Our cemetaries, both those that are in the jungle and those that are in the capital Paramaribo, are fascinating historical sites and reminders of our community's rich history.
The Jungle Cemetaries
The Cassipora Cemetary
The oldest known Jewish cemetery in Suriname and in the Western Hemisphere, lies hidden in the savannah jungle, about 5 kilometers south of the Jodensavanne (about 50 kilometers south from Paramaribo, along the Suriname river). The site, about 275 by 250 feet. 216 tombstones out of an estimate of over 400 burials in the cemetery have been discovered and cleared from the jungle. The oldest tombstone dates back to 1666 while the latest is from 1873.
The Jodensavanne Cemetery: Beit Haim
The Beit Haim (House of Life in Hebrew) is rectangular, about 135 yards long and 70 yards wide, located past the foundations of the Bracha v' Shalom Synagogue.
462 tombstones out of an estimated 900 burials in the cemetery have been discovered and cleared from the jungle, which provides a beautiful natural setting for the cemetery. The oldest tombstone dates back to 1683 while the latest is from 1873.
Most of the existing tombstones were cut out of marble, limestone, blue and brown stones’, they were imported from Italy, engraved in Amsterdam and shipped to Suriname. The poor members of the community, who could not afford a stone, had wooden grave markers. Over the centuries, these wooden markers have decomposed and the graves are unmarked today.
The Tombstones Inscriptions
The inscriptions are in Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, Aramaic and Dutch.
On almost every stone the letters “S” or “SA” are engraved. This is short for the Portuguese word Sepultura which means: Tombstone or Grave of. It is followed by the full name if a man, or, if a woman, by her given name and then the full name of her husband or father.
This is followed by the date of death (both the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars) and finally an acronym such as SAGDG at the end of the inscription. This is an abbreviation for Sua Alma Goze Da Gloria, which means May his/her soul delight in glory.
The Tombstones Symbols
Many tombstones have engraved figures or symbols despite the biblical prohibition against grave images (Ex 20: 2 – 5). Some symbols are among the finest in the world! The symbols that frequently appear are:
• Two hands with fingers spread denote a Cohen (a descendent of a temple priest)
• A pitcher from which water is being poured, indicates that a Levite (the person who washed the hands of the Cohen in ancient times)
• Tree being falled by the Angel of Death or the Hand of G-d. Mostly this refers to a life that ended before its time (early death)
• Skull and crossed bones. This emblem is better known as a sign used by 17th and 18th century pirates on their battle flags. To the Portuguese Jews in Cassipora and the Jodensavanne, it signified Time and Death reflecting the words of Genesis 3:19: “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shall return”
• A Mohel (circumciser) might be shown performing the rite on a baby; is or commonly indicated by surgical utensils or the box in which those utensils were kept
• Other common symbols are: grapes clusters and bread tables
The Capital Paramaribo Cemeteries
There are currently three cemeteries in Paramaribo, all on the Kwattaweg (Kwatta street) in the middle of the city. The old Sephardic and Ashkenazi cemeteries were in use from around 1700 to 1847 and had between 800 to 1000 graves in each.
The land of the old Sephardic cemetery was sold about a decade ago. The remains were moved to the existing Sephardic cemetery and the tombstones are resting in the yard of the Neve Shalom Synagogue.
In the old Ashkenazi cemetery, many tombstones are in excellent condition, however the cemetery is unfenced and unfortunately is open to use by drug addicts.
The two operating cemeteries, the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic, both in use from 1847, have broken fences and the place is used as dumping ground for the locals! The community is cleaning the cemeteries on an ongoing basis but with broken fences it is hard to prevent it.
In 2011, we built a strong, tall decorative fence that will prevent unauthorized access to the cemetaries. We thank all those who helped us complete this important project.