Page 66

64

Markers XXVII

During the first two centuries of Dutch colonization, Curaçao’s cemeteries provided Spanish-Portuguese Jews with an important means of distinguishing themselves from their Catholic brethren. For the conversos and their descendents, the separate Jewish burial ground attested to their newly reclaimed faith, as did their distinctive burial practices. While they may have been forced to practice Catholicism on the Iberian Peninsula, in Curaçao they openly rejected this religious heritage. Starting in the later part of the nineteenth-century, Curaçao’s Jews began to use their cemeteries to clarify distinctions among Jews, and the newer cemetery highlighted ethnic, religious, and social differences within the Jewish community. The early Jewish cemetery near the Blenheim plantation (Fig. 4, No. 10) followed the Portuguese rite as established by the Jews of Amsterdam. The first two groups of Sephardic Jews to arrive from Amsterdam settled across Schottegat, the island’s large central bay, from Willemstad. Here they established their first cemetery, which they continued to use until the middle of the nineteenth century, even after their economic interests shifted from agriculture to maritime and mercantile endeavors and they became centered around Willemstad as well. Funeral cortèges heading across Schottegat to Beit Haim Blenheim were often composed of canoes and barges. The Sephardic parent community in Amsterdam had a similar mode of conveyance by means of which they would proceed up the Amstel to their comparably elaborate Ouderkerk aan de Amstel burial ground. Overall, the Beit Haim Blenheim cemetery emphasized the distinctiveness of the community: not only was it exclusively for Jews, it contained special buildings related to purity rites, and the gravestones reflected the community’s messianic fervor. The world of early Curaçaoan Jews was highly mystical, and at times messianic fervor gripped the island: the gravestones reflect this religious world.13 The early Jewish cemetery is famous not only for its elaborate stones, but also for images forbidden by Jewish law such as biblical scenes, angels, and the hand of God cutting down the tree of life. One explanation for the forbidden images on early stones (Fig. 2) is that they represent “realized eschatology”14: that is, Curaçaoan Jews may have believed that the messiah had already arrived and hence Jewish law was in a state of flux. Such an explanation may also help explain their penchant for mortality symbols: in the end times, God would purify the world and resurrect the dead (Techiyas ha-Mesim). Thus, the name Beit Haim (House of Life) should be understood as not merely a euphemism for the cemetery, but as part of a theological aspiration for life after death: with the resurrection, the “body dies and deteriorates and a new structure is composed, that the soul can enter and purify.”15 Mortality symbols serve as an important reminder for the living that the bodies they inhabit today are transitory. Likewise the ubiquitous winged hourglasses on the gravestones remind those visiting the cemetery both that “time flies” (Figs. 2, 8), and that they live in an era of what Anthropologist Joel

Profile for Chris Davis

Markers XXVII  

Annual Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies

Markers XXVII  

Annual Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies

Profile for cvdavis
Advertisement