Before the Hurricane

Maryanne and I were separated at birth. I’m sure of that. We started talking in a Facebook cemetery group and when we met in person a year later (for tea in a local tearoom) we were the only women in there amid a flurry of floral dresses and hats that were mostly dressed down, and we were the only two people in the place talking about embalming techniques. Neither of us is high maintenance. Both of us think cremation is the way to go. Neither of us is afraid of dead people.

Maryanne wanted to go see a family member in a cemetery in Chiefland, Florida, two hours from Orlando, and she asked me to go. I will always go visit a cemetery with someone, so I immediately said yes and asked what kind of snacks to bring.

We jumped in the car at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday before the hurricane was supposed to hit over the weekend. Since we’ve both lived in Florida for years neither of us was panicked and both of us felt prepared. However, the rest of the Floridians had other ideas. It took us two and a half hours to get to Adamsville Cemetery, which you’ll see in another post, and a total of five hours to get to Chiefland Cemetery.

Chiefland is small and situated in Levy county, which I was unaware of until we passed the sign. The population is about 2,300, and it’s rural. Horses and agriculture everywhere. We had to take 2 dirt roads to get to the cemetery, and when we finally found it after five hours in the car it felt like a miracle. We got out gratefully, stretched, and it immediately began to rain.

Maryanne handed me a brightly striped umbrella and we started down the aisles of headstones. At the back of the cemetery was a section for the slaves of the Hardee family, which are numerous in the cemetery. The large flat stone reads, Buried Here Are Faithful Servants of Isaac  P.  Hardee. The family is about 20 steps away from this section, which is something I’ve never seen. I wish that the servants had been named, of course, but I still loved seeing the tribute. Mister Hardee himself was right there and his original stone was on the ground, barely legible, but it had been framed in concrete and a new stone in the same style and with the exact same font had been erected in its place. I loved seeing the original and also being able to read the new one, which was quite unusual in it’s simplicity. It was actually my favorite stone that I saw that day.

Maryanne had found her family member by that time, and she told me that she was named after her. Marie Theresa Hampton was less than a year old when she died on August 19, 1949. Maryanne told me that the story itself was quite tragic and that the little girl had a sad and horrible death with far reaching repercussions, but I honestly feel that the story is for her to tell, and so she may be doing a blog post about her in the future. The little grave was beautifully bright amid all of the darker headstones, and Maryanne bent down to touch the stone for a minute before placing pink flowers on the grave. We said the next time we came we’d bring D-2 solution and clean her headstone.

The cemetery itself is beautiful and has a gazebo with a tin roof and trees all around, so the rain was very loud at times, but that only added to the experience for me. An even greater surprise was seeing the cemetery map, well labeled and preserved, and….legible! I was thrilled. I love seeing the maps but they’re not easy to find. Some of the larger cemeteries will provide a map for you at their offices, and I keep them and frame them when I get one.

Near the back of the cemetery there are two graves with a very unusual feature, something I’d never seen before. The better example of the two simply reads INFANT in block letters that are painted on glass and then embedded in the concrete grave topper. They were quite old but in perfect condition.

Before we got back in the car to fight the traffic on the way home we stood there for awhile, me under the umbrella and Maryanne smoking. She talked about possibly having Marie disinterred and moved to her family cemetery in Orlando, which would mean that the little girl would get to lay next to her parents. I asked about costs, and whether there would be anything left to move at this point, but she felt there might be something. She planned to talk to her parents about it when she saw them over the weekend. She is the only Hampton in the cemetery.

There can be so much emotion in a place like this, when you bend down to touch the stone of that loved one and you’re not seeing the stone, you’re seeing their history and their connection to you. Maryanne certainly never met Marie, but she loves her. It’s obvious. It made me want to visit Kentucky and the cemetery where my family members are buried, just to see what that feels like since I didn’t know them personally. I know them through story and on paper, from the family genealogy my aunts have worked on for years. It’s days like this that make me realize how important markers are for those left behind and why I Iove cemeteries so much.

It took us three hours to get home. I had gummy bears and a protein bar for dinner. We passed gas stations with lines running out of the parking lot and down the street. We stopped at a Publix and the water aisle was empty. Central Florida was scared.

If you’re in Florida I hope you fared well during Irma- and I apologize for the photo quality in this post.

Other People’s Grief

I’m always fine in the presence of other people’s grieving processes or struggles as they pertain to mortality, but I am always caught off guard when I experience those feelings for myself. And to be honest, it sometimes makes me feel like a fraud. The first example of this hit me after the Pulse tragedy and I had to drive by the memorials every day on the way to work. I tried taking different routes but it seemed like every time I tried another road there was another group of memorial signs on the corner, and I would sit at the stoplights purposely looking away from them in order to keep my emotions stable before work. But I was reminded again this week of how fragile I can be when dealing with my own feelings toward death. 

I’m in a transitional place right now and Shawn and I are not sure how much longer we’ll be in the Orlando area. I am also attempting to leave my job of 14 plus years for one that actually aligns with my values. So there’s a lot going on and I feel a need to tie up loose ends in my life in order to move forward with as little regret or fear as possible.  

I had a doctor’s appointment this week and arrived to that side of town early, because if you’re driving to Altamonte in the middle of the day you have to leave at least an hour early because of the obscene traffic on I-4. So when I arrived with time to spare I decided to go scout out a cemetery nearby, if there was one. 

4 miles away I found Highland Memory Gardens and realized that it was where my former father in law had been buried years ago, so long ago that it made me feel like another girl in another world when I thought of it. I had never gone back to see his grave site after the funeral, even though I lived 3 miles from it for 8 years. For the last 3 years I’d been driving over to Altamonte for appointments with my allergist and had still avoided going.  For some reason- maybe it was the gloom of the rain or the need for completion somewhere in my life, I decided to go visit him. Because 11 years is a long time to avoid something or someone. 

I didn’t like being a part of that family, which may have been the reason for the avoidance issues. I still wake up every day and am so incredibly grateful to have been set free from that marriage that I sometimes don’t know what to do with that overwhelming feeling. I still cry because I’m so happy and relieved. There were a lot of reasons for me not to visit and running into the rest of the family was a big one. Dealing with whatever I might feel if I went to visit was the other, stronger reason. 

I had liked my father in law a great deal despite how I felt about everyone else. Wendell was a good man and he was kind-hearted toward man and beast. He was tall and rangy, tanned from spending years of his life outdoors, and had silver hair. He loved his wife, his grandchild, gardening, and beer. I was never really sure about anything else, but on those points I was very clear. 

I went through the rain to the cemetery office without my umbrella and asked where I might find his grave. The family counselor was right there when I walked in, standing with a pleasant look on his face and his hands clasped before him. He was happy to help me and pulled out a complicated map of the cemetery, then drew on the map as he gave me even more complicated directions. He then notified me that the four plots behind Wendell were for sale, in case that was important to me. I said nothing, but took the map and thanked him before stepping back out into the gloom.

I parked in what I thought was the right area, got out of the Durango and started walking. I literally walked right to his grave. I stopped short when I saw his name and then I just stood there staring down at it. Thunder rumbled overhead in a melodious way, not threatening, and I looked around me before saying, “This is a beautiful place.” I said it out loud.

Then I said. “I was so angry at you for dying.”

Tears came.

I wiped them away with my fingertips and tried to act like it wasn’t happening but my nose started to run, and I sniffed as I told him in choppy sentences that everything fell apart when he died, and that at that point in time he was the one that held everyone together. And then I just stood there and felt tears run down my face and thought about a time when he had rescued a snake from our back porch, and how it had been injured. He placed it on the ground and then I saw him reach down and pet it gently.

And after that I remembered that he had always said that he did not want to be embalmed, and that he wanted a green burial- as green as we could get it, and instead he’d been embalmed and made up and stuffed into a suit and put into a bronze deluxe casket. Here. Under my feet. I still remembered looking into that casket for the last time. But I think his family had been through so much and they really didn’t know what else to do and I certainly can’t find fault with that.

I thought about Payne’s Prairie near Gainesville and how much he would have loved being buried in a place like that. People would hike past him and he would literally be at one with the environment. I felt like we had done him a disservice when he died and I regretted not speaking up.

But I had been different, and it was way before I started writing or caring so much about all of these things. I finally told him that I would have brought him flowers but he didn’t have a vase to put them in, and that I thought that really sucked. I thought it was pretty much the rule that you got a vase in Memory Garden type cemeteries.

A big hawk flew low across the graves and landed in the oak tree across the road from where I stood. I looked at it for a moment and felt better. Then I walked to my car, reached in for a box of tissues, and blew my nose. Loudly.

The Kissimmee Pioneer Cemetery Failure- and the Oakland Cemetery in Haines City

On the 4th of July weekend we decided to set a day aside for adventure. We planned to drive to the Fort Kissimmee Pioneer Cemetery in Avon Park and see if we recognized any of the names from the other pioneer cemeteries we had visited. We are starting to remember names and the places where people settled and died from all of our visits this year, and this cemetery was supposed to be a good one. I also had a new camera to try out and I felt some excitement about that.

That vanished when we took what we believed was a shortcut and ended up in the middle of no damn where with nothing but orange groves all around. There was nothing- not even a gas station, for miles. Several times when we tried to get back on track we found our phones didn’t have a signal and so the only thing to do was keep going. By the time we found the place I was over it. I wanted a sandwich and an iced tea and a lot of fries. The cemetery resides on an old bombing range owned by the government, and when we pulled up and told them that we wanted to hike out to the cemetery the elderly gentleman running the booth said, “Well, what d’you want to go out there for?”

We just stared at him, because it was an actual wildlife preserve and DID in fact offer hiking, despite being government owned land.

He told us to drive forward for another half a mile until we got to building 600, and he handed us a shitty map. We turned the wrong way- corrected, and then found the building. I asked Shawn to go inside so I could sulk for a minute and try to get myself into a better mood. He came back out to the car and looked at me through the open window, his face blank.

“It’s ten bucks apiece to go in, and we have to go in this building and watch a video on safety since it used to be a bombing range.”

I rolled the window back up and waited for him to get in. By the time we passed the old guy at the gate we were laughing. We’d never worked so hard to go look at a bunch of tombstones, but after 3 hours in the car, we didn’t even want to. The person in building 600 had also mentioned that the entire cemetery is surrounded with a fence and a locked gate and that we couldn’t go in anyway, we could just kind of hang on the fence in the hundred degree heat and stare at it like the bad kids at the playground.

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We drove back toward Orlando taking a different route, and as soon as we got to Haines City we knew we needed to stop at Zaxby’s for fries and chicken fingers. While there we looked up local cemeteries to see what we could find, and there was one right down the road. We got back in the Jeep and decided to go to the smaller one, Oakland, and leave the larger one (Forest Hill) for the next time we were driving through.

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Oakland is a two part cemetery. A 2 lane road bisects it and one side is shiny new headstones and greener grass, the other side is older, well kept, but clearly more creative. That’s the side we decided to visit. The other side was also set up for a funeral service and we wanted to make ourselves scarce for that.

We got out at the back of the property and started walking through. It was hot, bleak, sandy, and didn’t have a speck of shade. There were some huge areas of nothing but ledger stones, and some good examples of handmade stones. Many of the graves were unmarked, and some were painted in bright colors. Many families had gone out with rope and had marked off their family plots themselves. It was a kind of do-it-yourself cemetery. Not particularly unusual. Not very old. Largely African-American and Hispanic families interred here.

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One side backed up to some houses nearby, and there was a field on the other side. The cemetery was not fenced and the road in front was the only entrance and exit.

Here is why these facts stand out- in 2009 a local funeral director dumped a body bag there full of organs from a client he had embalmed the same week. He said the organs were decomposing and he didn’t want them in the funeral home or with the body because of the smell. He left the man’s identification on the bag, and it was traced right back to his funeral home because he had performed his embalming and funeral services (minus the complete cavity embalming, apparently). After his arrest he said that he had been dumping organs there since 2000, but this was never able to be verified. The poor man who led to his arrest was actually buried in another cemetery- not in Oakland.

So many questions! First- why? Embalmers are trained to deal with these situations on a daily basis and most of them are damn good at it. There’s actually a lot they can do to combat smells in facilities and with bodies, so this is just unthinkable. Second- HOW? This cemetery has houses nearby, no fence, a busy road, and is clearly an active, maintained cemetery. There’s no privacy here. I have no idea how he was doing this. It was the most gruesome story I’ve run across while researching cemeteries.

On the way out I walked toward the front to get a photo of a sky-blue gravestone and heard a soft ticking noise nearby. It was consistent.

I looked around and finally found it; one grave was covered with solar activated toys and they were swinging and nodding away in the middle of the hot afternoon. There was no other movement anywhere.

And I totally forgot to use my new camera.

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