Under the thick, perfumed branches of the frangipani trees lie hundreds of marble gravestones quietly crumbling away. Captain Francis Light, the founder of Georgetown, is buried here. Stepping carefully through the serried graves, you notice the ages of everyone here: Joanna Ince, 27 Years; Thomas Leonowens (husband of Anna, the governess immortalised in the King and I), 31 Years; Jessie Henriette Cooke, 16 years; Caroline Ann Long, 6 days. On some of them, the cause of death is inscribed: jungle fever, ship fever, malaria, drowning.
The old Protestant Cemetery on Northam Road is a small, forgotten place overlooked by the guidebooks and haunted by drug addicts. Even after renovations in 2012, the place is still in a state of some disrepair, with weeds pushing through the cracks in the memorial slabs and creepers inching their way along the walls. The jungle cannot be held back for long in the tropics, and it feels as though a few months unattended would be all it takes for nature to reclaim the land.
It is also eerily still. The traffic is muted, the foliage filters the sunlight to make it feel like twilight, and the air is thick with mosquitoes. White blossoms are strewn across the ground and throw up a fragrant, earthy scent that makes it feel more secret garden than graveyard.
At the far end of the graveyard, there is a small doorway in the tall stone border walls. The Catholic Cemetery, minuscule by comparison and in yet worse condition, lies just on the other side.
Northam Road (now Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) was the Mayfair of colonial Penang. The mansions have long since lost their lustre, with weeds and weather weakening their structures, and gravity doing the rest. A few are still inhabited and some have been bulldozed to build high-rise offices, while the rest have fallen to the forces of nature, and stand as a fast fading reminder that- much like the people buried before their time in the Cemetery- nothing will last forever.
Cemeteries do tell astonishing stories. I hope that the authorities will see fit to preserve at least a few of the colonial mansions, as well as relics of the sultanate.
Me too. A few groups did make an effort towards restoration and conservation, and the slightly more open parts of the cemetery are quite nicely kept (trees pruned back, grass cut, etc.), but it’s a shame that so many of the headstones are falling apart.