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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 November 2006, 11:04 GMT
Black humour among cemetery's graves
By Niall Blaney
BBC News Website

Belfast is certainly infamous for its black humour, but that phenomenon is finding its way into the darkest of places - the graveyard.

About 250,000 people are buried in the City Cemetery in Belfast
About 250,000 people are buried in the City Cemetery

A new book looking at the history of the City Cemetery displays some of the more curious and humorous elements associated with death.

'Written In Stone' by Tom Hartley features one headstone bearing the message "I Told You's I was Sick" and another with the epithet "Beam Me Up Lord", from an ever-hopeful Star Trek fan.

The west Belfast burial site contains a remarkable mix, including soldiers from the Crimean War, submariners from World War I, UVF gunrunners, Orangemen, Masons and IRA men.

There is also a Vaudeville star, footballers, doctors from the East India Company and the first person reputed to be killed in an accident during the building of the Titanic at Harland and Wolff in the city, Samuel Joseph Scott.

They lie in rest alongside Luftwaffe airmen, Russian immigrants, prostitutes, suffragettes and an heiress.

The City Cemetery holds the "movers and shakers of Victorian Belfast", who created a prosperous city through industrialisation.

Many powerful figures from education, commerce, ship-building, architecture, journalism, historians and churchmen are buried there.

"Unfortunate ocean liners are remembered, along with the sailors whose last port of call was Belfast, and those whose endeavours made the city a great sea port," says Mr Hartley.

Black humour: "I Told You's I Was Sick"
Black humour: "I Told You's I Was Sick"

"The Irish language and Irish speakers are here, a reminder of the cultural complexity that existed in Victorian Belfast.

"You will also find a bit of Greek, Latin, German, Scots Gaelic and Welsh.

"Politics is everywhere - the story of James Craig, first prime minister of 'Northern Ireland' runs like a thread through the lives of many who lie here."

The City Cemetery features many marvellous stone crosses, monuments, headstones, obelisks, urns and fountains.

'Reached its capacity'

The new cemetery opened on 1 August 1869, with the first burials taking place three days later.

The first person buried in the cemetery was three-year-old Annie Collins from Academy Street in the city. The burial cost of the grave, located in the Poor Ground, was paid for by Lord Mayor FH Lewis.

The Jewish burial ground opened in 1871.

Mr Hartley says burial records revealed the Old Lodge Road in north Belfast was the first settlement for Russian and Polish Jews, with other popular locations in Dundalk, Lurgan, Armagh and Londonderry.

"The earliest Irish-Jewish connection dates back to 1079 when the Annals of Innisfallen recorded the arrival of five Jews from overseas," he says.

One Star Trek fan wished to remain ever-hopeful
One Star Trek fan wished to remain ever-hopeful

"They were probably merchants from Rouen in France."

By the beginning of the 20th Century, the cemetery had reached its capacity. The then council, Belfast Corporation, was then forced to make a compulsory acquisition of adjacent land.

In the latter part of the 20th Century, an increasing number of Catholics were buried in the City Cemetery. The first Catholic buried in new land provided for that community was in January 1979.

However, the trend was accelerated by burgeoning Catholic housing estates, the near filled-to-capacity Catholic Milltown Cemetery and Protestant fears about visiting west Belfast during the Troubles.

Many Protestant families preferred to bury their loved ones in Roselawn Cemetery on the outskirts of east Belfast.

Written In Stone is published by Brehon Press and is priced at 14.99 hardback.

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