The Former Beaches Memorial Park in Atlantic Beach, Florida

I generally attempt to keep my temper out of these posts but I probably won’t be able to do that today. I’m talking about the Rayan’s, the previous owners of Beaches Memorial Park and the focal point in Florida funeral industry news for a year now. To put it quite simply, these people are turds. And yes, I understand the whole innocent until proven guilty thing, but in my mind that only applies to people who don’t leave bodies in broken refrigerators on their cemetery property.

Amanda Rayan owned this funeral home and cemetery and she and her husband decided to run it by taking the money from customers… and then pretty much not doing anything else. They racked up over 70 complaints from families before getting well and truly busted by a surprise inspection from the Florida Division of Cemetery, Funeral, and Consumer Services. During the inspection they found a man’s body decomposing in a broken refrigerator inside the facility, who turned out to be Burton Acker. He was supposed to have been cremated already and returned to his family, who had been asking to come and pick up his remains. Why he was left inside a broken fridge is a mystery. They also found that John Rayan had been selling the memorial plaques on the property for scrap metal, and also accepting payment for services he never rendered to families. The list of their accusations is too lengthy to mention here.

It was almost a year ago that things started to get really heated at the cemetery. A family showed up to bury their loved one, and there was no one there when they arrived. The plot was not marked, the grave not dug, no one answered the phone when they placed frantic calls. The family had to return the body to the funeral home for storage until they could figure out what to do. They called the police though, and they came out to document the situation. Soon after the Rayan’s funeral license was suspended by the state.

There is a video of Amanda Rayan at a funeral on her property, shot through some bushes, but showing her smirking face clearly as she stands under the funeral tent in a tight tee shirt and short shorts. I saw that video and felt so bad for the family who were all dressed respectfully. I know that if I were attending my grandparent’s funeral, and the cemetery owner (that I had just handed a stack of money) came out to assist with the coffin dressed like that, she’d find herself suddenly on the ground and I’d be cheerfully dealing with an assault charge.

News 4 Jax hounded this couple incessantly until John Rayan’s arrest at the cemetery, and they made sure to be there to film that as well. On the video John Rayan is in handcuffs and wearing what looks like pajamas, being guided by the elbow toward the police car, and the news anchor puts a microphone in his face and starts asking him questions. One minute he is sweating profusely and saying in a weird, breathy voice that he doesn’t have any cemetery experience, as though that’s an excuse for his deplorable behavior. The next minute he’s on the ground in a dead faint and the officers are staring at him like, “Well damn, what do we do with this jerk now?” And what they did was haul him up and literally drag his ass to jail. He is facing 16 charges and his wife, who they went after as well, is facing 45 charges, but for some reason he has been the focal point of this investigation.

So, how does the story end? That depends on how you look at it. Johns Rayan’s trial was set to begin on April 17th of this year and he skipped town, and the rumor is that he is ‘vacationing’ in Maryland. The judge issued another warrant for his arrest and to date, he has not been seen. Amanda Rayan is still awaiting trial. And yes, I still look them up on a weekly basis to see if they’ve been arrested yet (again).

The good news is that when they are brought to trial I’m sure it will be epic. The other good news is that Todd Ferreira bought the cemetery and not only is his name on the sign, but the place is actually quite beautiful. When my mom and I drove out there several weeks ago I wasn’t expecting much; I had this grim image in my mind of what the place looked like when the Rayan’s owned it and everything was brown and weedy. The mausoleums were painted brown along with the offices, and it looked awful. Weeds that were waist high were surrounding the fountain at the front of the property. I would never have gone to that place for assistance. Another point to be made is that the Jacksonville Beaches are beautiful and Atlantic Beach manages to have a small town feel with the fresh air, and  the sandy beach close by. I loved it. It seems hard to imagine that this couple would get away with having such a delapidated looking cemetery for long, and it appears that the residents of this pretty and peaceful area decided that enough was enough when they starting calling in complaints.

Mom and I pulled into an impeccably groomed property with graceful oak trees, mowed green grass, and buildings painted a fresh pale yellow with white trim. It looked like there was another fountain or some other kind of decorative ornament getting ready to go up, and everything felt peaceful and calm. I say good for Mr. Ferreira, because the place looks beautiful and I can’t imagine anything that would make it look better. At the back of the property you’ll find a larger mausoleum and a memorial chapel, which was locked the day that were were there.

I’m hoping that the families that were taken advantage of by this couple will find peace once some kind of justice is served, not only for them but for their loved ones resting in that cemetery.

As for me, I’ll be glued to my computer reading the news and eating Teddy Grahams when they finally get this couple into a courtroom.

Other People’s Grief

I’m always fine in the presence of other people’s grieving processes or struggles as they pertain to mortality, but I am always caught off guard when I experience those feelings for myself. And to be honest, it sometimes makes me feel like a fraud. The first example of this hit me after the Pulse tragedy and I had to drive by the memorials every day on the way to work. I tried taking different routes but it seemed like every time I tried another road there was another group of memorial signs on the corner, and I would sit at the stoplights purposely looking away from them in order to keep my emotions stable before work. But I was reminded again this week of how fragile I can be when dealing with my own feelings toward death. 

I’m in a transitional place right now and Shawn and I are not sure how much longer we’ll be in the Orlando area. I am also attempting to leave my job of 14 plus years for one that actually aligns with my values. So there’s a lot going on and I feel a need to tie up loose ends in my life in order to move forward with as little regret or fear as possible.  

I had a doctor’s appointment this week and arrived to that side of town early, because if you’re driving to Altamonte in the middle of the day you have to leave at least an hour early because of the obscene traffic on I-4. So when I arrived with time to spare I decided to go scout out a cemetery nearby, if there was one. 

4 miles away I found Highland Memory Gardens and realized that it was where my former father in law had been buried years ago, so long ago that it made me feel like another girl in another world when I thought of it. I had never gone back to see his grave site after the funeral, even though I lived 3 miles from it for 8 years. For the last 3 years I’d been driving over to Altamonte for appointments with my allergist and had still avoided going.  For some reason- maybe it was the gloom of the rain or the need for completion somewhere in my life, I decided to go visit him. Because 11 years is a long time to avoid something or someone. 

I didn’t like being a part of that family, which may have been the reason for the avoidance issues. I still wake up every day and am so incredibly grateful to have been set free from that marriage that I sometimes don’t know what to do with that overwhelming feeling. I still cry because I’m so happy and relieved. There were a lot of reasons for me not to visit and running into the rest of the family was a big one. Dealing with whatever I might feel if I went to visit was the other, stronger reason. 

I had liked my father in law a great deal despite how I felt about everyone else. Wendell was a good man and he was kind-hearted toward man and beast. He was tall and rangy, tanned from spending years of his life outdoors, and had silver hair. He loved his wife, his grandchild, gardening, and beer. I was never really sure about anything else, but on those points I was very clear. 

I went through the rain to the cemetery office without my umbrella and asked where I might find his grave. The family counselor was right there when I walked in, standing with a pleasant look on his face and his hands clasped before him. He was happy to help me and pulled out a complicated map of the cemetery, then drew on the map as he gave me even more complicated directions. He then notified me that the four plots behind Wendell were for sale, in case that was important to me. I said nothing, but took the map and thanked him before stepping back out into the gloom.

I parked in what I thought was the right area, got out of the Durango and started walking. I literally walked right to his grave. I stopped short when I saw his name and then I just stood there staring down at it. Thunder rumbled overhead in a melodious way, not threatening, and I looked around me before saying, “This is a beautiful place.” I said it out loud.

Then I said. “I was so angry at you for dying.”

Tears came.

I wiped them away with my fingertips and tried to act like it wasn’t happening but my nose started to run, and I sniffed as I told him in choppy sentences that everything fell apart when he died, and that at that point in time he was the one that held everyone together. And then I just stood there and felt tears run down my face and thought about a time when he had rescued a snake from our back porch, and how it had been injured. He placed it on the ground and then I saw him reach down and pet it gently.

And after that I remembered that he had always said that he did not want to be embalmed, and that he wanted a green burial- as green as we could get it, and instead he’d been embalmed and made up and stuffed into a suit and put into a bronze deluxe casket. Here. Under my feet. I still remembered looking into that casket for the last time. But I think his family had been through so much and they really didn’t know what else to do and I certainly can’t find fault with that.

I thought about Payne’s Prairie near Gainesville and how much he would have loved being buried in a place like that. People would hike past him and he would literally be at one with the environment. I felt like we had done him a disservice when he died and I regretted not speaking up.

But I had been different, and it was way before I started writing or caring so much about all of these things. I finally told him that I would have brought him flowers but he didn’t have a vase to put them in, and that I thought that really sucked. I thought it was pretty much the rule that you got a vase in Memory Garden type cemeteries.

A big hawk flew low across the graves and landed in the oak tree across the road from where I stood. I looked at it for a moment and felt better. Then I walked to my car, reached in for a box of tissues, and blew my nose. Loudly.

Cleaning Page Jackson Cemetery

First of all, this is my 50th post! I am very excited about this and hope to continue for another 50 posts and at least another 50 new cemeteries this year. Yay!

A couple of weeks ago 4 of us met to work on picking up trash in the Page Jackson Cemetery in Sanford, Florida. Many of you who read this blog know that this is probably one of my favorite cemeteries in Central Florida. It’s never a boring trip when I visit this place and I always discover something new. I was armed that day with a new trash grabber (The Deluxe Gopher 2) that made me feel like I was 90 years old when I bought it, but it was so worth the ten dollars! For one thing, there were a lot of things laying around that I wouldn’t want to touch with my bare hands, and it also saved my back from a few days of muscle relaxers and pain. I didn’t realize that these things can not only be used for trash pick-up but also to knock weeds and branches out of the way when you’re navigating the Florida scrub brush on this property. Maybe I should get a machete too.

I knew the moment that I pulled up that it was going to be a successful morning because Ariel’s personal hearse was parked on the dirt lane and it just set the tone for the whole day, especially since it had two big dogs looking out of the back, their sweet faces staring longingly at us while framed by funereal red curtains. Maryanne was there too, and while I unloaded the cooler from my car she cheerfully informed me that she had brought disposable gloves for everyone. We all snapped them on, unloaded the trash bags, and got to work. Later in the morning Heather joined us and so between the 4 of us we had 2 bloggers, one funeral records addict (especially Carey Hand), one Hospice volunteer and educator, one funeral professional, and one person who can find anything genealogy related if she has a computer in front of her. The conversation was lively.

This is a failing cemetery, meaning that it really doesn’t matter what happens from this point forward because it will never be unearthed from the rapidly encroaching saplings and vines. My wish for this cemetery is that it be mapped every few years, and kept clean and safe for people to come and visit their loved ones even if it means a hike through some brush. That’s really all that can be expected and even that seems like too much to ask for when you look at the place and realize that this is the way it’s looked for years, and that neglect has been a part of the history here. I’d love it if it could just be under control in some way but this is Florida, and Florida plants rarely cooperate. We took our time going through, learning new graves along the way and picking up massive amounts of trash as we went, everything from pairs of shoes to (lots) of underwear and food wrappers. Tons of beer cans. Thankfully no condoms, though all of the underthings lying around in the back of the cemetery gave me a pretty good shudder anyway. Seeing Maryanne put her head into a grave to try to figure out what caused the hole in the concrete (air bubble) didn’t shock me as bad as the underwear did.

There is one grave there that has always stood out to me. It’s a plain ledger stone that’s been smashed, most likely deliberately, and is in several large pieces that jut out at odd angles like a mouthful of crooked teeth. That night I got home and looked up Find A Grave, and I went through all of the photos of the headstones until I found that marker. His name on Find A Grave is listed as Dr. Wallace Thomas Eaverly.  He was a Prescription Clerk with a third grade education. He’d worked in a drugstore pharmacy for part of his career and he died at the age of 32 in 1931, leaving a young family behind. He was somebody in the community- just like everyone else here- and it broke my heart all over again to think of his final resting place coming to this sad end, with moss growing in between the cracks in the concrete and no name for people to read as they passed by. These people built the Sanford community and Seminole County.

In the early afternoon we strolled over to Shiloh to pick up some trash back there and look around. There were some new burials and also an open grave that was covered by a piece of plywood, patiently waiting for it’s occupant to arrive. The vault was already in the ground; sand was piled on top of the grave next to it in a huge, ugly pile. This cemetery in its open field with it’s 300 plus burials is mostly clean. It’s also an African-American cemetery like Page Jackson, but if you stand at the front of the cemetery and look into the trees you see the burials in Page Jackson obscured by woods and a massive trash pile that’s grown steadily over the last year. There are burial markers right next to it, if not underneath it.

 

That night I was nursing a sunburn and itchy legs, and the next day I was actually sore from clomping all over those woods in heavy rubber boots, but it was worth it.

Our next clean-up day is planned for April 17th. It’s a Monday this time, but if you’d like to come please email me at marnie.bench@gmail.com. We’d love to see you there!

Drive-Thru Viewing

About once a month I troll the internet for funeral news like a weirdo. I search Youtube for news videos and also do some Google searches looking for any recent local news here in Florida. This habit has given me a few topics for blog posts (my personal favorite: ventilation in mausoleums and why it’s necessary), and it’s also given me news that I sincerely wish I could take back out of my brain, like the story about the young woman Julie Mott who was stolen from a funeral home in San Antonio after her viewing back in August of 2016. When the funeral home employees came in the next morning she was just…gone. And she still hasn’t been found. That story really haunted me and I still follow up about once a month to see if there is any more news about her.

Some of the stories I read are tragic and some are just downright bizarre, like the funeral director who decided to leave a body in a hearse parked at the back of his property for nine days because… well, he thought the body smelled bad and there was some protocol with the body being released for cremation. He didn’t want the body stored in his place and potentially scaring off customers. To his credit, he did in fact appear on camera for a news interview, because in many of these cases the person responsible won’t answer questions unless the authorities get involved.

And then there are the cases that don’t fit into the tragic category, and they don’t really fit in the bizarre category- they have a place all their own in the world of funeral news. I guess you could call them trendy. I give you the drive thru viewing. (Video compliments of YouTube.)

First, I want to say that I am not making fun of anyone here on this blog (Well, except for that one cemetery that I absolutely can’t stand. I make fun the owners sometimes.) But when I first heard about this, it did strike me as being almost comical, so I spent a day or two reflecting on it and trying to decide if I was for it or against it. I posted about it on social media and also to my coworkers at the library, because we’re an opinionated bunch if nothing else. Here are some of the collective remarks made.

Pros: 

Some people hate funeral homes and get panic attacks even thinking about going to a viewing or a funeral, so looking through a window at the person may be easier for them to handle. Some people are physically challenged and so this is a more comfortable option for them. Many people feel shy about expressing their grief publicly; I know I feel a lot more comfortable crying in my car than I do in a room full or people or in a public restroom. A lot of people are disturbed by the (real or imagined) smell of funeral homes and that can keep them from visitations. Viewing the body through the window may feel less real and confrontational than looking down at the body or even being in the same room with them, and so it may be a good option for people who really fear death.

Cons: 

One person said she could imagine a whole family heading to McDonald’s first and then eating fries and drinking shakes while looking at the body in the funeral home drive-thru. One person said if parking was more inconvenient than the fact that the person died, then maybe they shouldn’t go to the viewing at all. One friend said that they thought looking at a dead body was a weird tradition anyway and that looking at one through a window was even weirder.

What this reminded me of was the Victorian practice of photographing dead bodies, a historical quirk that I personally love. Many of the photos are beautiful and peaceful, and while I’ve seen a few that have really disturbed me, I find that many are artistic and certainly valuable for their historical detail. However, when the house was quarantined the photographer would have to stand outside and take the photo through the window of the house, and that gave me the creeps for some reason. It seemed voyeuristic and changed the whole dynamic, but I could see the need for it if the family had no other photo of that person.

Photo first seen in Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America by Stanley Burns. of the Burns Archive. Photo accessed from https://www.buzzfeed.com/leonoraepstein/haunting-post-mortem-photography?

I don’t know that this fills a specific need in the funeral industry, but I admire the creativity for sure and I certainly look forward to seeing if this catches on and and ends up in one of the Orlando funeral homes. I think that for years people have either chosen to attend a funeral or not – it’s been that simple. This seems to place some people into a gray area where they want to be there to support the family of the loved one- but don’t. They want that last look at their loved one- but not in person. I can’t say this with any judgement because everyone’s feelings toward death are different, but I’ll be really interested to see if this becomes a regular funeral practice.

Grieving for Pets

Last week I lost my beautiful little Cricket, who I’ve shared my life with for 14 years. She made my house a home, and I am still getting used to life without her. For me, the hardest part besides watching her decline was coming home from work each day and not seeing her calico face in my bedroom window, waiting for me. She has always treated my bedroom as her personal apartment at every place I’ve lived and I always accommodated this since like me, she was shy and preferred to have her own space. I truly miss her presence in my room and the house feels emptier without her, even though we have two other cats.

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What I’ve struggled with besides just feeling the lack of her presence has been all of the empty space in my head that was previously filled with worrying about her. Did I give her her fluids Monday or Tuesday? Why isn’t she eating? Do I need to take her back to the vet again? Am I hurting her when I give her fluids? Who can I trust to watch her when we go out of town? (Thank you, Owen!) It was a lot of worry and anxiety over a period of one and a half years from when she was diagnosed with advanced kidney disease. I lost a lot of sleep and had mounting expenses for her health care, but it didn’t matter to me because I loved her.

So now I find all of this space, and I still find myself locked into routines that revolved around her care and making her happy. I open the blinds every morning, still expecting her to jump up on the couch to look out. I close them but leave space at the bottom at night, still thinking she’ll look out during the night. I leave my robe on my bed for her, still used to the fact that she LOVED sleeping on it. I still come home from work thinking it’s time to feed her.

After a week I started wondering if I should stop any of these behaviors, but my answer was no, that I shouldn’t, because for now it makes me feel better. I have sympathy cards in my room from friends and from our outstanding vet, who sat next to me in the room the day she died and put her arm around me, crying with me. I have flowers from a friend who lives in another state who went with me to learn how to give her fluids because I was terrified of fainting. I did clean my room and removed her food dishes, corralled all of her toys into a basket in the corner of the room for now, and tried to make everything look clean and peaceful. For a few days there was a lot of chaos as we took care of her and waited to see if she would take a turn for the better.

I grew a lot in the last year and a half and I realized that I’m a lot more capable than I ever thought I was. I’m pretty good with a needle now. I can manage multiple medications, and I can see warning signs that I couldn’t see before. I was financially capable too, more so than I thought I was.

I have a few suggestions for anyone who loses a pet, because whether it’s a horse or a hamster or anything in between, it’s still painful. But here is what I’ve learned that has helped me cope.

  1. Don’t give yourself a time limit for when you’re supposed to be done grieving, and ignore anyone who tells you to get over it. It takes as long as it takes, and some people have a harder time with grief than others. I remember when I lost my first cat, Sam, I was in a restaurant with my mom 3 months later and when she mentioned him I started crying. I’d had him for 16 years! If an animal spends a significant part of your life with you, you’ll probably spend a significant amount of time missing them. Be gentle with yourself and cry when you need to, you’ll feel so much better if you don’t hold it in.
  2. The flip side is also knowing when to get help. If you feel like you can’t function in your normal life, are losing sleep, or are feeling so sad that you don’t want to get up, please see a counselor. Also you might try supporting yourself with homeopathic remedies for grief or stress (these helped me, especially Rescue Remedy), using aromatherapy, and just generally taking really good care of yourself. If you’re not sleeping and having trouble eating you’re going to be more emotional, whether you realize it or not.
  3. Say thank you to the people that helped you with your pet, whether it was your vet, friends, or family members that were there for you. Writing thank you notes to those special people that made a difference for me in the last few days helped me to have closure.
  4. You can have your pet’s ashes returned to you, which is something I chose to do. No it’s not weird and no it’s not scary. She’s in a beautiful cedar box with her name on it, and it’s smaller than a box of Kleenex. I’m glad I did this, it made me feel better somehow. You can also purchase custom urns on Etsy and they also have memorial jewelry for your pet’s ashes or fur, and most are reasonably priced.
  5. You can also create a ritual for your pet or do something meaningful to create a sort of memorial. My mom had a friend that passed away and she decided to knit a scarf in her friend’s favorite colors to wear when she was missing her. I light a candle at home every night next to all of the cards that I got for Cricket, which makes me feel better. You can say a prayer for your pet or even talk to your pet, whatever helps you process. Frame your favorite picture of them, or if you feel like you need to, take their pictures down for awhile. It doesn’t have to be forever. Finally, if like me you’re still embedded in the daily rituals of having your pet, like opening blinds or leaving their favorite blanket out, keep doing it if it helps you cope. For the time being keeping those routines is helping me and I know that one day I won’t need them anymore.

 

Special thanks to the East Orlando Animal Hospital staff and Dr. Yaicha Peters, Shawn, Keila, Owen, Terri, and Robert, and Greenbrier Memory Gardens and Crematory, who specialize in afterlife care for animals.

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The Little Huntley Church and Cemetery

I saw this church while we were on our way to Boone, and I looked at Shawn and said, “I’m sorry, but you have to stop.” The sun was going down and we didn’t have much time, but I really wanted to see it.

So he stopped. We walked around for almost 30 minutes, took pictures, and looked in the windows. Country churches have always had my heart. I think it’s the idea of people gathering in a place where it was most likely their only chance to interact with their community once a week, because the rest of their lives were devoted to hard work on their farms, or taken up with other businesses. But I also think that you can feel devotion in these places. Devotion to God. To gathering together. To building a place by hand for this to happen.

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In my wanderings I’ve seen many small country churches, but this one stood out because it was quite primitive, with no steeple and a simple graveyard in the back of the sandy lot. I was so excited when I got out of the car I didn’t know what to look at first- the church or the graves.

I’m sure you know which one I headed for first.

Four small graves toward the front were marked with stones and had small pebbles covering them. They were child sized, and all quite close together. Toward the back we began to see taller gravestones that had beautiful elaborate text, all with the same scroll pattern at the top. Many of the dates could not be read, sadly, but it was still wonderful to see them, especially since they were most likely created by the same hand.

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I walked back up the lot to the church and stood at the front door. The white paint had turned a creamy peach color with the setting sun hitting it and it was just beautiful. I could hear the wood popping and creaking as I stood there on the new ramp they had built to cover the old stone steps leading into the church. But then I noticed a large crack between the two doors, which were closed with a simple padlock. I leaned forward, put my eye to the crack, and looked inside. The pews looked original, and they were dark with age. The church also didn’t appear to have electricity since there were gas lanterns hanging on the walls to provide light. It wasn’t a huge space, but the simplicity of the design and the white walls made the place seem calm and peaceful. Everything stood out on its own; you could see the separate elements.

But the smell! The smell of sunshine on old wood! It was incredible- strong and aromatic. It reminded me of being a kid and climbing up the hay bales to the top of the tobacco barn that my grandfather had on his property. I would lay on top of the bales and breathe in the scent of the wood and the hay, and I would listen to the creaks and moans of the old building, and splatters of rain on the tin roof. The smell of this tiny church took me right back there. The church faced a busy road and I know anyone driving by would see a woman pressed against the front doors, her face wedged as far into the crack between the doors as possible, but I didn’t care. I stood there until Shawn came up and asked to peek.

While he looked I walked over to look into the wavy glass windows to see inside a little better. I was on my tiptoes, and I noticed that in the pulpit there was an ornate upright piano and a painting of a bearded man hanging on the wall. My guess was that he was Joseph Huntley, the builder, because it sure wasn’t the Lord.

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The church was built in 1902 and Joseph Huntley was buried out back, I had been standing next to his grave when I took some of the photos. If I have the right Huntley, he didn’t get to enjoy his church very long. He died in 1903, a year after the church was completed.

I did read that the church is no longer in use on one website, and that it has services once a year in June on another website (Find A Grave).

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Earlier this year Caroline and I were driving back from Richmond on a cloudy afternoon and I was looking out the car window, watching the scenery whiz past. There were some woods, and then suddenly a vast cornfield with a very old, weathered church at the back of it. The crops came right up against the church, which had a small steeple. Most of the windows seemed to be gone. The white paint had peeled off with years of storms, snow, and sun, but to me it was absolutely perfect. We thought about turning around to try to stop and get photos, but it would have been difficult since it was literally right off the highway.

Most people have what I call a Million Dollar Dream. Its the one that starts with- If money were no object… and it goes from there. I never wanted a huge house or a Maserati, I’m happy with my education, and I think I have enough jewelry. My splurge would be on an old building- historic, really. Research. Restoration. Maybe a chunk of land. Advertising. Then I’d turn it into a memorial center for funerals and give the proceeds to…somebody.

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Earlier this year one of my friends was hospitalized, and we had no idea what was wrong for a few days. It was terrifying. One night after visiting the hospital I knew I couldn’t make it to my car before I started crying. I knew where the hospital chapel was though, and I went for it. Even though it had lamps, there were still fluorescent lights buzzing away overhead and the chapel was full of industrial chairs turned in all different directions. I sat for awhile, thinking about how I might have felt better braving the stares of others and heading to my car anyway. Modern spaces are a fact of life, but not necessarily a comfort, and I understand that facilities do their best with their funding and their corporate regulations. But still…

I think that if you go though something traumatic, it just might help ease the pain somewhat if you sit in a place that hundreds have sat in before you, and you can feel the weight of all those years, and prayers, and ancestors surrounding you. I’ve never once felt like that in a modern church, no matter how much I love the pastor or how many people attend, but I know that some other people do.

But…not me. If being in an old space comforts me in some way, it might comfort others as well when they need it most.

 

 

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.

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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Page-Jackson Cemetery and Deep Woods OFF

This is a cemetery that I would like to draw your attention to for several reasons.

  1. It’s historic. Many Sanford pioneers are here and the plot for Zora Neale- Hurston’s family may possibly be here, though Zora herself is buried in Ft. Pierce.
  2. It needs help from the community in order to be restored and preserved; it’s in danger of being lost to the woods and the clean-up for this site is overwhelming.
  3. It is chock-full of burials and monuments…but you can’t see them unless you have a good can of bug-spray and sturdy shoes.
  4. Because of it’s delicate condition and value as a historical resource, this cemetery has really stolen my heart.
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Shiloh Cemetery entrance.

I found this cemetery when researching the Evergreen Municipal Cemetery, which is made up of five different cemeteries that have bled together throughout the years, forming an enormous arterial network of graves and monuments. Four of the cemeteries include Shiloh (maintained by a church), Restlawn and Lakeview (maintained by the city of Sanford), and the odd child… Page Jackson (not maintained by any one except volunteers). I haven’t been to the fifth one yet but it’s in there somewhere.

The ground there is spongy from burials and sunken graves are everywhere, some of them up to a couple of feet deep. Some of the ground has been cleared by a group of volunteers, revealing old headstones, some handmade, and a ground littered with funeral home markers. Most are rusted but in good condition to read since they were filled out by hand in the days before the typed paper ones. These are on thin sheets of metal from Eichelberger Funeral Home in Sanford, most from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Here is what I love about the markers- most are written in the same handwriting. One person had a very long career in funeral service. The funeral home is still servicing the community under the name Wilson-Eichelberger Mortuary.

Past the cleared area you start to notice headstones in the woods and you charge in out of curiosity (if you’re like me) or sit on the dirt road and squint into the woods in fear (if you happen to be cemetery phobic). Thankfully both of the people I went with aren’t scared of anything.

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In a family plot.

The woods are separated by the dirt road, and in another section of woods I started finding entire family plots, some with concrete barriers to mark the space, some with rusting chain still looped between poles. I’ve never seen another cemetery like it. I stayed on that side for awhile noticing that there seemed to be quite a few veterans graves, and there were also crime line notices posted all over the place. People were being encouraged to call if they noticed any suspicious activity – besides me and my friends walking through the woods in astonished silence. At one point the woods thinned and then ended abruptly in front of a huge trash pile and a large, flat field full of other graves, mostly with ledger stones rather than headstones. This was Shiloh Cemetery.

After being in the shady woods coming out into the bright field seemed surreal. The original cemetery gates were gone if they ever even existed, but the brick entrance was there and you could just make out the word ‘cemetery’ in faded white paint. The graves were painted bright colors or just left in plain concrete, and one had a man’s name spray painted onto the surface to serve as his marker. There were no dates, and on my second visit there were new burials sporting flowers with bright blue ribbons resting on top of the sandy soil.

Page Jackson is an African-American cemetery and is Sanford’s first black cemetery. Many of the graves are unmarked and in my reading I read that William Page-Jackson was a gravedigger at the cemetery and allowed people to bury their dead for free for many years. Eventually the place was called after him, because he was the resident authority over the space. He did what he wanted. In another account, I read that he was a farmer that had land that adjoined the cemetery, and it was named after him for that reason. I don’t know which account is true but I suspect it’s the second one.

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Handmade stones for Sarah King.

Meanwhile, this cemetery feels like it’s waiting to be found, like it has more stories to tell. People are looking for their family members and I know that one day when the space is finally cleared, there will likely be many more surprises awaiting volunteers and families. One surprise that I got while visiting was to find a team of paranormal investigators on the property with all of their equipment. The group leader described the cemetery as “friendly”. I loved that.

Currently 6 acres of the cemetery are not owned by the city, but the rest of Evergreen is. That means no maintenance from the city. It seems impossible in this day and age that these places can come to this kind of end, but it is surprisingly easy when you’re not really sure who owns the land or who has the right to work on it.

This cemetery has a history of vandalism and because of that police patrol the area on a regular basis, including at night. There is also a house on the property that is inhabited. (“My dream house!” I gleefully told Shawn. He laughed, but I could smell the fear.) If you visit this cemetery please walk carefully, don’t go in tick season, and put back anything you touch. Also, report any vandalism to the police, though it’s doubtful you will see anything with all of the activity in the area.

I picked a funeral home marker up off the ground that was handwritten and 58 years old, still perfectly legible. I put it back knowing that that was the only thing left to tell where Mr. Frank June was, and in a few years, no one will know anyway unless something is done for this place. The next time I visit I’m planning to just bring trash bags and fill them up. Every little bit helps and I don’t own a weed whacker or a chainsaw. And did you know that if you buy the dry version of Deep Woods OFF it will actually roll off of your skin in a powdery mess if you happen to accidentally touch any part of yourself after it’s applied? I didn’t either.

For more information about the cemetery and previous efforts at clean-up and restoration, you can visit this article from 2008.

Thanks to Keila and Shawn for the great photos!