of the city, the cabildo, or town government, decided to move the burial grounds “outside of the city for sanitary reasons.” This later became the GeneralCemetery at Avenida 10, Calle 22, conveniently close to San Juan de Dios Hospital. In that remote time, folks went to hospitals as their last hope.

On June 21, 1839, a North American named David Cotheal died in Cartago, east of the capital, but because he was not Catholic the priest would not allow him to be buried in the cemetery. Ricardo Brealey, an English doctor who had cared for Cotheal, appealed to President Braulio Carrillo, who ordered that Cotheal be buried. But the priest garnered his loyal faithful and religious statues and symbols and staged such a protest that President Carrillo had to send soldiers to take the body to the cemetery.

The case demonstrated a need for a burial place for non-Catholics, and in 1850 Queen Victoria’s consul in Costa Rica, Fredrick Chatfield, appealed to President Juan Rafael Mora for land to bury British subjects. The government donated a lot across the street from the present cemetery, which became known as the ProtestantCemetery.

In 1877 the government provided the land for the present cemetery and it was open to all non-Catholics. Despite Costa Rica’s signing a treaty of religious freedom in 1849, cemeteries were still sacred and segregated.

The earliest graves in the Foreigners’ Cemetery display a mixture of nationalities and languages. Later burials are grouped by families. There are sections of Jewish and Lebanese burials, and the Assman family lies alongside the Neverman clan. Inscriptions on vaults are in English, Hebrew, German, Spanish and Russian, and include Stars of David and Masonic symbols. One wall is covered with plaques brought over from the old ProtestantCemetery, but no remains remain.

“At that time they were buried without caskets so they disintegrated rapidly,” said Manuel Coto, son of the administrator and a stonemason who has a workshop on the grounds.

The sarcophagi here are simpler than those in the GeneralCemetery – no lofty angels or chapels, and, in places, bricks from underground vaults peek through the grass. A gazebo in the center aisle contains an elongated table for the casket during funeral services.

The cemetery is still used; there may be a funeral every two months, according to Coto. Though some well-known names such as Sasso and Rohrmoser are seen on tombstones, the cemetery is more the last residence of the humble who came here to find a livelihood.

Here lies Hector B. Chase from New York who died Feb. 26, 1875, from injuries received on the railroad. “Although he sleeps his memory doth live. And cheering comfort to his mourners give.”

F.H. Richards from Charleston, North Carolina, was killed on the railroad a month later. “Still live the memory of departed worth, The [illegible word] is holy that bedecks the sod, Although the folded form be hid in earth, the kindred mind ascended to its God.”

Samuel Maduro, born in St. Thomas, in the West Indies, died in Costa Rica in 1926.

“To praise him here time idly spent. He did his duty. The best comment.”

Leah Leita, wife of Samuel Sasso, died in 1907. At 33 years old, she was the mother of six children. “The light has from our household gone. The voice we loved is stilled. A place is vacant within our home, which never can be filled.”

The front gate is open Sunday mornings. During the week the green metal door on Calle 20 is open to visitors.

Historic information provided by Daniel Madrigal of the cemetery’s Board of Directors, a Tico of Swedish descent.


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