Valentine’s morning was cold this year, but my boyfriend and I woke up in my favorite city, congratulated ourselves on our amazing good fortune at being together, and got ready for a morning in the local cemeteries. The fact that he was willing to go cemetery hopping with me on such a day probably proved that he liked me very much indeed, and we dressed warmly for the occasion and he seemed as excited as I was to be going out. On Valentine’s Day. To look at graveyard. God bless him.
St. Augustine has two cemeteries in the old city that are off limits, so basically if you’re a tapophile you get to hang over the gates with your camera and drool, but that’s it. One of them is the Old Huguenot Cemetery across from the crumbling fort, Castillo de San Marcos, and the other is down a side street nearby, close to the Old Pharmacy turned Potter’s Wax Museum (I’m cringing as I type this) called the Tolomato Cemetery. Both are fiercely protected, and rightly so. A bit farther away is the Mission de Nombre Dios which is the site of the first church service in St. Augustine, and it fortunately has a beautiful cemetery accessible to anyone who wishes to walk through.
However, on this particular morning we were looking for something farther away from the city, an African-American cemetery that was abandoned until recent years. It’s been in several news articles over the years and during the past few months it has been in the caring hands of volunteers and archaeologists as they record the cemetery and hopefully, continue restoration. I really wanted to see it, so we headed to Starbucks and hit the road with hot beverages in our cold hands.
The San Sebastian Pinehurst cemeteries are on one plot of land that reaches pretty far back into the woods. It is marked with a sign and a beaten down chain link fence surrounds the property. The fence had literally been stomped down or run over at some point, so it was just a matter of us stepping over it to enter and we walked right past the gates to do this. The breeze was chilly on my face, and I could smell the crisp scent of wood smoke in the air. Nearby there was a rooster crowing, and I could hear voices coming from the small church across the street as they got ready for their Sunday services. No one seemed to mind that we were there.
As we started our walk around I noticed that there was damage, but I didn’t notice outright vandalism anywhere, such as smashed headstones or monuments that were pushed over. There was a lot of trash though. All of the stones seemed to be fairly low to the ground, and many of them were sunk deep into the soil, leaving just a few inches above ground to read. The deeper in we walked, the more it started to look as if the whole cemetery had been victim to some sort of flood that caused the stones to sink. So many of the graves had also weathered down to fairly deep pits- I’d never seen that kind of sinking in a graveyard. I was grateful for the knee high boots I was wearing. I got stuck in branches several times and the leaf cover was thick. I also sank in the sandy soil once or twice.
I assumed a lot of the damage was due to the sand, years of neglect, and the presence of many handmade headstones that may not have been placed with the same stability as their funeral home ordered counterparts. The cemetery was also full of graves with ledger stones, concrete pieces the size of the grave that lay on top of the soil. Many of these stones had come from the same place, they were identical and had a black laurel wreath on them or other decorations, like a cross. Many of the name plates were unreadable, just like the gravestones. A lot of the stones had weathered conch shells on top of them, bleached white by decades of sun and rain.
There were two headstones that caught my eye as I looked around. One was a child’s small stone that was near a tree and had toppled over. Ronnie A. Bellamy, it read, 1959-1962. Three years old. The epitaph said “We will meet in the morning.” I photographed it, but later when I looked it up on Find A Grave there was no Ronnie Bellamy listed for either Pinehurst or San Sebastian cemeteries. I also tried Ancestry, and a search of the nearby Evergreen Cemetery with no luck other than a recorded death index.
The other stone was handmade and attracted me because it had very distinct lettering, it stood out because it was so readable, unlike many of the other headstones. Christine Clayborne 1882-1954. I took a careful photo and told myself I’d look her up when I had the time.
At the back of the cemetery we noticed that the chain link fence bordered the huge and ostentatiously beautiful Evergreen cemetery that we passed on the way in. Standing there in the dilapidated cemetery looking at all of the gleaming white marble on the other side was an interesting feeling. I sincerely hope that they’re able to save this cemetery from further ruin, it’s no less valid or beautiful than the other one with its angels and obelisks.
We turned around and right in front of us was a new grave. It startled the hell out of me, the cemetery seemed like it was long past allowing new burials, but there it was, bright and shiny. The roses were fresh and pink, the carnations didn’t have a spot of brown on them, and the bows were still crisp. It was a woman or a young girl, judging by the arrangements. They had laid the ledger stone and coarse sand was piled all around, making it look like a construction site. I looked over my shoulder at the way into the cemetery and thought that they must have done some fancy driving to get this person back here. It would be very easy to drive over a grave in this place and with such heavy leaf cover it would be hard to tell where any road existed aside from the one in the middle of the property. There was no name or funeral home marker.
On the way toward the front we stopped at two brick vaults (I usually refer to them as pizza-ovens because that’s what they remind me of). The face of one of them had fallen over and I bent down to see if it had been pried off or had just fallen over from age. It appeared to be the latter, and the dark, wet smell of earth and mold coming from the stones made me stand and step back. At the front of the cemetery was a grave with a low wall surrounding it that held shells, tin cans rusted brown, soda bottles, a CD with writing on it, pieces of brick and bits of glass. It was an epic collection of momentos. I couldn’t find a name on any of the stones nearby.
As we were leaving we drove through Evergreen and marveled at the difference. It was nicely designed and had many beautiful monuments, including the grave of Randolph Caldecott, the English artist that the Caldecott award is named after. While pretty, it didn’t interest me the way San Sebastian did. I was quiet as we drove off to our lunch reservation at La Pentola, still wondering about the fate of the cemetery we had wandered through. I was grateful for the people choosing to work on it.
If you visit please tread carefully and I’d advise you not to touch too much since many of the stones are delicate.
Also, you’ll need some good shoes.
And it turns out that Shawn did indeed like me, because he asked me to marry him that day and I accepted his proposal. Thankfully, he asked me on the beach and not in the cemetery. He is aware that cemetery weddings are popular, and he is also aware that while that interests me, I’m not going to make him do it.
**Postscript- I found out two weeks ago that this cemetery has been officially closed for new burials and the funeral gates have been locked.