Cassadaga and the Devil’s Chair

From Find A Grave:

The cemetery is located between the two small communities on property that is county owned.
In order to buried there one must contact the city clerk of Lake Helen.

Here is how I would rewrite this after a visit to this cemetery, so listen up, Find A Grave!

In order to buried there one must be desperate for a place to be laid to rest.

Everybody in Florida has heard the urban legend that has caused the ultimate decline of this cemetery, that if you sit in the brick chair (a.k.a. The Devil’s Chair) at midnight, then the devil will come and talk to you.

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The devil, however, isn’t responsible for the vandalism, as I’m sure some people would say- human beings are, and ignorant ones at that. Who started the rumor is a mystery, most likely it was someone who was trying to find a cheap way to protect the place from kids and vandals, and they started the rumor to scare people away. However, humans are curious creatures, and things like this usually only serve to cause even more traffic. It’s like Cassadaga itself, which began as a retreat for Spiritualists and had its climax in the 1920’s when the hotel was built. Some people mistakenly think Spiritualism is about Satanism, but it’s not, and that makes people curious so they come visit, whether the psychics want them there or not. In my opinion, the group of people living there just want to be left alone. You can feel it.

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The chair itself is situated in the Thatcher plot, and there are two of them that are nearly identical. However, it’s the one in the back. The chair stands out because the plot doesn’t have as much foliage, and the dirt plot is covered with footprints from people sitting in the chair. The footprints were fresh.

The other Thatcher plot had a lot of plant life and curious smell that I couldn’t identify. I hate smells in cemeteries.

The cemetery has three bench structures built into the family plots, and all of them were most likely built for the use of visiting family, not the devil. The design is simple and direct, and would be attractive if it weren’t for the legend, the general feel of the place, and the fact that some douche-nozzle decided to spray paint LOVE GOD on one of the monuments facing the chair.

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The day that we visited was hot and still, and when we got out of the car the heat hit us like a blast from a furnace, which my friend BB later pointed out was probably the ideal condition for the devil. We walked around anyway, sweating and not talking much. The thick woods next to the cemetery were dark, and the sound of cicadas was overwhelming. It wasn’t a good day to be there and I knew that. A vehicle that we couldn’t see due to the downward slope of the property slowed down to a crawl on the main road by the gates and idled for a minute before we heard the engine roar and take off.

Five minutes later the police came, slowly cruising and staring at us. I walked right up to the car and spoke to the officer, who said he was just driving through.

Sure he was. At noon on a Sunday. Someone had called the police because we were there, but he didn’t say so. He asked if we needed anything and when I said no, he left. I was furious.

The cemetery itself is a blighted mess, with weeds and black sand on one side and grass on the other with sparse burials. The earliest date we saw for a burial was 1904, but I’m sure there are some earlier ones. Some enterprising person had gone into the older plots and pulled up every speck of grass or greenery leaving the most depressing scene you could imagine in a cemetery. The place looks unloved, which surprises me since the locals are so protective of it, enough to act like jerks during visiting hours.

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So, Cassadaga, if you want to protect this site you might think about springing for a brick wall and not a flimsy fence, which is torn down on one side by the many people trying to get into this place. You might consider making the entire place look loved and cared for, rather then letting it look bleak and desolate. You might enlist the nosy neighbors as volunteers to get over there and work on the place instead of calling the police every time someone drives through the gates. You might install some lights.

No, I won’t be going back to this one. If you go be aware that the police may randomly show up along with the devil. In fact, just skip it. Drive to Deland and visit Oakdale, Central Florida’s version of Bonaventure.

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The Cemetery With Many Names

It’s been called Pinewood Cemetery, Peninsula Cemetery, and my personal favorite- Boot Hill Cemetery, because right across the street from the gate is the Boot Hill Bar, catering to bikers and anyone wearing leather within a fifty mile radius (or more). This cemetery is fascinating, but loud. I’ve never been to a loud cemetery before but on the Sunday afternoon when we visited the bar was in full swing, the people outside the bar were getting fairly drunk, and our visit was punctuated by shouts, revving engines, and catcalls. I was not charmed, but the bikers have been instrumental in raising funds to protect this place. News articles from 2004 mention them holding fundraisers to help raise the 90,000 dollars needed to restore the cemetery, and I have learned in the last year that any money can make a difference when you’re dealing with preservation.

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When we drove in and parked on the sandy shoulder next to the drive we noticed an entire troupe of ragged men and women hanging out to the left of us; they had set up a comprehensive camp and there were clothes drying on the walls. The guys were shirtless, the women in short shorts and tank tops. Hard to tell if they were homeless or if they were bar patrons that had come over to rest in the shade. They never moved while we were there.

If I’d been alone, I would have left immediately. Not because they were threatening in any way, but it’s a really private cemetery surrounded by a wall and walking around there with a bunch of people observing me wouldn’t be my thing. There is also a single drive in and out of the cemetery that loops through, and there is no place to turn the car around. This place is packed with burials and family plots. Shawn and I gave the group space and walked through the right side of the property.

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When I hopped out of the car the first thing I saw by my feet was a fish head. A big, toothy one, eaten down to the bone by the elements and whatever brought it here in the first place. The ocean is close by and birds sometimes make nests in cemeteries and fling their trash around. We’d noticed the same thing in Titusville on another visit.

The cemetery dates back to 1877 when landowner John Smith buried his daughter on the property. Eventually the rest of the land was broken up into plots, passed from owner to owner, and sold off for burials. The last burials took place in the 70’s, but to be honest with you, I never even noticed them. The cemetery is full of beautiful old funerary art and has some unique headstones, crypts, and mausoleums. The design is also unique for Central Florida which is full of flat, sandy graveyards. This one is terraced and walking through the cemetery includes climbing meandering steps and walking along crooked paths. I loved it.

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One of my favorite vaults was for ‘John H. Abraham and Wife’, which is added below his name as an afterthought, probably because she outlived him by 2 years. John Hamilton Abraham was born in Pennsylvania, and his wife fortunately DID get her own name on Find A Grave- she was Eliza. He was buried in 1927, and she followed in 1929. The whole vault has been covered with thick plaster and only has the name plate for identification.

I wanted to know what was underneath that plaster.

John Abraham was listed as a landlord in 1920 and an artist in the 1880 census. He lived a long time. When I found the census where he was 7 years old I saw the he was one of 10 children in a household of 12 people. Being a landlord probably came very naturally to someone who grew up with lots of people in the house.

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I love this cemetery and plan to visit again. If you’re doing research about it online there are large numbers of paranormal groups who have posted the results of their investigations. I’m pretty sure that was before the gates started being locked at night. The city is trying to protect this treasure. Go visit if you can!

 

Vandalism in Mausoleums

A few of you know this is my main cemetery rant.

In the last 6 months I’ve been to 2 cemeteries with vandalized mausoleums, and it really disturbs me every time I see it. The first one was at Evergreen in Richmond, at the famous Braxton mausoleum which has been torn to shreds by vandals, mostly kids for school pranks. At a place like Evergreen you almost expect to see things like that, it’s an intensely private cemetery and completely overgrown. However, I was surprised recently when I went to Hillside Cemetery in Ormond Beach and found a mausoleum with the doors torn off.

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It may not have been this crypt’s first time to see a crowbar. The door was made of wood, which I’ve never seen before. Usually the doors are metal and quite ornate and heavy, so my assumption (could always be incorrect) was that the original doors had been removed for some reason. I did see a photo from 2005 that shows the wooden door- so maybe it was original. Either way it was on the ground.

It was the middle of a beautiful Sunday morning, hot, humid, and with white sunshine beating down on us. The cemetery was mowed and in perfect condition. The irrigation was running and sulfurous water caused the air to smell metallic as we walked around. There was another visitor at the back of the property. It’s not like this place was unkempt and begging for trouble.

The mausoleum in question caught my eye because it was made of a unique stone and it was beautiful, until I saw the door on the ground and evidence of someone having been inside. There was only one burial  in the mausoleum and it was from 1984.

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I think the way a lot of cemeteries and families solve these problems is to just stop replacing the doors and wall up the opening with brick. I hate seeing that, but I understand the need for it. Last Spring the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia made the news when 2 doors were stolen from a mausoleum that were estimated to be worth 25,000 dollars. The doors had been there over 100 years. It seems like an impossible feat for any thief to carry doors like that out of a cemetery when they weighed 800 pounds each, but they did.

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Many times when I see news stories about vandalism in cemeteries my first thought is grave robbing, which is still happening even though it seems like something lost to time- like body snatching for medical schools in the 19th century. Apparently, New Orleans still has issues with this, and recently I’ve read several news articles about Civil War graves being disturbed for uniforms, medals, and buttons. A Google search on either topic will produce dozens of articles. However, some people go to remove doors, not to get at the graves inside (like they did in the Braxton Mausoleum), but just to take the doors because of their own value, which would apparently rival anything found in the grave.

This article says something different though- that doors stolen from a mausoleum in 2012 were actually only worth 75 dollars as scrap metal.

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Regardless of the reason for the theft, it’s something I hate seeing when I go to visit cemeteries. The doors usually make the mausoleum, and I love the idea of a family member being able to enter, leave flowers, sweep, or just provide maintenance. I went recently to Palm Cemetery in Winter Park and saw a beautiful mausoleum at the back of the property that had doors with a lot of glass. When I looked inside there was a small table and a chair, and on the table were dried flowers, cards, letters, and a candle. Someone had been visiting.

It was beautiful and poignant.

 

Beulah Cemetery in Winter Garden, Florida

On this particular day I remembered to wear my Converse for the first time. When I was spending a lot of time with horses I had boots for all occasions- boots to run in, ride in, muck stables in, and two pairs for winter since I hate having cold feet. Now that I spend a lot of time in cemeteries, I frequently forget to put on appropriate footwear. I keep rubber boots in my car, but I forgot about them on the day that I grazed a plant in St. Augustine that caused the top of my foot to form welts and blisters over a period of three painful days. I keep converse in Shawn’s Jeep but I also forgot to put them on the day that I got stung by ground bees in New Smyrna. So on this day I was very proud of myself for stopping outside of the cemetery gates to put on closed-toe shoes. Most Florida cemeteries seem to have a lot of burrs and this cemetery is near water so there’s also the possibility of snakes.

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The sign states that Beulah Cemetery was started in 1866, and the earliest burial that I could find was from that year, Andrew Jackson Dunaway. He was an orange farmer, as many of the families in this area were. Mr. Dunaway appears to have been the start of the cemetery, but much of his family is also there. Not only was he enlisted in 1861 as a private in the Civil War, he was twice married and had a huge family. If you walk from the cemetery entrance toward the lake you will notice a humble handmade marker facing the water that says Mrs. America Keen. The rest of his children had pretty standard names, so she stood out to me. In 1860 she was one year old, and I was unable to find much information on her. His children were basically farm labor if they were men or housekeepers if they were women. That’s just the way it was.

 

The census records from the 1860’s that show this family have their neighbors listed as farmers, one that was both a farmer and the local sheriff, one doctor, and one man from Ireland whose occupation was listed as “ditches”. It was fascinating reading. Apparently, this cemetery served the Beulah settlement which was also called the Reaves settlement- Reaves is a name that you see many times in the cemetery. The Beulah Baptist Church is down the road and they maintain this cemetery.

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This cemetery has several death dates on tombstones that correspond with the Spanish Flu epidemic (1918-1919). Additionally, many of the headstones to the left are artfully rendered and quite detailed. Some of the motifs include a harp, a star, the gates of heaven (always!), and one white stone with carved flowers at the top which is one of my favorites.

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The cemetery has 2 above ground crypts belonging to James and Matilda O’Berry, who died 20 years apart, with Matilda dying first. Shawn and I stood there for a moment staring at them, wondering aloud what it would be like to die 20 years after your spouse. She was from Georgia, he was born in Florida, and they had 12 children in their 25 years of marriage. He was also an orange farmer. Matilda’s funeral was done  by the Carey-Hand funeral home and cost 130 dollars and was paid for in 2 payments (1921). Her death notice was printed in 2 papers but I was unable to locate them. When James passed away in 1941 the doctor that attended him was also the Justice of the Peace. It appears that the crypt was added when James died in 1941, since his funeral record includes a charge for masonry and labor and was considerably more expensive than Matilda’s funeral.

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It’s a beautiful cemetery to walk through, not only because of the majestic trees and the breeze from the lake, but also because every time I visit I see birds that live near the water, and the last time I visited there was a baby turtle shell on top of a grave.  It was no bigger than the palm of my hand and still a deep, mossy green color.

I left it there.

 

The Kissimmee Pioneer Cemetery Failure- and the Oakland Cemetery in Haines City

On the 4th of July weekend we decided to set a day aside for adventure. We planned to drive to the Fort Kissimmee Pioneer Cemetery in Avon Park and see if we recognized any of the names from the other pioneer cemeteries we had visited. We are starting to remember names and the places where people settled and died from all of our visits this year, and this cemetery was supposed to be a good one. I also had a new camera to try out and I felt some excitement about that.

That vanished when we took what we believed was a shortcut and ended up in the middle of no damn where with nothing but orange groves all around. There was nothing- not even a gas station, for miles. Several times when we tried to get back on track we found our phones didn’t have a signal and so the only thing to do was keep going. By the time we found the place I was over it. I wanted a sandwich and an iced tea and a lot of fries. The cemetery resides on an old bombing range owned by the government, and when we pulled up and told them that we wanted to hike out to the cemetery the elderly gentleman running the booth said, “Well, what d’you want to go out there for?”

We just stared at him, because it was an actual wildlife preserve and DID in fact offer hiking, despite being government owned land.

He told us to drive forward for another half a mile until we got to building 600, and he handed us a shitty map. We turned the wrong way- corrected, and then found the building. I asked Shawn to go inside so I could sulk for a minute and try to get myself into a better mood. He came back out to the car and looked at me through the open window, his face blank.

“It’s ten bucks apiece to go in, and we have to go in this building and watch a video on safety since it used to be a bombing range.”

I rolled the window back up and waited for him to get in. By the time we passed the old guy at the gate we were laughing. We’d never worked so hard to go look at a bunch of tombstones, but after 3 hours in the car, we didn’t even want to. The person in building 600 had also mentioned that the entire cemetery is surrounded with a fence and a locked gate and that we couldn’t go in anyway, we could just kind of hang on the fence in the hundred degree heat and stare at it like the bad kids at the playground.

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We drove back toward Orlando taking a different route, and as soon as we got to Haines City we knew we needed to stop at Zaxby’s for fries and chicken fingers. While there we looked up local cemeteries to see what we could find, and there was one right down the road. We got back in the Jeep and decided to go to the smaller one, Oakland, and leave the larger one (Forest Hill) for the next time we were driving through.

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Oakland is a two part cemetery. A 2 lane road bisects it and one side is shiny new headstones and greener grass, the other side is older, well kept, but clearly more creative. That’s the side we decided to visit. The other side was also set up for a funeral service and we wanted to make ourselves scarce for that.

We got out at the back of the property and started walking through. It was hot, bleak, sandy, and didn’t have a speck of shade. There were some huge areas of nothing but ledger stones, and some good examples of handmade stones. Many of the graves were unmarked, and some were painted in bright colors. Many families had gone out with rope and had marked off their family plots themselves. It was a kind of do-it-yourself cemetery. Not particularly unusual. Not very old. Largely African-American and Hispanic families interred here.

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One side backed up to some houses nearby, and there was a field on the other side. The cemetery was not fenced and the road in front was the only entrance and exit.

Here is why these facts stand out- in 2009 a local funeral director dumped a body bag there full of organs from a client he had embalmed the same week. He said the organs were decomposing and he didn’t want them in the funeral home or with the body because of the smell. He left the man’s identification on the bag, and it was traced right back to his funeral home because he had performed his embalming and funeral services (minus the complete cavity embalming, apparently). After his arrest he said that he had been dumping organs there since 2000, but this was never able to be verified. The poor man who led to his arrest was actually buried in another cemetery- not in Oakland.

So many questions! First- why? Embalmers are trained to deal with these situations on a daily basis and most of them are damn good at it. There’s actually a lot they can do to combat smells in facilities and with bodies, so this is just unthinkable. Second- HOW? This cemetery has houses nearby, no fence, a busy road, and is clearly an active, maintained cemetery. There’s no privacy here. I have no idea how he was doing this. It was the most gruesome story I’ve run across while researching cemeteries.

On the way out I walked toward the front to get a photo of a sky-blue gravestone and heard a soft ticking noise nearby. It was consistent.

I looked around and finally found it; one grave was covered with solar activated toys and they were swinging and nodding away in the middle of the hot afternoon. There was no other movement anywhere.

And I totally forgot to use my new camera.

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The Hebrew Cemetery in Richmond

First, I’m excited today to be featuring photography by Chris Beasley for this post! I ran across his work in a Facebook group about cemeteries and I ended up asking to use his photos for my post on the historic Hebrew Cemetery in Richmond.  His pictures really do the place justice and capture the feel of this historic cemetery. Enjoy!

I haven’t been to too many Jewish cemeteries, but out of all the ones that I’ve visited this one is my favorite. Part of what makes this place unique is the looming red brick building behind the cemetery that was once a hospital, then an almshouse for the poor, and now has rediscovered it’s usefulness as senior apartments. The irony is not lost on me- this apartment building has cemetery views from 2 sides and probably does not inspire a lot of motivation from it’s residents. It’s an extraordinary place for a senior community, but I’m glad that they did preserve the grand old building rather then tear it down. It’s an active area and we saw quite a few people out and about on the day that we went.

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The former hospital is in the background.

Well, the people who live there do have a great place to walk with multiple cemeteries in the vicinity- at least in my opinion. We headed to the Hebrew Cemetery and took a few photos, walking around quietly and marveling at the crowded beauty of the place since we were (I thought) the only people there. Many of the stones were ornate and it was a lot to take in. Then out of nowhere a man in a Hawaiian shirt walked up and introduced himself to us, and offered to help us find anyone we were looking for. He was the caretaker.

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Mortuary chapel.

I’ve only had one other person approach me in a cemetery and it was a fairly drunk woman in Jacksonville who hugged me, gave me a homemade bath bomb, and told me to please thank the veterans laid to rest nearby. I did thank them, and I am not making this up. I’m a bit skittish when people approach me in these places but this gentleman was extremely knowledgeable and walked us around the cemetery, pointing out interesting features. This cemetery is clearly loved and meticulously cared for. There are also extensive burial  records that can be accessed on their website for genealogists.

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I had 2 favorites- one was the little chapel at the front of the property, now boarded up and used as offices for the caretaker and other staff. It was erected in 1898 and is just so pretty; most mortuary chapels seem to be a little on the grim side. This one is substantial and small, but I loved the design and the fact that it’s placed at the front of the cemetery, as though it was there to look after it. I’m hoping that one day I will get to go inside. When the cemetery was first started there was a small ritual house there instead where bodies could be prepared for burial, and the chapel replaced that. The cemetery began in 1816 and is now occupying 5 acres.

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The second feature that I absolutely loved was a memorial to the Jewish soldiers in the Civil War. 30 Confederate soldiers were buried in this section during the war- that alone is unusual as (according to the website) it is the only Jewish military cemetery in the United States. The site used to have gravestones but they were removed and a plaque was placed there in honor of those men, and an incredibly ornate iron fence was erected around the site. The fence is made of iron guns, swords, funeral wreaths, and the tops of the fence posts are actually shaped like the caps that the soldiers wore. The caretaker mentioned that many of the guns have slight differences, and we stood there a long time looking at it. It really is the most fantastic, creative thing I’ve seen in a cemetery.

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After visiting this cemetery you might want to walk over to Shockoe. It’s surrounded by a picturesque red brick wall and is FULL of gorgeous statuary, and also has Poe’s foster parents there along with the woman who inspired the poem Annabel Lee, which was the first piece of Poe’s writing that I ever read. Sarah Shelton was also his last fiancee before his death. Her grave is covered with stones from visitors. I absolutely loved it.

These cemeteries definitely deserve to be on any taphophiles list when they’re visiting Richmond. I can’t wait to go back this fall.

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The Back of the Hearse

Last weekend Shawn and I went to St. Augustine to celebrate our 1-year-of-dating anniversary. When we were planning the trip our conversation went something like this:

Shawn: Let’s go to St. Augustine to celebrate our anniversary!

Me: Yes, lets!

Shawn: Maybe we can take some tours that we’ve never taken before. What would you like to do?

Me: I’d like to take the ghost ride hearse tour.

Shawn: What else?

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In the back…

Me: Doesn’t matter.

We booked the Everdark Express with GhoSt Augustine and the waiting began. Thankfully we decided to do it on our first night there and I didn’t have to wait too long. When we arrived at the shop we found an interesting array of ghost-hunting equipment and a lot of fun tee shirts (Bigfoot on a milk carton was my favorite). The manager, Gina, came out and introduced herself and confirmed our reservation, and we chatted about their tours while we waited for our guide. She was fun and knowledgeable, and talked easily about things she had seen and experienced in her work. I was kind of jealous; the most exciting thing that happened to me recently was a guy who asked for the book Sybil to be sent to him “as soon as possible” because he planned to read it out loud to his family.

Yeah. Look that one up.

We were taking the tour with a family of four- mom, dad, their infant son, and their daughter who was about ten and a seriously brave girl. When the tour guide showed up promptly at 8 we were escorted out the back door to the already running ’92 Caddy hearse. The doors were wide open and waiting for us to enter, and it looked welcoming in it’s own morose way.

I was beside myself. I think I may have offered to drive but our guide, Ed, insisted. Shawn and I let the family have the middle seats and we clambered into the back. Ed shut the door behind us, letting us know that we would not be able to let ourselves out and smiling as he invited us to enjoy the ride. The engine gave a glorious rumble, and we were off.

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Theador and Cotton.

The back of that thing had gone through an interesting conversion, with carpet over what was left of the apparatus in the now floorboard and seats on 3 sides that made me feel a bit like I was sitting in a black hot-tub. They had thrown in a couple of black cushions for good measure, and it was pretty comfortable as we tooled around St. Augustine at no more than 8 miles an hour (which is all you can do in a regular vehicle anyway in the Old City). I’m pretty sure that the tourists gave the hearse a wide berth as it rolled sedately down the cobblestone streets.

Ed talked about city history including the Yellow Fever epidemics that tore through St. Augustine and caused the city get creative with how they dealt with bodies, and I loved it. By the time we got to our destination I’d learned quite a bit, especially since he was a historian and a good storyteller. We got out at a parking lot near Artillery Street where we were taken to a courtyard of what looked to be a private residence or maybe a business- only there was a headstone there. The stone was for Theodor Weber, who was buried with his dog Cotton in 1995. The stone was set back in ferns and other heavy greenery and was gorgeous. On first glance I would never have believed someone was buried there, the stone design was beautiful and was clearly made to look less like a headstone and more like a courtyard decoration.

We walked a bit to an antique shop where we were issued K-II meters and given instructions as to their use. I was kind of excited, I’d never tried ghost hunting, and while I had not formed an opinion about it, I will admit to having a love/hate relationship with the TV show Ghost Adventures. Love the places and the history. Hate Zak’s hair. Not sure about the ghosts and the equipment.

However, my personal feelings about spirits aside, we still had an interesting evening with the meters lighting up periodically, a crying infant who didn’t like it when a ghost showed up (according to the meters), and a flashlight that blinked, flickered, and wavered as we asked questions into the dark space and waited for a reply. Our tour ended with a trip to the National Cemetery and we were given advice on how to take the best possible ghost photos. I tried it, and on my third try I had a distinct blur on the screen where there had not been one in the previous photos. The next night I tried at another cemetery and got nothing, but I’ll keep trying at the different places I visit. Ed showed us some of his own photos and they were really intriguing.

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Ghost? Raindrop? Dust?

I only had one moment of slight panic and it surprised me. When we got out of the hearse at the first stop the sun was going down and with the rain we’d had earlier it was getting dark. When the back door was opened for us the lights in the back of the hearse came on and I could suddenly imagine a casket resting there instead of seating. I jumped. It seemed like the purpose of the vehicle was suddenly very obvious because of those lights illuminating the interior. I already knew it had been previously used. Some of the newer models have such incredible lighting that they make me think of the flight deck on the Starship Enterprise. The people who design those lights should be working in funeral homes since I’m pretty sure they could make anything look good.

It was a fun tour- and the little scare at the end was my imagination working overtime. But… it wouldn’t be a good ghost tour without a little scare, would it?

 

**all opinions are my own and I was not compensated for this post.

St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery, Richmond

I was going to pass on posting this week in the aftermath of the Orlando mass shooting last weekend. The place where I have lived and worked for the last 16 years has suddenly become a place where I feel afraid to live and work, but I understand that these things take time to process and that there will be a day when the people of Orlando feel safe again, and feel like they’re at home. One thing that I do know from my own experience with violence is that it changes so many lives so rapidly. People who witness something like this are never the same again. The positive point here is that the good people of Orlando poured forth their love, time, and money to make this a gentler transition- if such a thing exists- for those involved.

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I decided to write this week about the last place where I felt completely comfortable and happy (no, I am not writing about my own bed). That place was the St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia on a rainy morning a couple of weeks ago. The wall that surrounds this beautiful space is actually so pretty that Caroline and I walked the entire city block, just to check it all out. Part of the wall on one side of the cemetery had been reinforced with metal bars to keep the wall from giving way- but it was holding its own and I was grateful to see that this place is cherished. The church dates from 1741 and since we were there on a Sunday, we did not go in because they were holding services. We did get to hear the bells ringing, and that in itself was magical.

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The cemetery ended up on our radar when we visited the Poe Museum (which was amazing!) and found out that Edgar Allan Poe’s mother was buried here. We had expected a modest stone, but there was actually a very large monument erected to her with a medallion in the center of a beautiful woman holding a raven. It was a fitting tribute to Elizabeth Arnold Poe, 1787-1811. In front of it was a blooming magnolia tree that perfumed the air with its lemony scent. The stones all around us were extremely old and many dated back to the late 1700’s, and sadly, many others could not be read. The church and historians had made valiant preservation efforts, everything from leaving headstones in the pathways through the churchyard to leaving them erected where they were and building around them. I literally looked down and found that I was standing on a grave- even though I was on the path. It’s not my normal practice to purposely stand on graves, I usually try to read headstones from the side to avoid standing on someone and potentially sinking into soft soil.

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Caroline said, “How do you feel about that? About what they’ve done here?” She indicated the gravestone.

“I’m just glad they left the headstone where it was. I don’t care if they bricked it in- at least that way it’s protected,” I answered. I thought of Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah with it’s wall of headstones that have been affixed to the bricks at the back of the cemetery. It’s overwhelming, but makes for a great hour of reading and strolling. In that case I was glad they still had the stones, but wished they could have been left in place. I understand that it’s not always possible.

St. John’s is especially famous for the speech that Patrick Henry delivered here with the famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” There is also a signer of the Declaration of Independence buried here, George Wythe, 1726-1806.

Caroline and I split up and looked around on our own for awhile and since we had been doing so much walking and I found a place to rest, I decided to sit down to wait for her to catch up. I sat on a step and leaned back for a moment, my hands splayed behind me on the brick, picking up their warmth. I turned and looked, and I realized that I was sitting right next to a large headstone that could still be read.

Ann Carty Alison Wife of Fr. Alison who departed this life April 18, 1793, aged 35 years
She was a kind and loving wife and tender parent and a good Christian.

About 223 years before a group of mourners had gathered in this spot to lay her to rest. They stood where I was sitting, looking down into the grave. I sat there for awhile, looking at the headstone, wondering what she was like and how she died. What horrors did she witness in her lifetime? What beauty?

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After 49 people died senselessly in my hometown this week, I go back to Patrick Henry’s words for courage.

“Besides sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”

If you or anyone you know was affected by the shooting in Orlando, you have my deepest sympathy. I’m thinking today that I can walk into any cemetery and be mostly fine, but I can’t bring myself to go to the victim’s memorial downtown.

 

 

 

 

 

Evergreen

“I feel like I can really breathe in here. Like I can finally take a deep breath,” Caroline said as we stood shoulder to shoulder, looking into the thick green forest around us. There was a pungent smell of wet leaves and earth and it was pleasant to inhale. This place had a feeling to it, not only the feeling of being the only two people on a vast property, but there was a feeling of being absorbed by a giant living organism, of being a part of it. Evergreen was embracing us with its grassy arms.

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The trees towered over our heads, draped with ivy and other creeping vines that had taken over during the years. We stood on the path in Richmond’s historic African-American cemetery, Evergreen, which is actually a total of four different cemeteries. The path had at some point been a paved road and it was now obscured by weeds and poison ivy, showing little more than a footpath when at one point it could accommodate cars. Any open space between trees was covered with vines, climbing roses that someone had lovingly planted at one time, and lillies that had been planted on top of graves and had taken over during the years. They now created spots of bright orange in the verdant landscape. It was the greenest place I had ever seen, and remarkably beautiful. Evergreen lived up to it’s name. We stood in the muffled woods of the 60 acre cemetery staring in wonder all around us, listening to the drops of water hitting the leaves and birds singing in the tops of the trees. The white sunlight was dappled and barely reached us beneath the canopy and as a result the cemetery felt like a steam bath after the recent rain. My shirt was stuck to my back and shoulders within minutes; my bangs glued themselves to my forehead.

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The first day we stayed close to the car, looking around at the tops of headstones peeking through the foliage. Gates and ornate wrought iron fences were woven with weeds and tall grass, making it difficult to see the designs. A large mown path bisected the first part of the cemetery and when we walked down it we saw more and more headstones begin to reveal themselves to us through the plant life. Not only was the place choked with weeds, it was full of burials too. The stones we saw were large and ornate and varied in design. There were supposed to be over 6,000 burials here, and we could see maybe 5% of them.

Part of what protects Evergreen right now is that you’d have to be a damn fool to veer off the path for even a second since you literally can’t see the ground for the weeds. There’s no telling what lives in that place, and there is a water source nearby so it’s the perfect environment for snakes and other wildlife. The other thing protecting it is the presence of volunteers that are trying to restore it bit by bit on regular work days. When people come to a place, vandalism usually stops. Vandals like secrecy and for a long time, this place was essentially that- a secret. While I was in Richmond we asked several people if they had heard of the cemetery and all of them said no. Everyone had heard of Hollywood Cemetery though, known for it’s showy beauty and famous burials. In my opinion this cemetery is just as valuable as a historic resource, but they did not set themselves up for perpetual care when they established the cemetery in 1891. We were standing in the consequences of that decision.

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The next morning over omelettes at Ellwood’s we decided to go back. Just for a few minutes we said. Just to see what was at the end of the path. I had heard of a mausoleum on the property and wanted to see if we could find it, plus, I wanted to see any land that the volunteers had been able to clear. The mausoleum had been targeted by vandals several times over the years, starting sometime in the 70’s when the cemetery began to be left to its own devices and people stopped visiting. However, it had been my impression that each time it would be repaired and would continue to be repaired after every act of vandalism.

So we found ourselves surrounded again by the comforting green of the cemetery within a couple of hours, and we walked with purpose. When the woods in front of the path began to clear we were astonished to find that we were on top of a hill and the hill had in fact been cleared. We saw a Madonna…then an angel…then a beautiful obelisk surrounded by conch shells. I recognized some of the names I saw on headstones from my research. Paths led from the main area into the woods, which were filled with headstones and family plots with beautiful markers. Most were almost completely obscured by creeping ivy and small pink roses. It looked like something out of a dream.

We chose a path at random and found ourselves in a kudzu covered field with monuments poking out of the vines here and there. It was vast and beautiful, and the mystery of what lay beneath the green carpet of plants was almost too much for me to bear. I wanted leather gloves and a herd of hungry goats. NOW. Past that was a cleared field that held a large amount of smaller monuments and was very pretty. But no mausoleum. I felt like it was the way we had come and that we’d missed it.

We circled the area slowly one more time and I saw a tiny dirt track that had been carved out of the ivy, leading farther into the woods. The path was hard packed dirt and had clearly been walked sometime recently, and it was slick from the rain. I started down it. After a couple of minutes I looked up to find a green box in the woods. Literally, the entire mausoleum was draped in ivy on 2 sides. Caroline caught up to me and we jumped down to it from the path. It appeared that the stairs were missing, though we later noticed that railing ran next to the structure that we had not observed at the time.

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When we got to the front though, things changed. In fact, the whole trip changed. At some point the doors had been removed and the opening had been walled up by concrete block. This had been smashed with a sledgehammer and the coffins inside had been pulled down from their shelves and opened. The hardware had been pulled off and was most likely sold. The remains were most likely gone as well because the coffins had been wrenched open with a crowbar and on one, since they couldn’t get it off the shelf they had gone through the underside of it for the remains. I didn’t look for more than a few seconds. Caroline stood beside me, quiet.

I was nauseous when I turned away, and I was trembling all over. I started rubbing my face with my hands and my skin felt gritty and slick with sweat and tears. I’d started crying. Caroline and I walked quietly back to the car, but on the way we stopped one more time under the tall trees and inhaled deeply.

“Let’s go get a drink,” she said, and we left. I cried more in the car, but Caroline knew exactly what to say to me. I think it’s a gift that mothers have.

Because we were hot and thirsty, and because the wine was cold and delicious, I ended up wobbling around Cary Town for the next hour or so with puffy, dilated eyes and a buzz. At the wine bar we decided that in the fall I would travel back and we would go visit again when some of the foliage had died off. Maybe we could see more. I didn’t know that I’d go look for the mausoleum again, that had just been so sad. It takes tremendous violence to do something like that and it was that knowledge that scared me. I suppose that when the same thing keeps happening and there’s no money and no visitors anyway, then the repairs just stop and people give up. This was a turning point for me and I’m not sure yet what will come of it.

My greatest wish would be to raise a truckload of money for the people working on Evergreen. For the time being, until I figure some things out, you can make a donation and learn more here.

We as human beings determine the value of a place by how we treat it, and I am so grateful for people who want to restore this cemetery to it’s former glory, though even as it is, it’s glorious. If you visit please take the greatest care when on the property.

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La Grange Community Church and Cemetery

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LaGrange Community Church.

This place was pretty awesome, though I do have a thing for cemeteries with dirt roads running through them, especially if there’s a gorgeous church on the property. The La Grange Community Church was built in 1872 and it still stands like a sentinel at the front of the cemetery. It’s been tweaked here and there with a bay window added to the front and the second story was removed, but it is still such a treasure because the founders of all of these small cities in this area are commemorated here. You’ll see the last name Mims on the historical marker- and there is a whole plot for the Titus family in the cemetery that includes Henry Titus, the founder of Titusville.  The first pastor is poignantly buried very close to the front of the church, his name was W. N. Chadoin and he passed away in 1904. He has a hall named after him at Stetson University according to one source. You can tour the church on the 3rd Saturday of each month from 10-12 according to the website. I’m definitely going back to do that.

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Dirt roads.

The cemetery is a sandy one, and with the dirt track running through it I felt like I really was there with the pioneers, walking through on a hot Sunday afternoon. The major difference is that the cemetery is packed and at the time it would not have looked like it does now. In one corner people are literally so close that you can’t walk from grave to grave without feeling like you’re stepping on someone. In that same corner there is a cedar tree and underneath it is a folding chair painted a pale pink color. It’s unfolded, quite close to the head of one of the graves and it was easy to imagine someone sitting there often, talking to a loved one nearby.

One of the graves in the same section had been decorated with brightly colored duct tape, which I had never seen before in a cemetery. The tape didn’t really stick to the concrete, but some of the stripes still remained and it was definitely bold compared with the other stones nearby. The cemetery association has been hard at work though, not only were there trash cans full of old flowers and debris waiting to be picked up, but there were also small stones with names on them to commemorate people who were known to be buried there before 1900, but without any known plot. They’re there, they just aren’t sure where. I loved it that they did this.

Pink chair.
Pink chair.

After a long walk through the cemetery we came back to the church and happened to notice that we were being calmly observed by two emus and a pack of pygmy goats living on the lot next door. Some of the goats had recently had kids and they were tiny little things with the cutest bleats I’ve ever heard.

I wanted them all.

The emus came right up to the fence to gaze at us with their interesting dark eyes, and they seemed to like our company because they stayed right next to us the whole time we stood there. We left after communing with them for a few minutes. I’ve always liked them, but the ones I’ve met on friend’s farms have been pretty weird and frantic. These were calm.

Henry Titus.
Henry Titus.

On the way to the beach we happened to find one more cemetery on what had been Canaveral property in the 60’s, but this one was very different. It is one grave belonging to Emma Watton, and it has been fenced off and carefully preserved with one stone marker. Small stuffed toys had been tied to the fence by passers-by and it was a touching scene literally in the middle of no-damn-where, right in the middle of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It is rumored that there are 3 graves there, but there’s only the one marker and one name on the sign for Emma. She was a young girl who died of fever and she was buried there under a tree, but the tree died long ago. Again, I looked up to find that we were being observed but this time by a woman in dark sunglasses and a crazy outfit who was talking on her cell phone…in the middle of nothing but trees and grass. I probably imagined her after a few hours in the heat but she seemed real enough and disturbed that we were there.

After all of this we hit the beach for a little more time in the sun… and three days nursing my sunburn afterward. It was worth it though. The sky and the sea were incredibly blue that day.