Painful facts of Kolkata ('Calcutta)' s colonial cemeteries

Grave of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata Alamy
Jantoo Cartoons
The city of Kolkata (Calcutta), West Bengal, India has the rare distinction of having a large number of European cemeteries where thousands of Europeans have lain buried since 18th centuries. Innumerable Europeans were once men of great repute and eminence during the heydays of the British rule. These colonial cemeteries, remnants of the British legacy, are looked upon as the heritage sites that need preservation and restoration. Unfortunately, the graves are in bad shape. Only in the past few decades, an awareness has been created among the like-minded people who are serious about restoring the dying monuments of great antiquity. Already steps are afoot by the state authorities of Bengal in collaboration with some foreign agencies to restore them back to old glory.

Given below is a list of numerous colonial cemeteries. I believe some are either non-functional or donated to some Christian charities to run hospitals, schools, etc.
LCR cemetery, John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune~ The Indian Vagabond
St John's Churchyard - from 1709 and maybe earlier. South Park Street Cemetery - "The Great Burial Ground of Chowringhee" - opened on 25 August 1767. It is known as the Great Cemetery of Asia and others. North Park Street Cemetery - "New burial ground Chowringhee" - probably opened in 1799; on the opposite side of the road to South Park Street but no longer in existence. Richmond Thackeray (father of novelist), Lt Col James Achilles Kirkpatrick (the White Mughal) and other well-known persons were buried here. The Mission Cemetery - "The Mission Burial Ground, Chowringhee, commonly called Mr. Kiernander's" - opened in 1773 for the wife of Rev John Zachariah Kiernander; but does not exist. Tiretta's Cemetery - "The French or Tiretta's Burial Ground, Park Street" - earliest record 1796; also no longer exists. Bhowanipore Cemetery - "The Military Burial Ground, beyond the General Hospital was opened in the year 1782-3. Tollygunge Cemetery (Estd. 1942). St. Stephen’s Cemetery (Estd. 1820). Lower Circular Road ( LCR - at 184 Acharya Jagadish Bose Road) - "The New Burial Ground, Circular Road" was opened on 29 April 1840 for the remains of Captain E T Milner's child. This cemetery is still in use. It has 12,000 graves/tombs. However, the condition of the older graves, in general, is not good. The Mini Cemetery with a closed Gas Crematorium is located within the same cemetery.

Scottish Cemetery (3 Karaya Road) - "The Scotch & Dissenters Burial Ground - was purchased in 1820. Armenian Church & Cemetery - the Armenian Church of St Nazareth built 1724 has a burial ground attached to it. Greek Church & cemetery - the Greek Church of the Transfiguration of Our Blessed Redeemer on Mount Tabor was consecrated 6 August 1781 but demolished and a new one was built at Kalighat in 1926. "Greek cemetery at 105 Narkeldanga Main Road is forlorn". Portuguese Church & burial grounds- there seem to be several, the most notable may be the Portuguese Burial Ground at Boithakhana, opened on 8 February 1786.

The Bengal Act of 1881(Bengal Act V), led to the formation of the Calcutta Burial Board (CBB) as a statutory body in the past. The Christian Burial Board, who now oversees this cemetery will help the visitors in all possible ways. They have a well-maintained burial record.

     "Full many a gem of purest ray serene
      The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
      Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
      And waste its sweetness on the desert air"

                                                   ......... Thomas Gray

Fascinating Facts of colonial cemeteries of Kolkata:

01. In the early period, a civil cemetery had been in use since 1864, many of the earlier burials of service personnel and their dependants being made from the nearby garrison at Fort William, After the new construction work in Ft. William in the 1880s, the old burial ground in the fort fell into disuse and the headstones were shifted and mounted on the walls at SPC (South Park Cemetery). It is a military burial ground and is closed to the public.

02. During the Second World War, various departments relevant to the war effort were posted to Calcutta and No 47 General Hospital was there from January 1943 to the beginning of February 1945.

03. The graves, originally, were set based on denominations and war graves and civilian graves got indiscriminately mingled. In 1954, on the church authorities' advice, war graves were moved by the Commission into the area with the largest number of war burials. This now forms a separate service section containing the graves of both world wars.

Punch Cartoon -
04. Over a third died between August and end of December, a regular annual occurrence, perhaps due to monsoon seasons, heat, etc. The survivors used to hold thanksgiving banquets towards the end of October to celebrate the deliverance.

05. Preservation of such precious heritage sites, steeped in history, requires special care and expertise of archaeologist-engineers. The structures need to be saved for posterity, by retaining their original characters. restoration work was done in phases, covering a certain number of tombs.

06. The Park Street Cemetery was one of the earliest non-church cemeteries in the world, and probably the largest Christian cemetery outside Europe and America in the 19th century.

07. Rudyard Kipling remarked scornfully in 1891: "Men were rich in those days and could afford to put a hundred cubic feet of masonry into the grave of even so humble a person as “Jno. Clements, Captain of the Country Service, 1820".

08. Bhowanipore (Calcutta) Cemetery has 95 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, including one brought in from Fort Chingrikhali Cemetery in 1934. Second World War burials number 617.

09. The reason for the excessive masonry work in the graves, it is believed, are based on medical grounds. In the 18th century itself, there was some awareness that the dead bodies were one of the main sources of spreading death-causing contagious diseases. Hence, numerous graves were well protected with structures of various sizes.

10. Graveyard records reveal so many deaths took place because of tropical diseases, fevers, gruesome epidemics, etc from which there was no respite. There was no medical cure for such dreadful diseases and the knowledge of medication was inadequate.

11. Dying on the battlefield may win laurels at a young age, but dying unsung at a young age as a result of diarrhea or malaria is unfortunate.
Bhagavad Gita. LinkedIn
Each grave of Calcutta reveals a pathetic story about the person buried under it.

12. The oldest Christian tombstone in Calcutta belongs to Rezabeebeh, who died on 11 July 1630. It is located in an Armenian Church, Kolkata (Calcutta) that served the Armenian community.

13. South Park Cemetry (SPSC) has 1600 colonial tombs /Relics.(under renovation – Phase III) and is a major tourists’ attraction as the only Colonial Cemetery of its kind in the world according to BACSA (Website: The Park Street Cemetery holds the remains of the colonial elite-bureaucrats, military officials, big business people and their families in the glorious days of the Raj. Now, they become part of the dust as anybody else.

15. This historical cemetery is presently protected and preserved by the CBB in collaboration with a team of Archaeologists and a Conservation Architect after its massive restoration in 1978.

16.  Professions mentioned in the epitaphs are breeder of cattle, jail-keeper, silversmith, school teacher, architect, translator, livery, printer, head tide-waiter, park superintendent, cooper, postmaster, surgeon. All Europeans or their descendants, including people on a ‘civilizing mission.

Job Charnock's grave in SPC., now in St.John's  -
17. The pathetic story emerging out of many cemeteries in Colonial India is the fact that innumerable young people, children, and others died between August and December, perhaps after the Monsoon seasons. The other cause could be tropical heat during the summer season, besides the presence of dangerous mosquitoes and poisonous snakes like Cobra, Russel's Viper, etc.that might intrude the settlements.

18. Several decades ago, two cemeteries viz. The North Park Street Cemetery and the French Cemetery, Kolkata, were donated to schools, hospitals and to a church. The four other cemeteries mentioned above are active cemeteries, which conduct burials regularly except the South Park Street Cemetery,

19. In 1904, a Gas Crematorium was commissioned for the first time to facilitate human ash or urn burials in the LCR Cemetery. It was the first one in Asia then. The “Mini Cemetery” located behind the LCRC at No.2 Crematorium Street. It became non-functional in 1980.

20. Surprisingly, there are roughly as many as 1.25 lakhs of mortal remains buried in the LCR Cemetery alone, according to available Burial Registers.

21. The Tollygunge Cemetery is believed to have the maximum burials after its massive restoration by the present Board.

22. The second oldest grave is the grave of Astwasatoor Mooradkhan (died at Calcutta on 29.09.1799). He was one of the founders of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy, Kolkata.

This post is based on the information given in the references below and they are found to be quite useful.