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.

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!

 

 

Cassadaga and the Devil’s Chair

From Find A Grave:

The cemetery is located between the two small communities on property that is county owned.
In order to buried there one must contact the city clerk of Lake Helen.

Here is how I would rewrite this after a visit to this cemetery, so listen up, Find A Grave!

In order to buried there one must be desperate for a place to be laid to rest.

Everybody in Florida has heard the urban legend that has caused the ultimate decline of this cemetery, that if you sit in the brick chair (a.k.a. The Devil’s Chair) at midnight, then the devil will come and talk to you.

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The devil, however, isn’t responsible for the vandalism, as I’m sure some people would say- human beings are, and ignorant ones at that. Who started the rumor is a mystery, most likely it was someone who was trying to find a cheap way to protect the place from kids and vandals, and they started the rumor to scare people away. However, humans are curious creatures, and things like this usually only serve to cause even more traffic. It’s like Cassadaga itself, which began as a retreat for Spiritualists and had its climax in the 1920’s when the hotel was built. Some people mistakenly think Spiritualism is about Satanism, but it’s not, and that makes people curious so they come visit, whether the psychics want them there or not. In my opinion, the group of people living there just want to be left alone. You can feel it.

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The chair itself is situated in the Thatcher plot, and there are two of them that are nearly identical. However, it’s the one in the back. The chair stands out because the plot doesn’t have as much foliage, and the dirt plot is covered with footprints from people sitting in the chair. The footprints were fresh.

The other Thatcher plot had a lot of plant life and curious smell that I couldn’t identify. I hate smells in cemeteries.

The cemetery has three bench structures built into the family plots, and all of them were most likely built for the use of visiting family, not the devil. The design is simple and direct, and would be attractive if it weren’t for the legend, the general feel of the place, and the fact that some douche-nozzle decided to spray paint LOVE GOD on one of the monuments facing the chair.

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The day that we visited was hot and still, and when we got out of the car the heat hit us like a blast from a furnace, which my friend BB later pointed out was probably the ideal condition for the devil. We walked around anyway, sweating and not talking much. The thick woods next to the cemetery were dark, and the sound of cicadas was overwhelming. It wasn’t a good day to be there and I knew that. A vehicle that we couldn’t see due to the downward slope of the property slowed down to a crawl on the main road by the gates and idled for a minute before we heard the engine roar and take off.

Five minutes later the police came, slowly cruising and staring at us. I walked right up to the car and spoke to the officer, who said he was just driving through.

Sure he was. At noon on a Sunday. Someone had called the police because we were there, but he didn’t say so. He asked if we needed anything and when I said no, he left. I was furious.

The cemetery itself is a blighted mess, with weeds and black sand on one side and grass on the other with sparse burials. The earliest date we saw for a burial was 1904, but I’m sure there are some earlier ones. Some enterprising person had gone into the older plots and pulled up every speck of grass or greenery leaving the most depressing scene you could imagine in a cemetery. The place looks unloved, which surprises me since the locals are so protective of it, enough to act like jerks during visiting hours.

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So, Cassadaga, if you want to protect this site you might think about springing for a brick wall and not a flimsy fence, which is torn down on one side by the many people trying to get into this place. You might consider making the entire place look loved and cared for, rather then letting it look bleak and desolate. You might enlist the nosy neighbors as volunteers to get over there and work on the place instead of calling the police every time someone drives through the gates. You might install some lights.

No, I won’t be going back to this one. If you go be aware that the police may randomly show up along with the devil. In fact, just skip it. Drive to Deland and visit Oakdale, Central Florida’s version of Bonaventure.

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Evergreen

“I feel like I can really breathe in here. Like I can finally take a deep breath,” Caroline said as we stood shoulder to shoulder, looking into the thick green forest around us. There was a pungent smell of wet leaves and earth and it was pleasant to inhale. This place had a feeling to it, not only the feeling of being the only two people on a vast property, but there was a feeling of being absorbed by a giant living organism, of being a part of it. Evergreen was embracing us with its grassy arms.

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The trees towered over our heads, draped with ivy and other creeping vines that had taken over during the years. We stood on the path in Richmond’s historic African-American cemetery, Evergreen, which is actually a total of four different cemeteries. The path had at some point been a paved road and it was now obscured by weeds and poison ivy, showing little more than a footpath when at one point it could accommodate cars. Any open space between trees was covered with vines, climbing roses that someone had lovingly planted at one time, and lillies that had been planted on top of graves and had taken over during the years. They now created spots of bright orange in the verdant landscape. It was the greenest place I had ever seen, and remarkably beautiful. Evergreen lived up to it’s name. We stood in the muffled woods of the 60 acre cemetery staring in wonder all around us, listening to the drops of water hitting the leaves and birds singing in the tops of the trees. The white sunlight was dappled and barely reached us beneath the canopy and as a result the cemetery felt like a steam bath after the recent rain. My shirt was stuck to my back and shoulders within minutes; my bangs glued themselves to my forehead.

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The first day we stayed close to the car, looking around at the tops of headstones peeking through the foliage. Gates and ornate wrought iron fences were woven with weeds and tall grass, making it difficult to see the designs. A large mown path bisected the first part of the cemetery and when we walked down it we saw more and more headstones begin to reveal themselves to us through the plant life. Not only was the place choked with weeds, it was full of burials too. The stones we saw were large and ornate and varied in design. There were supposed to be over 6,000 burials here, and we could see maybe 5% of them.

Part of what protects Evergreen right now is that you’d have to be a damn fool to veer off the path for even a second since you literally can’t see the ground for the weeds. There’s no telling what lives in that place, and there is a water source nearby so it’s the perfect environment for snakes and other wildlife. The other thing protecting it is the presence of volunteers that are trying to restore it bit by bit on regular work days. When people come to a place, vandalism usually stops. Vandals like secrecy and for a long time, this place was essentially that- a secret. While I was in Richmond we asked several people if they had heard of the cemetery and all of them said no. Everyone had heard of Hollywood Cemetery though, known for it’s showy beauty and famous burials. In my opinion this cemetery is just as valuable as a historic resource, but they did not set themselves up for perpetual care when they established the cemetery in 1891. We were standing in the consequences of that decision.

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The next morning over omelettes at Ellwood’s we decided to go back. Just for a few minutes we said. Just to see what was at the end of the path. I had heard of a mausoleum on the property and wanted to see if we could find it, plus, I wanted to see any land that the volunteers had been able to clear. The mausoleum had been targeted by vandals several times over the years, starting sometime in the 70’s when the cemetery began to be left to its own devices and people stopped visiting. However, it had been my impression that each time it would be repaired and would continue to be repaired after every act of vandalism.

So we found ourselves surrounded again by the comforting green of the cemetery within a couple of hours, and we walked with purpose. When the woods in front of the path began to clear we were astonished to find that we were on top of a hill and the hill had in fact been cleared. We saw a Madonna…then an angel…then a beautiful obelisk surrounded by conch shells. I recognized some of the names I saw on headstones from my research. Paths led from the main area into the woods, which were filled with headstones and family plots with beautiful markers. Most were almost completely obscured by creeping ivy and small pink roses. It looked like something out of a dream.

We chose a path at random and found ourselves in a kudzu covered field with monuments poking out of the vines here and there. It was vast and beautiful, and the mystery of what lay beneath the green carpet of plants was almost too much for me to bear. I wanted leather gloves and a herd of hungry goats. NOW. Past that was a cleared field that held a large amount of smaller monuments and was very pretty. But no mausoleum. I felt like it was the way we had come and that we’d missed it.

We circled the area slowly one more time and I saw a tiny dirt track that had been carved out of the ivy, leading farther into the woods. The path was hard packed dirt and had clearly been walked sometime recently, and it was slick from the rain. I started down it. After a couple of minutes I looked up to find a green box in the woods. Literally, the entire mausoleum was draped in ivy on 2 sides. Caroline caught up to me and we jumped down to it from the path. It appeared that the stairs were missing, though we later noticed that railing ran next to the structure that we had not observed at the time.

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When we got to the front though, things changed. In fact, the whole trip changed. At some point the doors had been removed and the opening had been walled up by concrete block. This had been smashed with a sledgehammer and the coffins inside had been pulled down from their shelves and opened. The hardware had been pulled off and was most likely sold. The remains were most likely gone as well because the coffins had been wrenched open with a crowbar and on one, since they couldn’t get it off the shelf they had gone through the underside of it for the remains. I didn’t look for more than a few seconds. Caroline stood beside me, quiet.

I was nauseous when I turned away, and I was trembling all over. I started rubbing my face with my hands and my skin felt gritty and slick with sweat and tears. I’d started crying. Caroline and I walked quietly back to the car, but on the way we stopped one more time under the tall trees and inhaled deeply.

“Let’s go get a drink,” she said, and we left. I cried more in the car, but Caroline knew exactly what to say to me. I think it’s a gift that mothers have.

Because we were hot and thirsty, and because the wine was cold and delicious, I ended up wobbling around Cary Town for the next hour or so with puffy, dilated eyes and a buzz. At the wine bar we decided that in the fall I would travel back and we would go visit again when some of the foliage had died off. Maybe we could see more. I didn’t know that I’d go look for the mausoleum again, that had just been so sad. It takes tremendous violence to do something like that and it was that knowledge that scared me. I suppose that when the same thing keeps happening and there’s no money and no visitors anyway, then the repairs just stop and people give up. This was a turning point for me and I’m not sure yet what will come of it.

My greatest wish would be to raise a truckload of money for the people working on Evergreen. For the time being, until I figure some things out, you can make a donation and learn more here.

We as human beings determine the value of a place by how we treat it, and I am so grateful for people who want to restore this cemetery to it’s former glory, though even as it is, it’s glorious. If you visit please take the greatest care when on the property.

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