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!

 

 

Rosalie Raymond White in Magnolia Cemetery

I’ve been reading recently about the prevalence of finding a likeness on a tombstone ever since I saw this grave last month. It’s quite rare to see a death mask on a tombstone, and the rumor is that the tiny face on this unusual marker is in fact a death mask, or a likeness taken after death.

Today there are various ways of including the person’s face on their tombstone- ceramic portraits are still popular, and now I’m starting to see more and more laser etching actually on the headstone, creating what is basically a black and white portrait of the person. While these are extraordinarily detailed and large, they don’t thrill me the same way that ceramics do. I think they’re beautiful in an old-fashioned sort of way, and they can be quite varied. One friend of mine actually saw one that had a couple captured while sleeping on the couch, both wearing horrible Christmas sweaters.

image2

However, a death mask is in a completely different class. I’ve seen pictures of headstones in Alabama created by artist/inventor Isaac Nettles. While they’re still called death masks, Mr. Nettles created these likenesses while the person was alive, and then incorporated the masks into headstones. They’re arresting, to say the least. The Mt. Nebo Cemetery is on my list of places to visit just to see these.

I’d heard about the baby grave in Magnolia Cemetery before we went to Charleston, and it was high on my list of headstones to find when we got there. But as it turns out so many times when we’re on these visits, we found it by chance. We were driving through just to get an idea of the massive cemetery layout when Shawn stopped the car and said, “Look at that!”

image4

We were parked right by it.

image5

Rosalie Raymond White’s  (d. 1882) headstone is actually a detailed bassinet, and her likeness is peering out of it with a green patina to her little face. I touched it but was unable to determine what the face was made of, but it had eyes that seemed to follow me uncannily as I walked around the plot. The bassinet was actually a planter and had flowers blooming in it that someone had kept up with, and small toys left by admirers littered the space. The plot itself was fascinating, and also sad. All of the stones were extremely detailed, including one for a child called Rosebud that was a sleeping baby ensconced in a kind of shell or shrine. Her marker does not have any dates and I assumed that she was stillborn (though I prefer the term born sleeping). The sad part was that out of all of Rosalie and Blake White’s six children, four died before they’d even survived a year. This plot backs up to the water that wanders through the cemetery, some parts back up to a pond and much of the property (including the beautiful mausoleum row) faces the marsh and unfortunately has the smell of the marsh, especially around the receiving tomb built in 1850. (Go inside it, it’s amazing and seats 4.)

image1

Magnolia Cemetery was opened in 1850 and is sprawling. We went three times, once to get a peek before they closed, then the same night for the Confederate Ghost Walk, and then the next day to see the mausoleums, which are outstanding and varied. Many of them were open, so you can wander inside and check out the architecture. I went in all of them that were open. Shawn did not, but to his credit he did go in the receiving vault which had cobwebs hanging like stalactites and smelled funny. The property is still an active cemetery serving the Charleston community and also has a gorgeous new mausoleum space on the premises. The Ghost Walk started from there so we got to spend some time walking around it under the full moon.

image6

The walk itself was really amazing, it was an hour and a half long moonlight tour with costumed reenactments of the highlights of Charleston history. It was 18 bucks and I would have done it again the next night if it was taking place again, but it’s only once a year so GO! I was having a great time until we got to the last stop. In the middle of the speech made by the uniformed actor the woman next to me took two steps back from the group and fainted, dropping to her knees as her husband tried to catch her fall.

That stirred things up a bit, as I’m sure you can imagine. Thankfully, she was okay and was sitting quietly on the steps of a family plot when we left, drinking water and surrounded by women in hoopskirts.

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

8777901_orig
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.

12184134_10208218460122952_9126906351101025830_o
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.

3263101_orig
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.

2285768_orig
On top of the vault.