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.

Ghost?
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.

San Sebastian/Pinehurst Cemetery on Valentine’s Day

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.

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Front entrance to Pinehurst/ San Sebastian.

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.FullSizeRender (8)

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.

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Ronnie Bellamy.

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.FullSizeRender (9)

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.

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Evergreen Cemetery is nearby.

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. 

Valentine’s Day and the Powder Blue Hearse

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The Huguenot Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida.

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.

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When we go back- we’re taking the hearse tour!

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.