This little church is stunning and was built in 1877, when the graveyard (called Wildwood Cemetery) was already existing. It was originally a Southern Methodist church, then non-denominational, and then finally Catholic, with the first Catholic mass held in 2014. The church has been transformed through the years as the church population declined, until now when it’s essentially opened for special services and occasions.
A couple began taking care of the church and grounds in 2004. Mr. and Mrs. Tindell started caretaking for the cemetery, recovering buried stones and maintaining the grounds before finally gaining permission to care for the building as well. The grounds are impeccable, with some of the cleanest and most pristine old headstones I’ve seen in this area. Some of the unusual features are toward the back of the cemetery, so be sure to walk all the way through and head toward the woods.
Propped against a tree you’ll find a wooden marker. Sadly, it can no longer be read, and most wooden markers tend to fall over due to the moisture at the base rotting the wood, but I still love seeing them! There is also a handmade headstone from 1960 for a C.R. Cooper that looks like molded concrete with turquoise paint layered over the scratched letters. The font for the name is lovely and has a little flourish on the C. It looks like it was written in the wet concrete with someone’s finger and I love the idea of that.
In the far corner is an odd section that I approached, thinking at first that it was a small area for families to sprinkle cremains, but that isn’t what’s going on there. It was actually a family plot for a husband and wife, and aside from the angels and trinkets, there were also lots and lots of oyster shells. I’ve seen so many conch shells in the African American cemeteries that I frequent, but the oyster shells were new to me. If anyone knows the significance, please reach out to me here on the blog. I’d appreciate it! I know seashells can be used as a way to mark a visit to a loved one’s grave, similar to the Jewish tradition of leaving a pebble. The conch usually signifies the trip homeward for the person buried there, a way of being carried back across the sea. I’ve even heard that the conch, if whole, can hold the soul of that person. I never touch them when I visit cemeteries, but I do take a peek to see if they were sourced (they’ll have a small hole in the shell) or collected naturally.
Definitely go to this cemetery if you get the chance, it’s lovely.
Also take a minute to look into your local chapter for the Association of Gravestone Studies. I joined the Florida chapter about a month ago and got my first newsletter the other day- it had so much information in it- I loved going through all of the articles. If you’re interested in joining you can find them on Facebook. Their annual conference is in June so mark your calendars!
Meanwhile, I’m sitting here in the dark watching Britcoms because it’s the first day of daylight savings time and Shawn is also out of town. The house seems very quiet. Grace and I are heading to Tampa this week to revisit some favorite cemeteries and I’m sure hilarity will ensue. We have a big list to get through so I’m just hoping for the best, though I was hoping for cooler weather. Florida decided to spoil us for a week with evening temps in the 50’s and then ruin it all over again the next week with our usual heat. Oh well. There’s a lot to be grateful for right now, including the fact that my cat now has her paw in my water glass.
(The photos in this post were taken around 5 p.m. and aren’t great, so I apologize. I picked the best examples in a cemetery that was mostly brown and flooded with slanting light. Better luck next time, eh?)
At the first Crypt conference I went to the guest speaker was a park ranger from the gorgeous Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, Florida. Her speech was about a small African American cemetery that was found on the property with 8 people buried there, most of them children. All of them were slaves.
The story was touching enough because of the loss of several children, as well as the always painful tie to slavery. The other part that really disturbed me was that one of the men buried there had such severe damage to his bones that he was unable to walk upright before his death. They said much of it would have been caused by the physical labor he did during his lifetime, and that he would have been in a horrible amount of pain. His teeth, the speaker noted, were filed to points.All of these people were buried under a large, patriarch oak tree. The tree itself served as the marker for those buried there with the roots holding them together as one community, even in death. I loved thinking about that.
I personally love visiting cemeteries with large trees on the grounds, but they can also cause a lot of damage when they fall. I’ve been so thankful that during the hurricanes the cemeteries I love most did not have trees falling and breaking headstones. If they fell, they miraculously seemed to fall away from the stones for the most part.
We were recently at Sanksville Cemetery in St. Augustine and there was a lot of tree damage from Hurricane Irma. Several had dropped large limbs, but several had fallen over, exposing roots. One had pulled two headstones from the 1880’s up with it as it fell and the ground had pulled up around the base of the tree, like someone pulling on skin. I was definitely concerned about how they would be able to restore the headstones to their proper place after removing the tree and what they might find when they started working.
This cemetery is an historic African American graveyard dating back to the 1869 and is still an active cemetery today, with newer burials in the back. It has multiple veterans, deacons, and church pastors buried there and is a fascinating place to visit. The older burials are in the front, and the stones are simple, but beautiful and in good condition.
The problem with fallen trees is that they can sometimes move bodies with them. In a cemetery this old it’s unlikely that the people who do the cleanup will find anything, but sometimes they do. You have to look at the roots first and then In the hole created when the tree fell. It’s a scary thing to consider when you find a tree down in a graveyard and you’re the first one there to go peek.
Trees also manage to consume headstones and markers as they age and grow, and while it’s fascinating to see, there have been many headstones that I’ve wanted to see that were almost completely covered by a growing tree. Charleston’s Unitarian Churchyard had a few examples, but that cemetery is so beautiful I was in total awe the entire time I was there.
If you get a chance to visit Sanksville it’s a bit of a drive from the city center, but worth it. You can find it by the historical marker on the main road, and it appears to be adjacent to residential property, but no one said anything to us and it isn’t marked as private. Clean up work is in progress, and I was very happy to see that.
If you ever find exposed remains or coffins/caskets in a cemetery notify the local sheriff’s office. Protocol is for them to go out with a coroner to determine the age of the remains, though that doesn’t always happen. But still, report it. You can always call the cemetery owner as well.
St. Augustine is one of my favorite cities, so a couple of years ago when I heard that the next Cemetery Resource Protection Training was going to be held there I knew I’d be first in line when the registration started. The first CRPT I went to was in Deland 2 years ago and we worked in the beautiful Oakdale Cemetery, which reminded me of a tiny version of Bonaventure. The class was fairly small for that one, maybe 30 of us. This time there were over 60 and not only had our numbers grown, but the curriculum did too.
After the first one I assumed that going again would just be brushing up on my skills and making sure I was still doing everything right if I was cleaning a headstone, stumbled across remains on a cemetery visit, or attempted to transcribe a marker. But this time I learned so much from so many different presenters that my head was spinning for days. Additionally, all of my cemetery visits in the last year had really paid off. I not only understood more, but I knew where most of the photographic examples of different graves came from because I’d been there to see them myself. That was a nice feeling.
The Florida Public Archaeology Network creates this workshop and many of the presenters come on their days off to take part. This is a very committed group of people, and it seems that the people taking the workshop have the same level of commitment to their cemeteries. Some were cemetery owners, some were caretakers for church cemeteries. There were genealogists there, and members of various historical societies throughout Florida. And of course there were lots of scholars and preservationists, so it was in incredible mix of people and I learned a lot just from talking to others. Our name badges had our affiliation on them so it was easy to tell who belonged to what group. I didn’t have the blog name on my badge, in fact I only mentioned it once when I exchanged cards with someone.
This year was also different because I now have an emotional investment in Page Jackson Cemetery and all of the ensuing drama taking place around that 11 acre plot of land. Everything that I learned I was mentally applying to that cemetery, and as a result my volunteer buddies and I met up afterward and came up with a workable game plan for the next 4-6 months. It thankfully doesn’t include land clearing, weed whackers, or chain saws. While those things are important, we have come to realize that there’s really only so much that can be done and it’s the people there that matter most, so that will be our focus. (We were fortunate enough to meet at The Stranded Sailor pub in Sanford- if you’ve never been it should definitely be on your list!)
The conference took place on the gorgeous Flagler College campus and our cemetery day was spent in two of the town’s precious and well-cared for cemeteries. The Huguenot Cemetery was established in 1821 for Yellow Fever victims, and the Tolomato Cemetery, which has the oldest marked grave in Florida from 1797. The highlight of the morning for me was being able to go into the cemetery chapel there, which I’ve always wanted to see. Like every mortuary chapel I’ve been in this one definitely had that same feeling of dead space that I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, and it smelled like salt water and old plaster and had gently peeling walls. Of course I absolutely loved it.
Afterward we took a trolley ride past multiple burial spaces in the city, which was fascinating. Plus we completely filled the trolley! I had imagined a trolley draped in black like Lincoln’s funeral train, but we had a shiny bright model in green and an amazingly skilled driver who could navigate the tiny streets downtown like a champ.
At the end of the conference we signed our names to an interest sheet to start a Florida chapter for the Association for Gravestone Studies or AGS. I am very excited about this, and hope to get to their conference next year.
If you’ve never been to this conference and love cemeteries please try to get to the next one or to one of their smaller workshops during the year. You can follow them on Facebook to get information about upcoming events.
Also- if you love reading about things like this- you might like this blog. A bit of death, a bit of glamour…it’s a gloomy girl’s best friend!
I’m going to start by saying this land is for sale, which is the one thing guaranteed to make me freak out when it comes to historic cemeteries. It’s not cheap either; the listing price is $225,000 and they say it could potentially hold a 6000 square foot church facility. I’m not so sure about this though. The site is small, and used to be the location for one of the Swedish churches in the area (there is another one just down the road that you can see) but of course it burned down to the ground as these beautiful old buildings are wont to do. The Swedish came here to work on the citrus groves as part of Henry Sanford’s enterprising vision. The church on this site was called the Scandinavian Society Lutheran Church. There was also a meeting house and a small cemetery for what is considered the largest Swedish community in Florida at that time.
Churches in the late 1800’s were built for small communities and the churches were small too, not like the behemoths built for today’s modern congregations. Modern churches seem to need a gigantic place for kids, a teen center, a cafe, and a place for meetings like AA, Al Anon, and, Financial Peace University. I’ll be honest and say that I’m never comfortable going to these gigantic complexes because I feel like I’m headed to a rock concert rather than…church. With that said, this is not a property that could house that kind of facility plus parking. It has beautiful old oak trees and the property is deep but not wide. The cemetery is in the back, and it’s extremely overgrown. Find A Grave says there are 42 burials.
When I first heard about this cemetery I was told that when I got there that I should bend over and look under all of the bushes that I was able to get near. I thought this was really odd, but when I marched in that day in my boots I was determined to do it to see what my informant had been talking about. And she was right. The bushes had at one time been ornamental plantings on the graves- but now they were as tall as I am and huge. I bent over to look at the base of one, pushing a few branches out of the way, and I saw a couple of headstones. The shrubs had grown up around them and then overtaken them. After that I was creeping around bent double like I was having a hard day of cramps, trying to look into all of the shrubbery. There were more obscured headstones everywhere I looked.
This cemetery backs up to a subdivision and someone has made a well used path into the cemetery where they’ve created a sort of outdoor man-cave. There was a little trash, mostly cans and snack wrappers, and a few plastic chairs and a stone bench set up in a kind of circle. Somebody hangs out here a lot. I wonder if they might bring a rake sometime and get to work.
The cemetery also has an area that is full of thick ferns and there is lots of kudzu and vines in the trees. The property itself is magical and I sincerely wish that I could buy it and just restore the cemetery and call it a done deal. And believe me, there was a part of me that reasoned that I don’t have a mortgage payment and why not just buy it, but I know better.
So I’ve decided I’m going to ask Santa for it this year instead.
There is a lot of information about this community online and also a few nice historical markers in the area, so it’s worth a visit. You can’t miss the gigantic for sale sign at the front of the property, just park and then walk straight back. I’d advise boots though and be cautious about bees if you’re going to paw through bushes looking for headstones.
On June 1st I’ll be in St. Augustine for the CRPT conference on cemetery preservation and I am SO excited! The one I went to 2 years ago is what prompted me to start this blog so I hope after this one I’ll be motivated to start a podcast (thanks @collegeparkmom!), buy my own cemetery, write a book, or something else industrious. If you’re local and you want to go I believe there is still space left and it’s a 2 day conference for 60 bucks. You can’t beat it for everything that you’ll learn.
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.
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.
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.
Valentine’s morning was cold this year, but my boyfriend and I woke up in my favorite city, congratulated ourselves on our amazing good fortune at being together, and got ready for a morning in the local cemeteries. The fact that he was willing to go cemetery hopping with me on such a day probably proved that he liked me very much indeed, and we dressed warmly for the occasion and he seemed as excited as I was to be going out. On Valentine’s Day. To look at graveyard. God bless him.
St. Augustine has two cemeteries in the old city that are off limits, so basically if you’re a tapophile you get to hang over the gates with your camera and drool, but that’s it. One of them is the Old Huguenot Cemetery across from the crumbling fort, Castillo de San Marcos, and the other is down a side street nearby, close to the Old Pharmacy turned Potter’s Wax Museum (I’m cringing as I type this) called the Tolomato Cemetery. Both are fiercely protected, and rightly so. A bit farther away is the Mission de Nombre Dios which is the site of the first church service in St. Augustine, and it fortunately has a beautiful cemetery accessible to anyone who wishes to walk through.
However, on this particular morning we were looking for something farther away from the city, an African-American cemetery that was abandoned until recent years. It’s been in several news articles over the years and during the past few months it has been in the caring hands of volunteers and archaeologists as they record the cemetery and hopefully, continue restoration. I really wanted to see it, so we headed to Starbucks and hit the road with hot beverages in our cold hands.
The San Sebastian Pinehurst cemeteries are on one plot of land that reaches pretty far back into the woods. It is marked with a sign and a beaten down chain link fence surrounds the property. The fence had literally been stomped down or run over at some point, so it was just a matter of us stepping over it to enter and we walked right past the gates to do this. The breeze was chilly on my face, and I could smell the crisp scent of wood smoke in the air. Nearby there was a rooster crowing, and I could hear voices coming from the small church across the street as they got ready for their Sunday services. No one seemed to mind that we were there.
As we started our walk around I noticed that there was damage, but I didn’t notice outright vandalism anywhere, such as smashed headstones or monuments that were pushed over. There was a lot of trash though. All of the stones seemed to be fairly low to the ground, and many of them were sunk deep into the soil, leaving just a few inches above ground to read. The deeper in we walked, the more it started to look as if the whole cemetery had been victim to some sort of flood that caused the stones to sink. So many of the graves had also weathered down to fairly deep pits- I’d never seen that kind of sinking in a graveyard. I was grateful for the knee high boots I was wearing. I got stuck in branches several times and the leaf cover was thick. I also sank in the sandy soil once or twice.
I assumed a lot of the damage was due to the sand, years of neglect, and the presence of many handmade headstones that may not have been placed with the same stability as their funeral home ordered counterparts. The cemetery was also full of graves with ledger stones, concrete pieces the size of the grave that lay on top of the soil. Many of these stones had come from the same place, they were identical and had a black laurel wreath on them or other decorations, like a cross. Many of the name plates were unreadable, just like the gravestones. A lot of the stones had weathered conch shells on top of them, bleached white by decades of sun and rain.
There were two headstones that caught my eye as I looked around. One was a child’s small stone that was near a tree and had toppled over. Ronnie A. Bellamy, it read, 1959-1962. Three years old. The epitaph said “We will meet in the morning.” I photographed it, but later when I looked it up on Find A Grave there was no Ronnie Bellamy listed for either Pinehurst or San Sebastian cemeteries. I also tried Ancestry, and a search of the nearby Evergreen Cemetery with no luck other than a recorded death index.
The other stone was handmade and attracted me because it had very distinct lettering, it stood out because it was so readable, unlike many of the other headstones. Christine Clayborne 1882-1954. I took a careful photo and told myself I’d look her up when I had the time.
At the back of the cemetery we noticed that the chain link fence bordered the huge and ostentatiously beautiful Evergreen cemetery that we passed on the way in. Standing there in the dilapidated cemetery looking at all of the gleaming white marble on the other side was an interesting feeling. I sincerely hope that they’re able to save this cemetery from further ruin, it’s no less valid or beautiful than the other one with its angels and obelisks.
We turned around and right in front of us was a new grave. It startled the hell out of me, the cemetery seemed like it was long past allowing new burials, but there it was, bright and shiny. The roses were fresh and pink, the carnations didn’t have a spot of brown on them, and the bows were still crisp. It was a woman or a young girl, judging by the arrangements. They had laid the ledger stone and coarse sand was piled all around, making it look like a construction site. I looked over my shoulder at the way into the cemetery and thought that they must have done some fancy driving to get this person back here. It would be very easy to drive over a grave in this place and with such heavy leaf cover it would be hard to tell where any road existed aside from the one in the middle of the property. There was no name or funeral home marker.
On the way toward the front we stopped at two brick vaults (I usually refer to them as pizza-ovens because that’s what they remind me of). The face of one of them had fallen over and I bent down to see if it had been pried off or had just fallen over from age. It appeared to be the latter, and the dark, wet smell of earth and mold coming from the stones made me stand and step back. At the front of the cemetery was a grave with a low wall surrounding it that held shells, tin cans rusted brown, soda bottles, a CD with writing on it, pieces of brick and bits of glass. It was an epic collection of momentos. I couldn’t find a name on any of the stones nearby.
As we were leaving we drove through Evergreen and marveled at the difference. It was nicely designed and had many beautiful monuments, including the grave of Randolph Caldecott, the English artist that the Caldecott award is named after. While pretty, it didn’t interest me the way San Sebastian did. I was quiet as we drove off to our lunch reservation at La Pentola, still wondering about the fate of the cemetery we had wandered through. I was grateful for the people choosing to work on it.
If you visit please tread carefully and I’d advise you not to touch too much since many of the stones are delicate.
Also, you’ll need some good shoes.
And it turns out that Shawn did indeed like me, because he asked me to marry him that day and I accepted his proposal. Thankfully, he asked me on the beach and not in the cemetery. He is aware that cemetery weddings are popular, and he is also aware that while that interests me, I’m not going to make him do it.
**Postscript- I found out two weeks ago that this cemetery has been officially closed for new burials and the funeral gates have been locked.
St. Augustine has always been a city that for me, feels a lot like New Orleans. The living and the dead seem to be in very close proximity, and it’s obvious. Not only are there cemeteries all over the place, but there is also a feeling there that I only seem to sense in old cities with a lot of turbulent history. It’s one of my favorite places.
This year Shawn and I were going to visit a cemetery a little farther out of town, not the usual ones that the tourists always go to. (Myself included. I love them all.) On the way, as we usually do, we got lost. Not too bad, but we turned the wrong way twice and ended up circling around the same few blocks three times until we were able to find the right road. Neither of us had been in this part of the city before and I hate getting lost, period.
On the first pass we saw a crab shack on the left hand side of the street that used to be an old gas station, and was a work of art. The windows and all of the signage were hand painted, and Shawn, who used to be a corporate chef, absolutely loved it. If they’d been open at 9 o’clock in the morning I felt sure that we would have been eating crabs with our Starbuck’s coffee.
On the second pass around the block we looked to the right and I noticed a funeral parlor, also closed, that was painted an incredible shade of powder blue. The first thing I thought of were the sheets on the guest bed at my mother’s house- those sheets were almost the same exact shade as this establishment.
On the third pass- and also the one where we found the road we needed to take, I noticed that next to the funeral home was a carport, and underneath it were parked two hearses, one traditional old one in dignified black, and one in metallic powder blue to match the funeral home.
Yes. It matched.
It was because of this that I made Shawn go around the block a fourth time and pull into the parking lot so that I could stare in wonder at the blue hearse for a few minutes.
“Go ahead and take a picture of it. I know you’re dying to,” he said, laughing at me.
“We’re on private property and I’d rather not trespass,” I said dejectedly. Doing the right thing can really suck sometimes, and I could think of younger days when I was a hell of a lot braver and might have tried to get behind the wheel of the thing.
Then we noticed that in the back of the funeral home by the chain link fence that marked off the property there was an old, white hearse as well, probably from the 1970’s. I was beside myself with anguish over not being able to get a picture with it.
That night as we walked to dinner we saw a big, black, boxy hearse parked on the street next to one of the St. Augustine ghost attractions. I practically ran to it, dragging Shawn along behind me and making sure no one was nearby so I could pose next to it.
It wasn’t powder blue, but it was still awesome. I think the next time I’m in St. Augustine I might call up that funeral home and ask to do an interview with them on their history. That place really did look incredible and it certainly stood out. Style- that’s what it had.