The Coffin From the 1800’s

I usually write just about cemeteries, but this was too good to skip over. So today’s post is a little different, but still related to death and funeral memorabilia.

Last weekend we went to Mt. Dora to scout out some antiques and walk around. There was also a cemetery there that I wanted to visit a second time to get a photo of an unusual headstone that I had not photographed the first time I was there. I had regretted not taking pictures of it, and it had a story to be told that I wanted to research…and then tell.

We walked through aisles and aisles of antiques on that blazing hot day, sweating like crazy and pointing things out to each other. We shared a watermelon popsicle. We visited friends that own one of the booths there and talked to them for awhile, listening to their plans for expanding their shop. I mentioned that I was starting a collection of embalming bottles and asked them to call me if they ever saw anything interesting.

They both looked at each other for a beat before Denise said, “We had a coffin once”.

“Really? What kind? ” I asked.

She whipped out her phone and showed me a picture, it was a wicker one- old- and had a person laying in it with a beer can balanced on their chest. She mentioned that they’d been at an antiques festival and someone who’d been drinking had wanted to test it out.

“But you know,” she said, pausing and obviously thinking about something, “one of the dealers inside has one, and it’s for a child.” She told us where to go inside the main building and said, “Just keep looking up- you’ll see it on one of the shelves.”

We headed inside the main building and I had gone about halfway through the first aisle when I spied it. I handed Shawn the remains of the popsicle, wiped my hands on my dress, and approached. It was up high and I could have reached up and touched it, but instead I just stood there, licking watermelon flavor off of my lips and staring up at this coffin. I’m sure that I looked crazy.

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A dealer materialized and stood next to me silently looking skyward.

“Do you know what it is?” he asked me.

I turned and looked at an older gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt; his eyes looked mischievous and I immediately liked him. He was smiling.

“Yes, it’s beautiful,” I said. And it was. The dark wicker was in great shape and didn’t seem to have a single flaw. Plus it was smaller than I had expected.

“You do?!” he asked. “Two girls came in here yesterday thinking it was a basket to hold flowers. They weren’t happy when I told them it was a coffin.”

I laughed. I told him that I loved funeral history and wrote about cemeteries, and he asked me if I ‘d like to see it, because it was leather lined on the inside. I knew I wouldn’t be buying it, but I accepted his offer to take a closer look. He was so excited to show it to me, and he mentioned that it had been used for viewing and transport, but not for burial. As my friend Keila had pointed out when I sent her a picture of it, “That  doesn’t look like it would hold up very well underground.”

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When Shawn caught up with me I was bent over the coffin with this man, and we were both pointing out features of the pleated leather lining. The lid was propped up next to us, and we were both engrossed in the conversation. I love it when I find one of my own.

Sometimes I feel bad for Shawn. I know it gets weird for him sometimes. I think back to the ways I’ve tried his kindness- asking him if we could make an offer for a coffin in North Carolina, telling him I’d like to hang a cooling board from the 1860’s on the hallway wall, asking for an embalming bottle for my birthday, happily pointing out a case of glass eyeballs in an antique shop one time. The list goes on, and he’s been a good sport every time. Today however, when we closed the lid back on the small coffin and the dealer got on the ladder, Shawn offered to hand it up to him. I’d been there when he handed it down to me and there had been a moment where I’d felt a parent from over a hundred years ago carrying their child in this. Maybe I imagined it, but the notion of it’s true purpose wasn’t lost on me. So, I tried to get there first but Shawn was faster and he picked it up gingerly and lifted it up to the dealer, looking at me for a moment over the top of it’s domed lid. His face was totally blank, but his eyes met mine and I had the feeling he wasn’t happy.

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We ended up buying a book from that dealer and talking for awhile longer. When we left I mentioned that I was hungry. Shawn said he’d like to wash his hands.

I recalled trips together where he had eaten with his hands in places I’d never dream of eating in without a good scrub or a bottle of hand sanitizer. Airports. Airplanes. Outdoor festivals. Malls. But this time he wanted to wash his hands. We took care of that and I didn’t judge.

I’m not gonna lie- I wanted that coffin- but I didn’t tell him that. The selling price was 275 dollars and it was in wonderful condition. I had no clue where I’d put it, but I do know that if I’d been single, I’d probably have gone home with it that day.

There is an odd aspect to collecting funeral antiques- you have to keep other people in mind. I always think- if someone came over and saw this, would we stay friends or would they haul ass? The truth is, I want people to be comfortable in my house. The embalming bottles are unusual, small, and will be an unobtrusive collection. A coffin is pretty confrontational. However, I do know that the best collections are held by people who follow their own desires and don’t consider what others will think. And that’s okay too, I really admire those people.

 

Delia

Last weekend I went to North Carolina for the first time. I’ve been through it or flown over it on my way to someplace else, but this was my first actual visit. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

And they have a lot of dead folks there.

Seriously, everywhere we went there were little cemeteries just waiting to be walked through. And so we did.

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The best one though- my favorite, was a large and very old cemetery that we passed on the way to Boone as it was getting dark. We both spied it at the same time, noted that the gates were open, and pulled in. No one else was there, presumably because they had sense enough to stay out of a cemetery when night was approaching.

“Just a couple of quick photos,” I said, and dashed out of the car door to start jogging through the headstones. After a few yards though I noticed something- this place was OLD. The headstones near me were very tall, thin, and toppling, reminding me of the ones I’d seen in Knoxville and Savannah. I stopped in front of one of the largest ones and could not believe how beautiful it was. It had been repaired many times over the years and as a result I couldn’t read the last name of the deceased in order to research her, but here it is. I was really moved by this one for some reason. I stood in front of it for quite some time as Shawn crept forward in the rental car behind me. Finally he got out to see what I was looking at.

DELIA This marks the sacred spot where rested the fair, the gentle, the lovely Delia. The perfect daughter, a perfect lady, she died 24th October —-, Aged 16 yrs. 

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The ones surrounding me in the oldest section of the cemetery were just as amazing, carved with laurel wreaths, weeping willows, and wonderful examples of Victorian funerary art. I could have stayed all day, but it was getting dark quickly and I wanted to see the stone church on the property. By the time I got to the church the light was turning blue- all of these photos have been lightened for detail. This place is first on my list on a bright morning when I go back to North Carolina.

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The church was small and crouched at the side of the cemetery, but it had some interesting features, including small buttressed sides and an outdoor hallway that had pretty lights hanging in the arches. It was all made of river stone and had large stained glass windows. To the side of the property was a labyrinth and a cremation garden. I wished we’d found it earlier, but we’d been going through another cemetery while the sun was up and we missed out on this one.

Here’s the thing- I never got the name of the church or the cemetery. I was so overwhelmed with the age of the place and the unique stones that I never even saw a sign. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll find it online”. NOPE. The closest town was Rutherfordton and we were off of 221. I couldn’t find it online, but maybe didn’t apply myself enough.

I would have liked to have known what Delia was like, or tried to find out more about her. Maybe on the next trip I can learn more about her and her family or speak to someone in the church about records to get the date of her death.

That’ll be another blog post.

Bay Ridge Cemetery

Bay Ridge Cemetery is near Apopka and it has been on it’s own for several years now. It appears there is no owner, operator, or cemetery association for this property. Even the map of the cemetery has no information on where the plots are located, making it extremely useful, as you can imagine.

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One side is clearly abandoned. There is a small plot on the other side of the dirt road that this cemetery lies on that is the Reid family plot. The family died in 1995 after a car accident, the husband and two children died on one day, and the wife died from her injuries the next day. Two of their children were not in the car. It was an incredibly sad moment to stand in front of their monument and look at those dates, knowing that some horrible tragedy had befallen this young family. When I got home that day I looked it up. That small plot is the only part of this cemetery that is lovingly maintained. It’s mowed, weed-whacked, and someone has been leaving flowers and gifts for the family.

The rest of the cemetery is a mystery, because it’s actually quite old, dating back to the 1880’s. The first stone we saw had a date from that decade on it. It was partially obscured by ivy, but the dates were still clear.

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When you look into the cemetery you start to see shapes emerging from the woods; the shadow of a headstone here, the glint of a metal funeral home marker there, another stone crouched beneath a large palmetto. I wanted to charge in but I was wearing shorts and a tank top, plus it was at least 98 degrees that day and this was the second cemetery we’d visited. I was sweating through my clothes and just couldn’t go much further. Shawn walked in though and took several photos, coming out to tell me that there was an entire family plot surrounded by decorative stonework to the left. I can’t wait to go back to this one in the winter when some of the foliage has died.

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I walked to the front of the 2 acre property to take a photo of the homemade sign, and when I did that I walked around it and pushed some branches out of the way. Underneath them was a large stone lion, one paw raised and resting on a shield with the letter S on it. There were no visible graves nearby. I stood staring at it for a minute, wondering why it was there, and if it was marking a family plot.

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Find a Grave has some incredible photos from this cemetery, including one of an ornate funeral from the 40’s. Thankfully, someone has added photos of many of the people buried there and of the cemetery the way it was a few years ago before the ivy, kudzu, and pine needles did their work. It’s well documented, just not well maintained. Carey Hand funeral home held some of the funerals there and there were records of those in the Central Florida Memory collection.

This fall I’m going back with gloves, bug spray, and trash bags to see if I can locate a few more of the graves.

Gethsemane Cemetery in Ormond Beach

This cemetery is situated off of a busy road in Ormond Beach, and only has a small blue sign to even mark it’s presence. We could have easily passed it. Not only because there isn’t much in the way of signage, but the cemetery almost looks like a large green field with only the occasional small marker and a couple of beautiful old oak trees. Volunteers have transformed this cemetery from a forgotten burial ground into a setting that looks almost like a park. It’s a magical space, and is also known as Greenwood Cemetery. I prefer Gethsemane.

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It’s a well spaced cemetery so be prepared to walk all over if you want to be sure not to miss any of the artistic markers.

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Most of the markers here are handmade and truly glorious, some clearly done by the same hand, which always fascinates me. Maybe there was one person in the community that knew how to make them, or could read and write, or were they just good at it and so people called on them when they needed markers. These questions always surface for me when I go to places like this.

One of my favorite aspects of this cemetery is the small, five pointed star stamp used on many of the headstones, on both sides of the cemetery. I know it must have signified something, but I have been unable to find out what. According to graveaddiction.com it symbolizes the star of heaven, but I get the feeling that it’s something else for this place. The stars are simple and beautiful.

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This cemetery was once a burying ground for African Americans, including slaves, and continued to be a primarily African American cemetery until it’s demise due to lack of funding and perpetual care (a repeating theme for this blog). In the Daytona beach Morning Journal from December 4, 1955 it has a funeral announcement for John Lee, who is buried in that cemetery, saying that the Herbert Thompson Funeral Home was performing the burial. They’ve been in business in Daytona Beach for quite awhile.

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It was closed for burials in 1974. There is not a lot to say about this cemetery- as a place of historical value there doesn’t seem to be volumes and volumes of history on the place. However, it’s worth a visit to see what a group of individuals can do when they care about a cemetery.

Speaking of caring- next week I’ll be writing about Bay Ridge Cemetery near Apopka, which is completely overgrown and absolutely amazing! I care very much about what happens to that place.

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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