Mention a name in Bodden Town Cemetery and Alfred Watler can tell you where to look.
A historic name like “Aunt” Nettie Levy, who lived to 105; real estate magnate Selkirk Watler; former Cabinet Minister Haig Bodden; historian Harry McCoy; or even Evelyn Wood, the first woman elected to the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly.
Without missing a beat, Mr. Watler can tell you where he thinks they’re spending eternity.
Affectionately know by many residents as “The Undertaker”, Mr. Watler’s career path was visioned by an old lady in the community when she told him as a little boy that he came into the world to look after the dead.
“Nettie Levy told me from the time I was a little boy not to worry for I was sent in this world to take care of the dead and it ended up that way too,” he said. “She said I was a good man in Bodden Town and I would be rewarded before I died for my good deeds.”
But Mr. Watler’s calling would not take root until he met Ms Vienna on the dance floor.
“I can still recall that day at Pedro Castle when she asked me for a dance,” he said. “Dance with me a bit longer she said, even after I told her I was tired. Then she said, I want you to take care of my grave when I die. She took sick and died later that night in 1979. She would be the first person I sealed and have been sealing graves every since.”
Mr. Watler’s desire to assist the elderly with burial needs grew stronger when no one wanted the job. He took money from his own pocket to do the job, not just in Bodden Town but across Grand Cayman, including private cemeteries.
He said people offered money for his services but he refused.
“I had a black book with all the people I sealed, but I think it was lost during Hurricane Ivan,” Mr. Watler said. “If someone died, the person was simply buried and perhaps it would be months before a registration was made, assuming someone remembered to do so. Many of the early burials were never recorded. However, some church records may list some burials.”
For three decades, the former seaman would spend most of his life sealing and looking after funeral vaults all over the Cayman Islands, a job that began before he was hired by government to be caretaker. Mr. Watler was recently awarded a Certificate and Medal of Merit on National Heroes Day.
Full of joy and laughter, he gets a kick out of explaining government’s dilemma to find spots in the already packed cemetery; no reason to fear the dead; why the wife is buried on the left hand side of her husband, just like in marriage; a person must always be buried facing the rising sun, to see the sunlight streaming through. Christians believe in viewing the coming of Jesus Christ.
When it comes to spending time in the cemetery, Mr. Watler has no fear - he actually finds it comforting living among the dead. On any given time of the day, he can be seen patrolling the cemetery removing dead flowers, pulling weeds, raking and lovingly talking to friends and strangers that he has sealed for the long sleep.
After a night of partying. Mr. Watler sometimes found himself calling in at the cemetery. While there, he sometimes falls asleep. Even a policeman found his obsession to sleep with the dead strange and ventured over one night to ask how he had the nerve to do it.
“There is no reason to fear the dead, only the living,” he told the officer. “The dead cannot come back. If so, this island would be a whole lot different.”
Mr. Watler is a colourful character indeed and after 30 years of taking care of loving memories, he has had a lot of time to take in the resting places of hundreds of perpetual residents who have filled up the cemetery’s acres since the first burial.
One thing he knows is that the dead cannot speak.
“In all my years working in the cemetery, I have never heard or seen one thing,” he said. “Plenty times I visited the grave of my friend Selkirk Watler to have a chat. I ask how he doing over there but gets no answer.”
One thing Mr. Watler does remember, and that is the awful ringing of the church bell late at night when someone in the community died.
“It made my head swell,” he said. “Someone would ring that bell for a very long time no matter what hour of the night or day, which could be heard as far as Savannah. Even big people would hide under the bed in fear of the dead person visiting.”
An active member of the Bodden Town Heritage Committee, Mr. Watler’s love for the elderly earned him blessings and good wishes.
Growing up in Gun Square in Bodden Town, folks would call him Isilma cowboy. This was because he often went above and beyond the call to assist the older folks in the community.
He recalls the hardship residents endured in those times.
“Hard days, Oh my God,” he said. “And the mosquitoes, fishermen coming in from sea had to light gulf weed to keep them at bay so they could clean the fish. And mind you, this was during day light. The cows did not fare too well during these times either. I recall going with Selkirk Watler to bring cows closer to home just so they would survive the night of mosquitos. Left out in the pasture the mosquitoes would smother them overnight.”
Mr. Watler said cow’s milk and meat were rare commodities in those days. He recalls getting up early to milk cows and walk into Bodden Town from Savannah to sell the milk for tuppence and sixpence a bottle.
“There was very little in Bodden Town those days; just Miss Lorna, Mr. Billy and Mr. Logan shops, a few homes and most of the men would gather at the on the seaside across from the Bodden Town post office,” he said. “I love the older folks and it makes me feel special and good to be able to lend a helping hand. If a senior had a piece of cane those day, I was the one they called. This was because the other boys would interfere, I only wanted to help.”
In earlier years, people came together to bury the dead, he said. There were just placed in the earth without a coffin. Some coffins, made from white pine were constructed in the community, but few people could afford them. If the family had something, they would give, but most of the time it was just food cooked and everyone ate as payment for work done.
What will happen when he has departed this world, Mr. Watler knows not. But for now, he assures the local community that there is someone who has an interest in caring for the vaults in the cemetery in Bodden Town and beyond.