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.

Locke Family Cemetery on Boggy Creek Road

This one was a surprise. I’m not even sure how to describe how I got there, Shawn and I were talking and I was fiddling with the music the entire time we were driving. It was hot. I needed a snack. I’d run out of iced tea from Starbucks already. You get the picture.

When we finally pulled up to the gate we found that it was indeed a small family cemetery on the side of the road, and that we had to park on the shoulder because there wasn’t designated parking. The first thing we saw was a big sign that said No Trespassing, and another that said the cemetery was monitored by video surveillance. We ignored them both and unlatched the gate to walk in since it was broad daylight and the gate wasn’t locked. I did take a quick look around though and I saw that the telephone pole next to the cemetery had a floodlight on it aimed at the cemetery, and I know that goes a long way toward preventing vandalism. If I heeded by every No Trespassing sign that I saw I’d never get any writing done because I’d be avoiding every cemetery I’ve ever been in. I usually will research them first to see if they’re privately owned. If so I’ll still visit anyway and see if the gate is locked. If it is, I don’t go in.

This cemetery is OLD, which was another surprise. Almost all of the names are Lock or Locke, but supposedly there is a Jane Green buried there who was in a specific type of trade and ‘worked’ with the cattlemen in the area. Having once dated a farmer who raised cattle for breed stock, I have to say I do not blame her one bit. Nothing makes my hormones stir like a man on a horse, but that isn’t really relevant. Whether or not the story about Jane is actually true remains a mystery, but it’s the legend, and I remember stopping in wonder at her modern headstone because she lived to be 99 years old.

There are some beautiful hand stamped headstones in the center rows that date back to 1892 and 1898. My favorite of the two features a star motif stamped into the top curve of the stone and the epitaph reads “She Died Triumph In The Lord”. Her name was also unusual, Marzila Lock.

When you walk though this cemetery is seems like it’s another sandy lot filled with burrs and old headstones, but when you stand back and view it from the front you notice that a large section is shaded by a beautiful oak tree, and I stood for a moment imagining those strong roots carefully holding the people together underground. All of my shots from the gate were beautiful.

 

Find A Grave shows 67 burials on the lot but I’m pretty sure there were more given the age of the cemetery, and there are a surprising number of children buried here. 12 out of the 67, in fact.

And finally, a particularly nice tribute on Find A Grave is this one for Cennie Tison Lock, and it shows how large this family really was. Enjoy.

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.

 

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.

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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