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!