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.

Zion Lutheran Church Cemetery in Gotha, Florida

The Carey Hand funeral records called this plot of land the Gotha Cemetery back in 1928. It’s a large chunk of land for 18 burials, and when we were sitting in the car in front of it arguing about  whether or not it was actually there, the thing was staring us right in the face. The whole plot is fenced with a handsome, high black fence, but don’t let that put you off. There’s a gate on 2 sides to enter. There is no sign indicating that this is a cemetery or that it’s owned by the church, but it is there. If you look carefully you can see spots of color standing out through the verdant green of the overgrown lot, and these are flowers that someone has brought for one of the graves. While the land is not tended, the graves are. Most of them were clean and cared for, at least minimally, and what headstones we could see were in good repair. Hats off to whoever is working to keep this cemetery respectable. The most recent burial was in 2013, so it’s possibly still in use.

The land itself is a tangle of branches, vines, and downed trees so if you do visit use caution. There are also miscellaneous pieces of rusting equipment on the property that you’ll want to look out for. The cemetery is in the middle of the property and has several fenced family plots.

You’ll find the Nehrlings buried here, the family that started the botanical gardens literally right around the corner. Their home is still there along with 6 acres of their land and it is open for tours. It’s on my list of places to visit, I love the idea that something that Dr. Nehrling started in 1885 is still left.

Nearby you will find a small grave for Ferdinand Runge who died at 2 years old and is the first marked burial at this site (death date 1898). He has a beautiful grave that is tended and completely fenced with natural wood fencing. The next marked grave wasn’t until 1900 and it made me feel sad to think of him there all alone for 2 years.

Also here is the Hartmann family, Ludwig and his younger wife Antoine. The Hartmann’s came over from Germany; Ludwig’s immigration was in 1883. All of their children were born here in Florida, and by 1900 they already had six daughters. Ludwig was an orange farmer and the census records show them surrounded by other farmers and fruit merchants. The farm that they owned was mortgage free so it seems that they were prosperous.

When Ludwig died his funeral was handled by Carey Hand funeral home, the oldest funeral home in Orange county. He died of uremia, and it seems like so many of the funeral records that I’ve come across include deaths from kidney-related diseases. I’m going to have to research that some day, it’s easy to speculate but I’d be curious to read more about that. His funeral record was apparently filled out by the laziest person (or the busiest) in that funeral home on that day in 1940 because it literally says almost nothing. The person who filled out his wife’s record included her maiden name, Krause, as well as all other pertinent information. Their records can be viewed on Central Florida Memory.

Gotha was originally a German colony started by Henry Hempel and is near Windermere. This cemetery is worth a look because it’s so unusual and it’s full of our German pioneers that made Florida their home.

Osteen Cemetery in Osteen, Florida

Osteen is a small town in Volusia county near Enterprise. Well, it feels small, but apparently has undergone a lot of growth in the last 2 years. It has a small town feel to it though, like you’d expect Andy Griffith to walk out at any moment wearing his sheriff’s uniform and saying “Howdy!”. (I would love that. It’s still one of my goals to visit his grave and I was really sad when he died.)

Don’t judge me…much.

This cemetery is really private, which is a good thing because you can wander freely without cars passing by or people walking through with you. It’s a bad thing because in terms of Florida history, this place is a treasure trove and needs all the protection it can get. Speaking of protection, the sand parking area in front of the gate (a cattle gate, by the way) was littered with condom wrappers. I seem to see more and more of that lately and it always baffles me. I bet if your grandma was buried here you’d think twice about bringing a date here for ‘romance’.

This is considered an active cemetery and it appears to have a lot of space on the right, but I didn’t really notice and new burials the day we were there. The left side was drawing so much of my attention anyway with it’s beautiful old headstones. Lots of Sauls and Osteens here, and they had good taste in funerary art because some of the headstones are just beautiful. The Saul family built a home near here and raised their family with the Osteens. They started a whole community called Saulsville, but as these things always go in Florida, this happened and that happened, and people died, and the house burned to the ground. This is the part of history that I don’t like, hearing about all of the amazing places that have burned down, usually while they were stuffed full of old papers that some genealogist or writer needs in 2017.

I read that this cemetery is near an African American burial ground, but I wasn’t able to find it, or I wasn’t able to tell if it was actually incorporated into this cemetery. We walked the perimeter which is heavily wooded and in one corner I looked down and saw a number on a round piece of concrete. The numbers were in rows, and took up a considerable part of that corner of the cemetery. I saw nothing that would indicate who was buried here, but I always feel sad when I just see numbers instead of names. There are also a lot of children buried here, and their stones were, to me, the prettiest I’d seen. The lambs were beautifully carved on many of them and retained a lot of detail.

Toward the back of the cemetery on the left you’ll see a small section that is fenced off and has the weirdest headstones inside. They’re all damaged and aren’t readable in the slightest, and the stone has turned almost black with age and is pitted. I’ve never seen any like them. It looks almost like they’ve started to melt. This section is also home to a sizable gopher tortoise, which has built a mansion near one of these headstones.

The cemetery was established in 1884 and is certainly one that I will visit again. And since we were talking about illicit cemetery visits at the beginning of this post, in 2012 a mother of 2 stabbed a man with an ice pick, strangled him to death with a cord, and then mutilated his body… in self-defense, she said. Where did she do this? In the parking area of this cemetery.

You can view the news story here.

Page Jackson Cemetery Part 2

There will be many parts because I love this cemetery so much, but more than that… I love the story of this cemetery. And so I went back to take another look, and this time I saw different things that I had not noticed before.

When Heather and I pulled up to the dirt road that winds through the cemetery we saw an older man with a rake working away by himself in the central part of the cemetery. We both smiled and waved, but he just stared at us. We parked a little ways away to give him some privacy and started to wander. It was cloudy and grey, rain was threatening- and the night before we’d had a huge rainstorm that made the ground spongy. I’d worn my old horse boots just in case there was mud. There was also a lot of wind, which was awesome to hear in the trees. We’d walked down the road to Shiloh cemetery and then turned to come back when he decided to approach us. I walked up and introduced myself and found out that his name was Tom, and he’d been coming to work at this property since the mid 80’s. He was protective of the space and rightfully so, because somebody needs to stand up for this cemetery and it just so happens that recently, somebody did.

Part of the cemetery actually has an owner now, one that cares, according to what Tom told us. I’m thrilled about it and about witnessing the changes that will take place under new ownership. At least that’s my dream, that this place will start to look loved again instead of completely abandoned. There is a pile of clothes, an empty wine bottle, and an old bag of food on top of one of the graves. People are living in here. They’re having sex here. There are condoms at the back of the cemetery; they’re all over the place. Someone actually left her ID there, half buried in the mud next to the trash pile. If there was ever a cemetery that needed a locked gate, this is it. The three of us made a few jokes about what we would do if someone we dated suggested sex in a cemetery. We were cracking ourselves up coming up with pick-up lines. All of us said we’d never had anyone ever mention that to us and we couldn’t figure out why it was such a popular thing to do. I feel like if there were gates and people couldn’t drive into the back of the cemetery then a lot of this behavior would probably stop. It’s one thing to get frisky in your car, and another thing entirely to get naked on the cold ground which is potentially loaded with ticks, burrs, and thorny vines. And frankly, Shiloh and Page Jackson both look like something from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Whoever is going in there for that purpose is crazy.

We walked around for almost 2 hours, and my favorite thing that Tom showed us was the Hurston plot, supposedly belonging to the family of Zora Neale Hurston, the Florida writer that wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Hurston is buried in Ft. Pierce.) Tom had to use his rake to pull back the vegetation to expose the graves, but there they were. I’ve been to this cemetery at least 3 times and never saw them. Who else might be there, waiting to be uncovered?

We marched back into the woods while Tom used his rake to bat vines and branches out of the way. We passed a broken crypt that looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. We passed multiple gopher tortoise homes- they like to dig under the ledger stones and kick up huge piles of sand, potentially causing problems with the grave site. We walked past one ledger stone that had a giant pile of poop on top of it from some type of large animal, God knows what it was. The woods are filled with funeral home markers and in every section you can see graves from multiple decades. There’s no logical progression when it comes to dates. I asked Tom about it.

“This was the Wild West,” he said, telling us that William Page Jackson had allowed burials by anyone at any place in the cemetery. I haven’t been able to verify too many facts about this place and the records are scant, but it seems likely that something like that happened.

I’m planning to do some research on many of the graves I photographed that day- but here’s my question…where is William Page Jackson buried? Is he here too? I can’t find him. And I’d really like to have a word with him.

Before we left I asked Heather to pose by my favorite family plot, way, WAY back in the woods. It’s completely overgrown but in the spring it’s filled with blazing pink azaleas and it’s so beautiful.

“Look like you own the place,” I told her.

She did. I think anyone that loves this place owns it. We are planning our own little clean up group soon- if you’re interested in joining us please let me know by leaving a comment or emailing me at marnie.bench@gmail.com. The main goal is just to go pick up trash. That’s it. That’s a start.

Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery in Duval County

Sounds like something from a storybook, right? When I was a kid I loved a book called The Magical Drawings of Mooney B. Finch, and I read it until it fell apart. That was the first thing I thought of when my mom drove me up to the gates of this historic cemetery. She loves cemeteries too and will scout out new locations for me to see when I go visit her, and she almost always goes with me. One time last year I did sneak off to see one that she told me probably wasn’t safe to go to by myself, and I told her about it afterwards.

“Well, how was it? ” she asked.

“I think it was fine. I never saw anyone.”

She just smiled and said she wanted to go with me next time.

The Camp Captain Mooney Cemetery is a surprise. It’s set way back in what’s part neighborhood, part business/warehouse area- which is how Jacksonville is designed anyway. There’s wasn’t a lot of reason applied to the layout. This is a small cemetery and the only hazard I can think to warn you about ahead of time is that the ground can be quite spongy. My mom walks with a cane and was basically doing ground testing while she was walking around because her cane kept sinking.

The cemetery was established on March 1st, 1864 after a short battle (the Battle of Cedar Creek), and the creek is nearby and is actually quite sizeable. There is also a historical marker there and you can get out and take pictures because even though it’s on a busy road, there is a place to pull over and a sidewalk. The death toll for the day included 7 Confederates, 2 Union, with others wounded and some captured. Writing about battles is not my strong suit, so I’m including the Wikipedia article. The cemetery was started on the day of the battle; the dead were buried there, and it was used for some time though it is very small, with only about 114 interments. Captain Mooney is there also- and his veteran’s headstone doesn’t have a birth date or death date on it.

There are some wonderful headstones here and quite a few handmade ones. I’ve been to this cemetery twice, and the first time I noticed four graves, looked at the stones, and must have blanked out because I didn’t notice that all four graves had the same death date. Shawn and my mom called me over to look on this visit, and I took photos to do some research. Emma, Dora, and Mary Silcox all died on June 26, 1927, along with their friend Frances Norton. Mary was 15, Dora was 12, and Emma was 9 years old. Frances was a friend of the family and was only 19. They drowned during a boating accident at Clearwater Lake in Jacksonville, which is now a place to hike and fish. I can’t imagine what that family went through losing three of their children and a close friend in one day.

Private James S. Turknett is also buried here even though the  Turknett Cemetery is right down the road- it’s connected to the Smith Cemetery. The Turknett’s are buried in the back and the gate to that part of the cemetery has a bright blue sign that reads Turknett Cemetery, while on the other side it says Smith Cemetery on a very formal plaque. There is also a third set of gates that are probably for hearse access that are large, fancy wrought iron and do not have any name on them. These two cemeteries are in the back of a neighborhood and there was yet another sign posted on a light pole warning about fees associated with disturbing graves or remains, and that the fine is up to 5,000 dollars, 5 years in jail, or both. It’s a 3rd degree felony and I wish more people would think it through before they decide to do something that stupid.

If you do find yourself in Jacksonville and want to see something a little more unusual before you head off to the Victorian glory of Evergreen or the Old City Cemetery downtown (best to keep your wits about you down there, that one is a little weird), then these three cemeteries are worth a look.

Camp Captain Mooney is now owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and it is always impeccable every time I go. Just be careful with your cane. Also, Shawn and I have a knack for finding bones in cemeteries (animals, thankfully) and this trip had a small surprise as well.

Restlawn Memorial Park in Jacksonville, Florida

This cemetery has been in the news in the last 2 years due to allegations of improper burials, and is under new ownership- which I think is a good thing. The news story is disturbing, and Jacksonville has had it’s fair share of bad press when it comes to cemeteries in the last year alone. But in this situation, it appears that the new owner is doing the right thing and is working hard to that end.

So when I found out that my grandparents were buried there recently, I breathed a sigh of relief because they weren’t in Beaches Memorial Park, part of a long and ongoing investigation for all kinds of horrible things, and I also breathed a sigh of relief because I finally knew where they were. When my grandfather died I was 17. That was the last time I went to that cemetery, and no one who was with me that day could remember where it was or the name of it once I grew up and started this…hobby. I’d looked and looked on Find A Grave to no avail, and then in January of this year the cemetery was recorded and lo and behold, the grandparents showed up as a record. I was thrilled.

Then I saw the news story. So when I drove through the gates by myself that day I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wanted them to be in a pretty place with no problems, and that was exactly what I found when I got there. While this cemetery is not beautiful in a Bonaventure sort of way, it is pretty, with large trees and a well-kept lawn. It was also much larger than my 17 year old self had remembered, and so I pulled up in front of the offices to get some help finding my family members.

I was greeted right away, and I realized right then that I may not have the tact needed to work in the funeral business, even though I would like to.

I explained what I was doing there and that I had been very young the last time I’d been there.

“And what are the names of your loved ones? ” She asked me kindly.

“Charles and Susie Sears,” I said. I gave her the date of my grandfather’s death in 1990. She asked me to wait a moment and indicated a couch where I could sit down.

If it had been me, I don’t know that I would have thought to say “What are the names of your loved ones?” which sounds very nice. I probably would have just asked for their names and been my usual direct self. I appreciated her delicacy while I marveled at it.

She came back and asked me for the date of my grandmother’s death instead, and I showed her my printout from Find A Grave. She vanished again into a back office. The offices were nice and there was a pretty chandelier hanging in the entrance way. I had noticed though that those same offices shared an inside wall with the mausoleum that had been attached to the building. Or maybe the offices had been attached to it instead. Either way, it seemed like odd energy to have behind you while you work all day.

While I waited I was greeted nicely by two other people who both asked if I needed anything. When the first lady came back she was smiling and told me if I’d just wait outside, a gentleman would drive me to see my grandparents. I said that I could walk, but she said they’d prefer to take me there. I went outside and waited.

I’d been there maybe a minute when I heard someone call out “Charles Sears?” I turned and there was a man standing next to a golf cart, gesturing for me to get in with him. I slid onto the seat beside him. I expected a sedate and solemn ride through the graves and for this to be a gentle experience. That is not what happened, but what happened makes me laugh every time I think about it.

The second I was on the seat next to him he punched it and the cart took off; one second we were on the paved road and the next second he was speeding across the grass, looking down on his side of the golf cart at the ground as we sped past graves on our bumpy ride. I was hanging on tightly, trying to look casual as I told him the last time I’d been there had been in 1990. Turns out, that was when he started working there. He was talking amiably about his work as we bounced along over grass and pine cones before coming to an abrupt halt. My hair swung forward.

“There they are,” he said. “I can wait.” He folded his hands on the steering wheel.

“No that’s okay, I’m parked right there,” I said, pointing. The offices were actually pretty close by and I could see my car.

“Okay. But just remember for your next visit, the mausoleum is right there, and they line up with that.” He smiled and bid me good day before zipping off again in his cart. I’m not sure of his job title, but when it comes to driving a golf cart through a graveyard very fast, he is a skilled professional.

I turned and looked down at the ground. And yes, there they were. If there had been a vase it had been stolen, but the plaque itself wasn’t in bad condition. I just stood there with the sun shining on my head while breathing in the chilly air, and I thought about them. Random memories. My grandfather’s ability to draw. My grandmother’s scrambled eggs.

I told them I’d be back for Christmas and that I was glad to have found them.

Restlawn was opened in 1929 and is still an active, operating cemetery.

That Trip To Jacksonville

Last week I went to Jacksonville for a cemetery training put on by The Florida Public Archaeology Network. It was going to be my second one that I’ve attended, and I was really looking forward to it because the first one was so much fun. An hour before I left work, I bent over to get something out of the fridge in the office and felt my back go out. I decided to go anyway. By the time I got to Jacksonville after an almost 3 hour drive I was barely able to walk upright and was in a lot of pain. I’m stubborn, and I decided that the next morning I’d see if I felt well enough to attend the all-day workshop, even though that night I had to climb onto the antique bed at my mom’s kind of like a toddler climbs onto a couch.

I knew when I got up and hobbled to my mom’s favorite chair with the heating pad that there would be no 6 hour class for me. I sat on the heating pad for an hour, had breakfast with my mom (with a side of Advil), and limped out of the house after she went to work, intent on at least seeing a cemetery while I was there. I bundled up somewhat because it was surprisingly cold and drove out to Evergreen Cemetery, which is HUGE. It’s 167 acres of pure beauty that also includes an arboretum- and as I had discovered after some research- 2 receiving vaults. These were my main reason for visiting. On my last visit I had wandered through the beautiful mausoleum complex and chapel, but when I heard about the vaults I knew I had to see them.

Receiving vaults in Florida are quite rare because they’re usually found in colder climates where bodies needed to be stored before burial because the ground was frozen. Now they can thaw the ground with lots of fancy equipment, and some cemeteries still have vaults on the grounds but I’ve never seen one in Florida. The ones I’ve seen were in Knoxville and Charleston, and I was thrilled to see them because at that time it had been something that I’d only heard of.

I knew where the office was and heard that I could ask for a map there, so I went in shortly after they opened and asked where the vaults were. The receptionist looked at me for a beat before she placed a rather large map on the counter and stared at it for a few seconds. Then she looked up at me and said apologetically, “I can’t remember how to get to them, I’m going to go ask.”

I waited while hearing a whispered conversation taking place in the next room. She came back smiling and told me they were by gate five. I had no idea that there were more than 2 gates, so when she showed me how to get there on the map I was shocked. I thanked her and got back into the car, noting that the Advil had started working and I felt like I was walking more normally. I drove out of gate 1 and drove slowly around the main road and passed gates 2, 3, 4 and then noticed that the fifth gate was locked. I drove to the next one, only to find that it said Temple Cemetery and not Gate 5. I stopped anyway because there were a lot of mausoleums. I’ll be writing about that section in another blog post.

The next gate was actually labeled Gate 5 and I pulled in and turned to the right. The receiving vaults were directly in front of me. One was smaller and had room for 12, the other was larger, from a different decade (1927) and had room for 30. I’m not sure on the date of the first one. The cemetery was founded in 1880 and the first burial was in 1881. The cemetery actually had a train depot on site (the tracks run right next to it and are active) and the vault was primarily used for people visiting Florida for extended periods during the winter who came for the sunshine and then…died. The families rented space in the vaults to store their loved one until they went back home on the train and took the body with them for burial. In one source that I seem to have misplaced I read that the first vault was often full and they needed to build the second one as Jacksonville grew and more people visited. The cemetery made a little income from renting out the vaults, and the rest of the families could finish their visit without the expense of going back home for a funeral and then returning until spring. Weird, but more than likely true.

One vault is gated and one is not- and of course I went in. The leaves were crunching under my feet, the sunlight was slanting in, and even with it I felt chilly surrounded by all of that heavy marble. The place was fantastic, but had either succumbed to some vandalism or the aging process. Either way it’s incredible. On this trip I took a video of each vault, so take a look! (Part 2 here) I didn’t speak because they were running blowers and a lawnmower next to them, but at least you can see the inside. And yes, my back is feeling better!

 

 

Children’s Burials

Some of you might wince at this and stop reading, if you even got this far, and I get it. I don’t have children but like a lot of women I still turn into a lioness when I see or hear of them being mistreated, and I feel so much sadness for anyone who loses a child. I don’t know what that’s like, but I imagine a pain that is completely soul crushing. I have a friend who told me once about losing her child before it was even 2 weeks old and I sat and cried with her, and then cried on the plane after our visit, still under the spell of pain and anguish. I do know that it’s not something you ever get over and that some people never move past it.

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It’s this particular kind of pain that makes children’s burials so poignant and also so very personal. It is usually on these graves where we see the most creativity, the sweetest pictures, and the most gifts left on the grave. A concentrated space for children in a cemetery is usually called Babyland, and it’s usually marked with a sign as if you couldn’t tell already by the style of the headstones and the feel of the place. If the family already has a plot purchased, the child will usually go with the rest of the family. If not, the plot is purchased in the section for babies instead. At Greenwood Cemetery here in Orlando there are three Babyland sections, and one of them is a newer space and is always fluttering with balloons, pinwheels, and wind chimes. It’s an active space within the cemetery, and I love that. When we went the week after Halloween to take some pictures we found that someone had gone through the entire section and left 3 pieces of candy on each grave, as though the babies had been trick-or-treating.

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Headstones for children range from the more sedate stones to ones that are in the shape of cartoon characters or small animals. A Pac-Man in South Carolina comes to mind that was designed for an eight year old boy. The traditional stone for children usually has a lamb on the top, though I have seen them with small birds that appear the be lying down. A lot of children’s stones have some type of picture on them, which can be heartbreaking to see. I particularly like the photos that aren’t studio pictures, but ones where the child is playing and happy. I have a favorite one of these that I featured in a previous post. It was during my last visit to Greenwood that I saw my first post-mortem portrait of a child on a headstone, and it startled me as the date was from the 1990’s. I had always believed this to be a much older custom (also more European) and had never seen a post-mortem on any headstone before. It startled me a bit because it was unexpected given the dates in this plot- which ranged from 1975 to present day, essentially my own lifespan.

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My favorite type of child’s markers are the ones with the child lying down, usually on some type of draped bed. They’re beautiful and peaceful but not something that I get to see that often. I saw two of them recently, one in Magnolia Cemetery and one in Bethany Cemetery, both in Charleston. There is also a good example of a child reclining on a bed at St. Roch’s Cemetery in New Orleans, right when you enter the cemetery gates. However, that’s not what makes that cemetery so spooky. If you’ve never been, it’s what’s inside the chapel that will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. (Google it.) In Savannah one of the most famous child’s graves is that of Gracie Watson in Bonaventure. She had so many visitors and gifts that the cemetery erected a fence around her to keep her safe. Even with the fence, there are gifts left everywhere for her, and of course there are always rumors that she walks around the cemetery at night.

The baby section in the Geneva Cemetery here in Florida is fenced off completely with a wooden picket fence, as though they wanted people to stay out of the section. When you lean over the fence with your hands on the top to look in, you get the same sensation of looking into a crib and I wondered if that was part of the planning since the plot is so small and only holds a few children.

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I think for me one of the most interesting aspects of the Babyland sections is the type of sculpture chosen for the space. In Greenwood there is an angel looking down at her empty hands, as if she had been cradling a child and looked down to find that it was suddenly gone. I suppose it’s also a way for grieving parents to imagine their own children held in those heavenly arms and perhaps find some comfort in that.

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Charnel Cemetery in Deland, Florida.

The word charnel means “associated with death” and a charnel house means “a repository for bones”, and that was exactly the feeling I had in this cemetery, as if all of these people had been dropped off, were anonymous, and unable to tell their story. This cemetery is also known as the Potter’s Field, where they once buried the poor or unknown in Deland. This cemetery has 450 burials and faces the back of the hospital. It does not have a sign from the road for you to find it, you have to look for the hospital as a landmark. The road to the cemetery appears unused.

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It’s the saddest cemetery I’ve ever been to.

Jane Burr wrote an article on this cemetery for the Roots and Branches Genealogical Society of West Volusia County Summer 2015 newsletter. In it she mentions that the land for the hospital was at one time the Volusia County Home, or welfare home. The cemetery may have been part of it, but it’s not known for sure. Some of the graves are marked with headstones and some simply have numbers, most of which have worn off. Some have dates and others don’t. Some have names, and one heartbreaking one simply said Twin A and Twin B, with only a last name.

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The graves run in order, starting at the back from the 1960’s and culminate in the front of the property in the late 1990’s. The most recent grave I found was from 1998. There were other puzzles here though- in the far right corner I saw 2 small graves of children that were with the 1960’s row, but were dated 1995. They had been visited and had small mementos on the graves. At the front there were several graves that were right up against the chain link fence and were facing the other graves, and they were from the 90’s also. I couldn’t figure out why they were in a different direction. If you know, please leave a comment or go to the contact form.

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When I pulled up I passed the entrance and went instead to the mostly empty hospital parking lot. I parked at the end facing the cemetery and noticed that there were weeds and debris, so I got out, opened the back of the Durango, and pulled off my sandals and pulled on my high rubber boots. I locked the door and started walking down the slope to the cemetery road. Three women stood under a tree in the parking lot, smoking and watching me. They stayed the whole time I was there.

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Stepping into the knee high weeds of the cemetery was like having a heavy blanket thrown over me. It felt sad. It looked unloved. Someone had mowed the grass over the summer and had left the clippings to dry on top of the stones, stuck across the names in a thick mat. I brushed off several of them until I got a splinter and stopped, and even then I just used my other hand instead if I really wanted to see a name. A huge tree and large branch were down in one corner of the cemetery and had broken the fence, and as a result about 20 of the graves were obscured. The hurricane had just happened and no one had been out here yet, which was totally understandable since Volusia county had been smacked by Matthew. There was no number on the gate to call, but I was almost certain that someone would be here to maintain the place. The city owns it.

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I know that during construction of the hospital a skull was found and construction was stopped while they investigated. And then, as is usually the case, it resumed. Investigators found another 13 graves outside of the site that were left alone, and said that the ones on site were dated 1900-1950. There are few records for the people who lived at the county home, but the news article from 2015 indicates that the conditions were terrible.

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A depressing story, all the way around. When I walked back up the hill to the Durango the women stubbed out their cigarettes and left. I put on some loud music to try to clear the heavy feeling and drove to Starbucks, the home of all things cheerful and tasty. It worked for awhile until I got home and tried to pull the splinter out of my finger, and I thought that I’ll probably never forget what that place felt like.

I wish the city would rename the cemetery.

 

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.