Holt Cemetery, New Orleans

 

We skipped off to New Orleans for the week after Christmas, and came home the day before New Years Eve. Skipped may not be the right term, more like wordlessly plodded. We had to get up at 4 a.m. to catch our flight, but the good thing is that we were in the city by 8 a.m., tightly clutching hot beverages and in shock from the cold. I wore Shawn’s heaviest coat the whole time and looked crazy in many of the photos, but I was mostly warm.

Holt was number one on my list of cemeteries to visit. It’s not the most talked about cemetery, it’s not fancy, or crumbling, or full of interesting vaults and crypts. Holt is it’s own kind of iconic New Orleans burial ground.

For one thing, all burials are in ground unlike the other city cemeteries. I know people say that it can’t be done because of the water table but they are successfully burying people here and the caskets are staying in the ground, so I think a lot of those suppositions are rooted in myths and urban legends. The vaults that you find in the other cemeteries are efficient at what they do. People decompose rapidly and with little fuss, and a year later it’s safe to place another body in the vault. However, coping burials are also popular there, where the plot is framed in concrete and the burial vault covered in gravel and dirt. When we went to Lafayette Cemetery it had rained all day and one of the ledger stones was broken in one of the family plots. I leaned over the fence for a better look and saw that the entire grave was filled with water, which horrified me for some reason. I’m not sure why Holt is able to do what it does if it’s true about the water table being so high and unforgiving.

Holt Cemetery is considered a potter’s field and a burial space for the indigent who can’t afford other cemetery sites. It was established in 1879 according to the Save Our Cemeteries website, and has been in operation ever since. It is still an active site. The morning that we arrived we pulled into the cemetery gates around 10 a.m. and saw workmen at the back digging graves…by hand. In all of the visits I’ve made to cemeteries in the South, that was something I’d never seen before, but I honestly don’t believe that they could get the equipment in there in order to do it any other way. The place is packed full, and you can barely walk through without knowing that you are stepping on someone’s grave.

At the back of the cemetery is a brick retort that looks like it was from an old crematorium. It has been locked shut, but the fact that it’s there remains a mystery. I’m not sure why it’s there or if there was a building around it at one time. It has graves crowded up against it on all sides.

Most of the headstones and markers here are all handmade. We saw raw wood, painted wood, plastic, a road sign with a person’s name painted on it, PVC piping, bricks, an oven rack, concrete, all kinds of fencing, and multiple statues- everything from a bunny to the Virgin Mary. Lots of flowers were on the graves in blue, black, and purple. A lot of stuffed animals were on graves, and even framed photos. It’s a bright space, but in the morning after a recent rain in the cold weather it was bleak and sad, with standing water at the curves of the road and in the drainage ditch that runs through the space, and squelching mud everywhere you stepped.

This cemetery was in the news last year because a young woman in New Orleans was going out after heavy rain and harvesting bones that she saw on the graves, and then posting them in a not so discreet fashion online. She was eventually apprehended, but was convinced that what she was doing wasn’t grave robbing since the bones were right there on top of the soil, and she wasn’t charging people for anything but the shipping when they wanted the items. (She was doing a brisk trade, as well.) Some people collect bones just because, and some people purchase or steal them for spell work and magic. Either way, it’s a good idea not to touch bones in cemeteries unless you’re certain it’s from an animal. I’ve picked up animal bones on cemetery walks and have a deer vertebrae in my car (I didn’t know where else to put it), but human bones…no. It’s safe to say that when you visit this city you will see bones in a cemetery. Just leave them there, they do tend to wash up sometimes. On our visit we saw bones at 3 different sites, but not at Holt Cemetery. More on that later.

Please visit this one if you go to New Orleans. It’s much more humble than the others, but certainly filled with love  and sweet tributes everywhere you look.

Blue Graves In The South

I hope everyone had a beautiful Christmas and a Happy New Year!
I’ve been collecting photos for this post for some time, thinking that as the time passed I’d gather more information about this and have an awesome post to write.
But that didn’t really happen. Additionally, something is weird with my formatting for this post, so forgive me.
Blue grave sites in the south are still a bit of a mystery. I’ve heard several different reasons for painting the graves, and I will share all of them here. Special thanks to Dave Lapham for his help on this, and also to Barbara Broxterman, who offered a good deal of information as well.Barbara lives near and old (but still very active) cemetery in Levy County and was able to talk to some ladies who were there one day working, cleaning the graves. Apparently, they have a small business doing just that for other families who aren’t able to do the work themselves. I loved that.
Haint Blue, as it’s called, is a soft blue color generally found on porches in the Southern states. I never really noticed it until last summer when we were looking at houses in Sanford. Two of the homes that we visited had a gentle blue paint on the porch. I didn’t like it much though I did think it gave the porches a fresh, airy feeling. Shawn thought it was odd. Now that I know what I know, I’ll be adding blue to my porches this year.
The blue color is there because of Southern superstition. It is said to fool insects into thinking it’s an extension of the sky, so they’ll go elsewhere and not linger. It’s also said to drive away bad or evil spirits from the home. Both are positive reasons to add a little blue to your porch.
So why put blue on a grave? I know a lot of people believe that bad spirits linger in cemeteries and they would naturally want to protect their loved ones, so they’d paint the grave topper or ledger stone blue. In some cases the color can match the color of the house of the deceased or their families, and thereby continue to tie them to their home or make them feel at home in the cemetery. And then there was the more basic answer- that the paint is used to seal the cracks in the concrete. I guess that is possible too, but the paint is usually blue or white. I even noticed blue tiles in a mausoleum fountain, and even though blue is the usual color for that kind of water feature, I still felt it’s significance when you have to pass the fountain to approach the dead in the mausoleum.
This information made me pause to consider my own use of the color blue when it comes to visiting cemeteries. I have a favorite blue tee shirt that I usually wear, and my boots are blue. I wear blue shorts when I’m visiting a cemetery in hot weather, not because they’re blue, but because they fit well and I’m not worried about getting them dirty. If I was trying to protect myself in some way by doing these things it was done unconsciously.
I’ve noticed that in a lot of African American cemeteries that blue is a choice color for floral arrangements. I know this is sometimes done for men or boys, but it does seem to be very popular. What I do know is that once you start seeing blue in cemeteries, you’ll notice it everywhere.
While in New Orleans this past weekend we were fortunate enough to see the Weeping Angel in Metairie Cemetery, who is perfectly placed under 3 panes of blue stained glass, casting a moody light onto her. Aside from this mausoleum, there were many with blue glass throughout the cemetery, but to me she will always be the most beautiful with the most artfully arranged lighting.
Because I wasn’t able to find out much about this topic please share if you have more information! I’d love to hear some other ideas about why blue is so popular in cemeteries. Thanks to everyone who reads the blog, and I hope everyone has a happy and prosperous New Year!

Tampa Cemetery Tour With Grace

My auto correct automatically changed the word Grace to Grave. That seems to say a lot about my life, but I’m going to ignore it for now.

Grace and I jumped in the Jeep a couple of weeks ago and drove to Tampa with a full tank of gas and a bag full of snacks. We had a list of several cemeteries to visit, and we wanted to hopefully be heading back to Orlando before the traffic got out of control.

The first stop was Marti Colon. We spent a lot of time at this cemetery because we both loved it, and it was interesting for me to notice which grave sites Grace gravitated toward and pointed out to me. There are some stunning portraits here, so take your time looking.

The next stop was Centro Asturiano, the immigrant cemetery within the confines of Woodlawn for members of the local Spanish Club. It was here that I got a burr stuck underneath my toes, and I had to find a sturdy headstone to brace myself against while Grace got the evil little thing off of me. This cemetery is such a treasure; I love visiting. Here is where you’ll start to see the graves made out of blue and white tiles, and some with a wreath with a pink tile bow if the grave belongs to a woman or child. Many of the ones in here are still in excellent shape, though there is a considerable amount of damage at the front of the cemetery.

After this- Woodlawn. We drove though and got out to visit the Hampton plot, and also to get a better look at a few portraits on the headstones. This cemetery is enormous and one you could easily spend the day in, with lots of mausoleums for added interest. Since we don’t see many of them around here they always draw me to them and yes, I peek in windows.

A quick stop for drinks and a snack- then Robles Cemetery and it’s 26 burials. This cemetery was one that I feel literally too intimidated to write about. It’s small, uncared for, clearly ignored, and suffering damage, but the history of this family is fascinating and the story is so good, I know I can’t do it justice. Check the link for the contributions they made to Central Florida.

Next- La Unione Italiana and Cento Espanol next to it. La Unione was the site of a break in in 2016 where several caskets (including the bodies) was stolen from one of the mausoleums. I didn’t see any evidence of damage, thankfully, but I felt terrible for the family. There was a descendant living and a reward was offered, but I never heard anything else about it. Grave robbing is still a very real event and it literally happens all the time. It saddens me and makes me angry because I just don’t get it, and I don’t understand how profitable it can actually be. Definitely something for another blog post, and if you have ever witnessed anything like this please reach out to me on here. I’d like to hear your experiences.

While we were there Grace said she wanted a picture of what she kept referring to as “Anchor Jesus”. We walked toward a huge statue and stood at it’s feet, both squinting up at it.

“I don’t think that’s Jesus,” I said.

“Who would it be?” she asked, taking photos.

I looked it up when I got home. It’s a statue of Hope, which is often depicted with a large anchor and a star. The anchor motif is popular in coastal cities, and Tampa does have a number of anchor symbols on grave markers. I especially love this beautiful statue, she’s on the right side of the main aisle (If you’re facing the gates) when you visit, but you can’t miss her.

At the Spanish Cemetery next door I stayed in the car with the A/C running while Grace ran around. I don’t like the feeling of that cemetery at all, I feel like someone is throwing a heavy, wet blanket of grief onto me when I’ve gone in before. No thanks. The funny thing is, she came over to my car door and I rolled the window down, smiling and asking her what she thought about the place.

“This one doesn’t feel right,” she said musingly, and got back in the car a few minutes later.

We planned to end our day with Orange Hill, which is the less prim and proper cousin of Myrtle Hill next door. Myrtle Hill is the fine wine of active cemeteries in Tampa. It is very grand, very large, and very beautiful. Orange Hill, however, has it’s charms. One is an empty mausoleum that you can pop your head into to look around, and another is a huge and strange building at the front with no discernible purpose. I did some digging online and can’t figure out if it’s a funeral chapel or something else, it seems way too large to be a mausoleum. Grace sent a photo to her girlfriend and got this gem in response:

On the way out of Myrtle Hill we noticed a memorial park across the street and decided to drive through for a minute, but it turned into a lengthy adventure. First, it has a huge columbarium in the middle of it that has some interesting architecture and we decided to get out and go peek. We found the doors to the chapel area open and walked inside, and then Grace covered her face with her tee shirt because the SMELL was unbelievable. I mean, BAD. I thought about either backing out of the doors or gagging, but the inside was so interesting that I swallowed hard and walked farther in. After a few minutes I had to leave, but kept looking around for a source of the smell and could only see a few spills on the floor that had dried and were crawling with small bugs. I have no idea what happened in there. Grace said it smelled like the craft supplies that had been stored for a year in a mildewed closet at at Bible Camp. I had nothing to compare it to, but I’ll say again that I hate smells in cemeteries.

I’m encouraging everyone to get to Tampa and take a cemetery tour of your own design. We really had a stellar day, and went home in horrible traffic (we didn’t avoid it after all) full of French fries and caffeine and covered in bug bites.

 

 

Locke Family Cemetery on Boggy Creek Road

This one was a surprise. I’m not even sure how to describe how I got there, Shawn and I were talking and I was fiddling with the music the entire time we were driving. It was hot. I needed a snack. I’d run out of iced tea from Starbucks already. You get the picture.

When we finally pulled up to the gate we found that it was indeed a small family cemetery on the side of the road, and that we had to park on the shoulder because there wasn’t designated parking. The first thing we saw was a big sign that said No Trespassing, and another that said the cemetery was monitored by video surveillance. We ignored them both and unlatched the gate to walk in since it was broad daylight and the gate wasn’t locked. I did take a quick look around though and I saw that the telephone pole next to the cemetery had a floodlight on it aimed at the cemetery, and I know that goes a long way toward preventing vandalism. If I heeded by every No Trespassing sign that I saw I’d never get any writing done because I’d be avoiding every cemetery I’ve ever been in. I usually will research them first to see if they’re privately owned. If so I’ll still visit anyway and see if the gate is locked. If it is, I don’t go in.

This cemetery is OLD, which was another surprise. Almost all of the names are Lock or Locke, but supposedly there is a Jane Green buried there who was in a specific type of trade and ‘worked’ with the cattlemen in the area. Having once dated a farmer who raised cattle for breed stock, I have to say I do not blame her one bit. Nothing makes my hormones stir like a man on a horse, but that isn’t really relevant. Whether or not the story about Jane is actually true remains a mystery, but it’s the legend, and I remember stopping in wonder at her modern headstone because she lived to be 99 years old.

There are some beautiful hand stamped headstones in the center rows that date back to 1892 and 1898. My favorite of the two features a star motif stamped into the top curve of the stone and the epitaph reads “She Died Triumph In The Lord”. Her name was also unusual, Marzila Lock.

When you walk though this cemetery is seems like it’s another sandy lot filled with burrs and old headstones, but when you stand back and view it from the front you notice that a large section is shaded by a beautiful oak tree, and I stood for a moment imagining those strong roots carefully holding the people together underground. All of my shots from the gate were beautiful.

 

Find A Grave shows 67 burials on the lot but I’m pretty sure there were more given the age of the cemetery, and there are a surprising number of children buried here. 12 out of the 67, in fact.

And finally, a particularly nice tribute on Find A Grave is this one for Cennie Tison Lock, and it shows how large this family really was. Enjoy.

Regina Bailey in Page Jackson Cemetery

We were out for a morning of picking up trash and taking photos recently in Page Jackson. It was so pretty outside, and we were all chatting and enjoying the weather and the sound of the birds in the trees. The cemetery is heavily wooded and walking around can be treacherous, but we’re committed to going out there regularly and keeping up with any changes, staying on top of the dumping, and making sure there’s not any additional vandalism. I will admit that I went at night recently just to look around. It’s a busy place when the sun goes down because we saw cars coming and going and even though I was there at night I wasn’t too happy about all of the activity. The Sanford police park an empty car outside of the cemetery as a deterrent, but it’s clearly ignored.

For the time being just being present and picking up trash is enough. Plus, the more we go out and walk around the more the paths will stay clear and people can still get around. That morning there were 3 of us on garbage duty, two of us with grabbers and one just using her hands and gloves. We were carrying lawn sized trash bags and filling them up rapidly.

Gus happened upon a piece of metal in the sandy soil and when he was unable to get it with the trash grabber he bent down to unearth it. When I glanced over I thought it was another buried can. The people who frequent this cemetery at night have a taste for Natty Light, and we see tons of those cans out there. However, it was a grave marker.

It was a standard funeral home marker, aluminum, with the name Regina Bailey on it. The dates were intact and the name of the funeral home was on it, but that’s all. The date of death was 1997.

We raised it, took a brief photo for later research, and went on about our task. Soon after we gathered up the bags of trash to dispose of them and left for the day. On the way out of the cemetery we saw an elderly man driving past, and he waved a hand at us to get us to stop. I jumped out to go speak to him.

“Do you work here?” he asked me.

I told him we just came out to pick up trash.

“I’m looking for my dad,” he said simply. “I think he was buried around here somewhere but I don’t know where, and he died in 1980.”

I looked at the ruins of the cemetery behind me with a sinking feeling. Since we started our cleaning and research efforts a few months ago we’ve realized that while 1,083 burials are listed and mostly photographed, there could potentially be up to 2,900 people buried here that nobody knows about. I thought about Regina Bailey’s buried marker and wondered how many more there were waiting to be found.

I asked for his father’s name and he gave it to me, and I looked him up on the Find A Grave app. There was no one by that name listed for the cemetery.

It REALLY bothered me on so many levels. I tried again when I got home, opening up the search to nearby cemeteries and was unable to locate the man’s father. When I said goodbye to him I recommended that he call the cemetery office or the funeral home, and he said he would try that. When we drove out of the cemetery he was by the sign looking for a number.

First, I was upset that people still come there to look for loved ones and the place is trashed. Second, what if his Dad’s marker was in there and we just hadn’t found it? What if, like Ms. Bailey’s, it was buried and no one had been able to see it for the last survey in 1998 when people photographed the cemetery?

The next weekend the three of us went back and took a better photo of Regina Bailey’s marker. In the past week I’d found her obituary online and the houses she’d lived in in Sanford. I knew a little bit about her, but there really wasn’t much information. After we took the photos I added her to Find A Grave and that was a good feeling. Now someone in her family can look her up, find her, and at least try to come see her if they feel like walking in here. The only problem is that we don’t know if that’s where she was actually buried, or if her marker was taken from another part of the cemetery and buried there in some other scenario. The area of the cemetery where her marker is located is pretty packed already, and she would technically be in the roadway.

It’s one more thing here that doesn’t make sense. If you’re interested in coming out with us in the next few weeks please feel free to email me at marnie.bench@gmail.com. It’s getting hot here already so we take it easy.

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Lincoln Memorial Park in Miami, Florida

Imagine a massive amount of above ground, inaccessible burials and a feeling of complete overwhelm and you have Lincoln Memorial Park in Miami- Dade county. It was the one that I wanted to see the most, and not to be a complete drama queen, but after I got my photos I got back in the car and sat in my seat, crying. It’s a horrible place and it made me desperately sad.

Front entrance, Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery.

Shawn and I pulled up to the front gate to see if it was even open for the public and we found the gates shut and closed with a rusted padlock. The last update I’d seen online about this cemetery was from 2015 on a website someone had created in an effort to get help for the cemetery from the city. They were asking for signatures from the public protesting the sorry state that it’s in. I had no idea what to expect, so when I saw the locked gates and saw a cleared path through the center of the cemetery, I thought with relief that someone was caring for it. Maybe the city had become involved after all. There was also a dead Gofundme page with the last donation made 14 months ago. The total raised was 1,600 dollars of a 10,000 dollar goal. And here’s the thing- it’s not enough, even if they make it. An incomplete project in a cemetery is still a problem because it’s not fixed. People who start these pages with good intentions always low-ball the figure expecting the community to help out if the goal is less intimidating, but it’s not enough to complete the project in most cases and if the public doesn’t really know the value of the place, why would they help out? Like anything else you have to sell a cemetery and explain WHY the place is important and why people should want to save it.

I think I just created a job for myself. Call me if you have a defunct cemetery you want to publicize.

Most of Lincoln Memorial Park is above ground.

Here is why this cemetery is vastly important to the community in Miami and in South Florida’s history: the first black millionaire in Miami, Dana Albert Dorsey, is buried there. The first undertaker to serve the black community is there, Kelsey Pharr- in fact, he bought the place in 1937. Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry is also buried there, the first black woman on the Florida Legislature. The founder of the Miami Times is there, H.E.S. Reeves. But there’s no way to see them or get to them because the cemetery is not even functional as a public space. And it’s disgusting.

When I got out of the car I left my door open and the smell hit me. I turned to look at Shawn through in the driver’s seat, and he was making a face.

“I’ve never smelled anything that bad at a cemetery,” I said. He agreed. It was a stench of decay and trash rotting in the sun, and it was rolling across the crypts like a wave. The farther down the fence line I walked, the worse the smell got and I started to wonder about the possibility of broken crypts. At the end of the fence at the corner I turned and the graves were almost completely obliterated by vines and garbage. People had thrown bags and raw trash right over the fence on top of the above ground vaults, and it was nauseating. I moved a few steps closer to get a photo and saw the tail of a large snake moving silently through the green growth. Much of the fence was topped with rusted barbed wire, but on the left side of the cemetery it was regular chain link, and anyone could reach over it or climb in if they were brave as hell.

The side of Lincoln Memorial Park, with trash thrown on top of the graves.

This cemetery has had a problem with vandalism tied to Santeria or some other similar practice. Several years ago seven crypts were broken into and body parts removed, including a child’s skull. Please believe me when I tell you that this is something that happens in most cemeteries that are not cared for, and some that are. In 2015 the owner Elyn Johnson was too broke to do anything about this place, and she was quite elderly. There is no money for upkeep, or at this point- damage control. The cemetery was passed down to her with no funding and she wanted to keep it, even though she can’t afford basic cemetery maintenance. And I get that, it was left to her. But I also don’t get that, because the people buried there deserve better and the families deserve a safe place to go visit. Let it go to someone who can afford to care for it because most people don’t want their legacy to be a rotting, hideous cemetery that no one can enter.

There’s a lot more to say here, but this isn’t the right time or the right cemetery for me to get all preachy. I say choose your battles, and I chose mine awhile back and it’s here in Central Florida.

I dried my tears and Shawn took me out for Cuban coffee and pastries, which helped some, but that night when I closed my eyes I saw those graying vaults in the sun covered in garbage and vines and smelled the stench all over again, and it took me awhile to get to sleep. It’s not ghosts haunting this cemetery, it’s the place itself that haunts you.

 

Centro Asturiano Cemetery in Tampa, Florida

There are actually several of these cemeteries, including one in Ybor City, but the one that I visited and loved was the one on North Ola Avenue, within the gates of Woodlawn Cemetery. This cemetery is historic and in delicate condition, but it is maintained by the city. Well, lets just say they’re doing the best they can after what looks like years of damage and decay. It is easily accessible and clean despite being a bit on the spooky side. When you walk in and look to the left you’ll see a few collapsed/vandalized crypts that were a little shocking the first time I saw them.

On my first visit back in February I picked up my friend Hannah at the airport, whom I had never actually met face to face. Fortunately meeting her was like picking up where we left off in our last conversation, as though we had known each other for years. So I didn’t feel too badly when I asked did she need to stop for anything… food, water, a smoothie? No? Okay, well, we had 2 hours before we were supposed to meet the other people for the convention we were attending, and we would be visiting a cemetery during that time. To my delight she said that she was up for it.

I drove to Woodlawn Cemetery looking for Showman’s Rest, which is the old circus cemetery that serves Tampa’s more entertaining residents. It was not at all what I expected and hoped for, despite a few notable burials. I wanted big headstones with clown shoes and elephants, like the ones I had seen online. But I think that particular cemetery is in Sarasota, so there’s another road trip and another cemetery added to my ever-growing list that I keep in my planner. This one was a small memorial park and a nondescript mausoleum, and I had expected something a bit more showy. We decided to jump back in the car and drive through Woodlawn instead.

At the back I saw a smaller gated cemetery in one corner that looked different from the rest of Woodlawn. I parked the car and we were opening the doors to get out when Hannah told me that she really didn’t like cemeteries where they had the pictures of the deceased on the headstones. We slammed the car doors and stood looking around to find that there were literally thousands of pairs of eyes on us. That cemetery is LOADED with portraits on the headstones. I looked at her to make sure she was okay, but she seemed to have rallied, and we walked over to the small gated cemetery called Centro Asturiano.

Tampa has a long tradition of clubs for immigrants who came over for work; they were places to make them feel more at home, have a place to safely socialize, and to provide benefits for them such as health aid, a hospital for club members, and eventually a place to be buried when they died. This cemetery was for Spanish immigrants, and it is a treasure. It is one of three that are associated with this particular club in Tampa. Sadly, the club started to decline in 1990 after the the hospital closed.

This cemetery has a lot of damage which is sad, but it’s also still standing and is obviously cared for. Many of the monuments are in perfect condition, but many have been broken or in the case of the ledger stones topping the graves, simply pushed to the side for some reason. I really think people expect to find a casket or bones right there, but that’s not how it is in most cases. While I have spied the occasional bit of casket through broken cement in a few cemeteries,  it’s a very rare occurrence. This cemetery also has a lot of beautiful tiled graves that are very ornate. I love how bright they are compared to the usual dark headstones.

There are a couple of special finds in this cemetery. One is a small headstone near the gate for a young girl who died, and on her headstone is a portrait of her in her ballerina outfit, complete with a little tutu. She has a beautiful bob haircut and is just precious. It’s a heart wrenching photo, but I love it.

At the back left along the fence is a headstone with a type of glass case built into it that holds the remains of a wreath of white flowers that appear to be made out of some type of porcelain or bisque. The frame that the flowers are attached to is made of rusted metal. This particular one has been damaged and the glass is broken and dangerous to reach into, but there is a perfect example at the Italian Club Cemetery nearby that is still behind glass and whole. It is very beautiful. On that side you will also see a grave entirely covered with conch shells.

This cemetery dates back to the late 1800’s and is closed for burials.

 

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!

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.