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.

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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Rosalie Raymond White in Magnolia Cemetery

I’ve been reading recently about the prevalence of finding a likeness on a tombstone ever since I saw this grave last month. It’s quite rare to see a death mask on a tombstone, and the rumor is that the tiny face on this unusual marker is in fact a death mask, or a likeness taken after death.

Today there are various ways of including the person’s face on their tombstone- ceramic portraits are still popular, and now I’m starting to see more and more laser etching actually on the headstone, creating what is basically a black and white portrait of the person. While these are extraordinarily detailed and large, they don’t thrill me the same way that ceramics do. I think they’re beautiful in an old-fashioned sort of way, and they can be quite varied. One friend of mine actually saw one that had a couple captured while sleeping on the couch, both wearing horrible Christmas sweaters.

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However, a death mask is in a completely different class. I’ve seen pictures of headstones in Alabama created by artist/inventor Isaac Nettles. While they’re still called death masks, Mr. Nettles created these likenesses while the person was alive, and then incorporated the masks into headstones. They’re arresting, to say the least. The Mt. Nebo Cemetery is on my list of places to visit just to see these.

I’d heard about the baby grave in Magnolia Cemetery before we went to Charleston, and it was high on my list of headstones to find when we got there. But as it turns out so many times when we’re on these visits, we found it by chance. We were driving through just to get an idea of the massive cemetery layout when Shawn stopped the car and said, “Look at that!”

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We were parked right by it.

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Rosalie Raymond White’s  (d. 1882) headstone is actually a detailed bassinet, and her likeness is peering out of it with a green patina to her little face. I touched it but was unable to determine what the face was made of, but it had eyes that seemed to follow me uncannily as I walked around the plot. The bassinet was actually a planter and had flowers blooming in it that someone had kept up with, and small toys left by admirers littered the space. The plot itself was fascinating, and also sad. All of the stones were extremely detailed, including one for a child called Rosebud that was a sleeping baby ensconced in a kind of shell or shrine. Her marker does not have any dates and I assumed that she was stillborn (though I prefer the term born sleeping). The sad part was that out of all of Rosalie and Blake White’s six children, four died before they’d even survived a year. This plot backs up to the water that wanders through the cemetery, some parts back up to a pond and much of the property (including the beautiful mausoleum row) faces the marsh and unfortunately has the smell of the marsh, especially around the receiving tomb built in 1850. (Go inside it, it’s amazing and seats 4.)

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Magnolia Cemetery was opened in 1850 and is sprawling. We went three times, once to get a peek before they closed, then the same night for the Confederate Ghost Walk, and then the next day to see the mausoleums, which are outstanding and varied. Many of them were open, so you can wander inside and check out the architecture. I went in all of them that were open. Shawn did not, but to his credit he did go in the receiving vault which had cobwebs hanging like stalactites and smelled funny. The property is still an active cemetery serving the Charleston community and also has a gorgeous new mausoleum space on the premises. The Ghost Walk started from there so we got to spend some time walking around it under the full moon.

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The walk itself was really amazing, it was an hour and a half long moonlight tour with costumed reenactments of the highlights of Charleston history. It was 18 bucks and I would have done it again the next night if it was taking place again, but it’s only once a year so GO! I was having a great time until we got to the last stop. In the middle of the speech made by the uniformed actor the woman next to me took two steps back from the group and fainted, dropping to her knees as her husband tried to catch her fall.

That stirred things up a bit, as I’m sure you can imagine. Thankfully, she was okay and was sitting quietly on the steps of a family plot when we left, drinking water and surrounded by women in hoopskirts.

Photos in Greenwood Cemetery

I’ve been to visit Greenwood so many times I felt like I’d never see anything in there to surprise me, but that wasn’t true when I went last week. It was the middle of the day and I needed a walk to clear my head. If you haven’t been here this cemetery is magical, very old, and run by an amazing staff who keep it impeccable. It is full of people who made Orlando the city it is and you’ll see headstones with the name of local streets and businesses everywhere- Bumby, Corrine, and my personal favorite- Carey and Hand, the men who started the Carey Hand funeral home here in Orlando. Their buildings are still downtown and have other businesses in them, but plaques commemorate the family and what they did in Orlando, including the fact that they had the first crematorium in Central Florida and the first chapel included in a funeral home in Orlando. (Now the UCF building.)

Greenwood is huge, and in the years I’ve lived in Orlando I still haven’t seen all of it’s 82 acres. One of the things that I love about this cemetery are the ceramic portraits included on many of the graves. Today if you add one to a headstone they can range in price from 100 to 300 dollars, so it’s not inexpensive, and must have been quite an extravagance in previous decades.

On this muggy day I saw three things that I had never noticed before.

The first was a large monument near the front of the cemetery in black marble that looked large and imposing, however, on one side was a small engraved plate with the deceased’s initials. When I touched the plate it slid over to reveal a beautifully colored portrait of the man. I always expect photos like this to be black and white but it just shows that I’ve been rather small minded and that sometimes people still like the old fashioned tributes that are done in new ways. There are a few more of these at the back of the cemetery on newer monuments and they’re lovely.

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The second was a small headstone with a lamb on top of it that was not in either of the three Babyland sections, meaning that the child was most likely buried near his other family members instead of with other infants. These small headstones rarely have photos on them for good reason, and if they do the ones that I’ve seen tend to be more somber. This one had a small oval portrait of a beautiful toddler holding his ball and smiling, walking down a sidewalk. Sadly the portrait is worn and a bit hard to see, but at one time it had gold trim painted around it.

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My heart pretty much fell out of my chest, but it was precious.

Finally, on the way out I decided to visit Fred Weeks, and on that day someone had left him a flower! If you don’t know about Fred Weeks or his unusual mausoleum, nobody can tell it like the tour guides on the moonlight tour that takes place every month at the cemetery. Get some walking shoes on and go! I’ve been twice and both times was fortunate enough to get Don Price as the tour guide. You’ll never forget it.

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On the way out I noticed another portrait on a headstone, this time in sepia. Quite the dashing young man, don’t you think?

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