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.
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.
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.
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.