Children’s Burials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photos in Greenwood Cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Receiving Vaults in Knoxville, TN and the Mutant Crickets That Live In Them

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Greenwood Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee.

First, if you live up North and are completely used to seeing receiving vaults, you’ll have to excuse my enthusiasm. On a recent visit to Knoxville my friend Keila and I decided to throw on jackets and visit the local cemeteries. It was a gray, gloomy day, the perfect kind of day to go poking around old tombstones and vaults. The first stop was Greenwood Cemetery, a sprawling place that not only included some beautiful monuments, but had one side that was more like a park, with flat markers and pretty green lawns. We had stopped there originally to look at some of the mausoleums toward the front of the cemetery that featured beautiful stained glass windows, but we got distracted and soon found ourselves walking toward the back of the property. At the very back we could see a huge obelisk standing out against the backdrop of red and yellow trees and we made our way toward it. It was the Kesterson monument, and by far the tallest structure I’ve seen in any cemetery to date. All around it were generations of the same family, and all of the markers were done in white marble. It was a pretty and peaceful spot in the landscape, the perfect place to spend eternity if you happened to be a Kesterson. Just behind it was a hill that climbed into the woods and we noticed two doors in the hillside. We wandered over, thinking it was a mausoleum at first but we noticed that there was no name on the stonework or the doors. The doors were slightly open, offering a silent invitation to enter.

“I’m going in,” said Keila, walking toward it and looking determined.

“Okay,” I said, not moving.

“Well, come with me!” she demanded, and I started laughing and followed after her.

When we reached the doors she pulled one open and it gave way with a perfect haunted-house groan of rusted hinges, sounding like they hadn’t been used in ages. She waited for me to go in ahead of her, and I stepped inside. The interior was made of old brick that formed an archway over my head. It was empty and smelled strongly of mold, dirt, and brick dust, and the smell seemed to stick in the back of my throat. I stood there for a moment and wondered if it was a receiving vault. I’d never seen one before but had heard about them, oddly enough when I was reading a biography of Lizzie Borden.

That’s when I saw Keila’s face go pale and she pointed to the ceiling right over my head with a look of horror. Crouching in the dim light above me were dozens of huge black crickets, just hanging there like bats. I bolted. We stood in the doorway and peered in for a couple more minutes before carefully shutting the door and walking to the car, breathing in gulps of fresh air. On the way to the next cemetery we speculated about the doors and why they were open, why the room was placed in the hillside like that, and what the original use had been.

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Vault doors in Greenwood Cemetery.

The Old Gray Cemetery was considered to be the second oldest one on the city. It was smaller than the Greenwood and had an intimate feeling to it because it was surrounded by a low wall. The cemetery was also chock-full of Victorian funerary art. Urns and angels and open Bibles on pedestals and crumbling mausoleums! It was a tapophile’s  dream come true and Keila and I were smiling as we drove in. We rode through the front gates and noticed two men walking a dog up ahead, and a pack of homeless men wandering out the gates seconds after we pulled in. In fact, the cemetery was clearly used as a home base for several people. While we were there we saw blankets under trees, laundry hanging from branches, and it was clear that people were sleeping on the steps of some of the mausoleums, as well as doing other more unsavory things.

Maybe it was the rain, or maybe the fact that people had to live in that cemetery, but it felt like a sad place with heavy energy surrounding it where the others we had visited had and felt loved and cared for. We walked around for quite awhile looking at all of the statues and the dates on headstones. When we were making our way back toward the front I saw a large mausoleum and walked over- but then I saw the words at the top. In big official block letters that left no doubt as to it’s purpose it said RECEIVING VAULT. The doors on this one were locked with padlocks the size of my fist, which is probably a good thing. I was still anticipating an asthma attack from the first moldy vault I’d been in that day and if this one had been open I’d have been inside, to hell with the asthma.

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Receiving Vault in Old Gray Cemetery.

It too been placed into the side of a hill and I climbed up to the top and found a large brick air vent. I always look for the vents on mausoleums, new and old. I think it’s interesting that some of them are decorative and covered with ironwork made to look like a small window, while others are clearly there for a grim purpose and are not so discreet. If the large air vent at the top of this vault wasn’t enough, the doors were vented as well with open latticework at the top. If Keila were taller I would have made her give me a boost to peek inside.

These structures were used to hold bodies during the winter months in colder parts of the country, and they sometimes had large shelves on the walls so multiple coffins could be placed inside and then locked up until the burial in more favorable weather. Here in Florida, we don’t see them. Here we see sandy cemeteries, vicious ground bees, and kudzu vines. Also, a decent amount magical objects, but that’s a post for another day. No receiving vaults.

A weird bit of history- Lizzie Borden’s parents were ‘autopsied’ in the receiving vault of the cemetery where they were buried. These things weren’t exactly built in an era that included brilliant electric illumination, so that must have been a major surgical feat at that time. Basically, their bodies went to the grave, but their skulls went to court.

And yes, I think she did it.

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On top of the vault.