The Faces of La Unione Italiana Cemetery

This is one of my favorite cemeteries because this cemetery seems to look back at you.

The Italian Club is a Tampa tradition that dates back to 1894, the club building is in Ybor City on 7th Avenue and it is beautiful- so be sure to look for it when you’re visiting. This cemetery has a historical marker in front that talks about the tradition of the Italian funeral and the history of the parcel of land. The history of the cemetery is interesting, but the facts about the way the funerals were actually conducted is much more to my liking. The cortege would go by the deceased’s house and also by the Italian Club before proceeding to the cemetery. The cemetery itself is supposedly a good representation of Sicilian funerary art, and I will say that it certainly stands out.

 

I’ve been twice. The first time I was by myself and got there right after the caretaker, who kept and eye on me as I walked through. You have to navigate this one carefully because not only are the graves very close together, but they’re very ornate marble and the monuments are quite high, so it’s easy to get a banged knee or a grazed shin if you’re not paying attention. But aside from the gorgeous marble and occasional humble tile monuments, what I love about this cemetery is the fact that almost every single headstone has a photo of the person who died.

 

They’re extraordinary, and the sheer number of them is overwhelming. They are everywhere, including on the inside of the mausoleums (peek through some of the doors and you’ll see faces in the gloom affixed to the nameplates). It’s a wonderful place to visit, because you get a sense of the people in a way that you don’t in cemeteries that don’t have this feature. I know some people don’t like to see them, but I love them.

Many of the cemeteries I’ve visited will have a few portraits, but they tend to be sporadic and not really a highlight of the cemetery. After awhile I walked into the huge, modern mausoleum at the front of the property expecting to see volumes of white marble and names, but even here almost every grave site had a photo. All of these happy people looked back at me, many of the portraits seemed to have been taken in the 60’s and 70’s when these older folks were in the prime of their lives. It was a bright place that was loaded with flowers and it didn’t have the flat feeling of dead space like so many of the mausoleums I visit. If you’re not sure what this feels like call me up; I have a few I can take you to. No, I am not kidding.

This cemetery was also where I saw my second post-mortem photo on a headstone. I’ve seen tons of them in my research and on sites like Thanatos.net, but to see one in person is still a rare experience for me. I did take a picture of this one, because to me it wasn’t scary like some of them can be. The first one I saw I would never put in a blog post; it was a baby from the 1970’s and made me feel so devastatingly sad to see it that I walked away, got into my car, and left. The black and white ones don’t bother me and I tend to like them for their historical value and detail. The color ones do, maybe because it’s easier for me to imagine that person’s death. They feel confrontational.

This cemetery boasts one famous interment, and that is of Mafia Don Santo Trafficante, Sr. Go visit him, he’s by the fence in a mausoleum. In life he was not a man to be messed with and his story is fascinating so be sure to click the link! Plus, it’s pretty amazing that someone can survive a gunshot and then go on to their great reward a year later from natural causes.

The moral of this post is: get your sunscreen on and get to Tampa to visit this cemetery, and then while you’re at it go to the one next door. And Woodlawn, as long as you’re there. And maybe you should get a room so you can go to Ybor City that night and see the Italian Club, and then have a nice dinner and drinks at one of the cutesy restaurants there.

Drive-Thru Viewing

About once a month I troll the internet for funeral news like a weirdo. I search Youtube for news videos and also do some Google searches looking for any recent local news here in Florida. This habit has given me a few topics for blog posts (my personal favorite: ventilation in mausoleums and why it’s necessary), and it’s also given me news that I sincerely wish I could take back out of my brain, like the story about the young woman Julie Mott who was stolen from a funeral home in San Antonio after her viewing back in August of 2016. When the funeral home employees came in the next morning she was just…gone. And she still hasn’t been found. That story really haunted me and I still follow up about once a month to see if there is any more news about her.

Some of the stories I read are tragic and some are just downright bizarre, like the funeral director who decided to leave a body in a hearse parked at the back of his property for nine days because… well, he thought the body smelled bad and there was some protocol with the body being released for cremation. He didn’t want the body stored in his place and potentially scaring off customers. To his credit, he did in fact appear on camera for a news interview, because in many of these cases the person responsible won’t answer questions unless the authorities get involved.

And then there are the cases that don’t fit into the tragic category, and they don’t really fit in the bizarre category- they have a place all their own in the world of funeral news. I guess you could call them trendy. I give you the drive thru viewing. (Video compliments of YouTube.)

First, I want to say that I am not making fun of anyone here on this blog (Well, except for that one cemetery that I absolutely can’t stand. I make fun the owners sometimes.) But when I first heard about this, it did strike me as being almost comical, so I spent a day or two reflecting on it and trying to decide if I was for it or against it. I posted about it on social media and also to my coworkers at the library, because we’re an opinionated bunch if nothing else. Here are some of the collective remarks made.

Pros: 

Some people hate funeral homes and get panic attacks even thinking about going to a viewing or a funeral, so looking through a window at the person may be easier for them to handle. Some people are physically challenged and so this is a more comfortable option for them. Many people feel shy about expressing their grief publicly; I know I feel a lot more comfortable crying in my car than I do in a room full or people or in a public restroom. A lot of people are disturbed by the (real or imagined) smell of funeral homes and that can keep them from visitations. Viewing the body through the window may feel less real and confrontational than looking down at the body or even being in the same room with them, and so it may be a good option for people who really fear death.

Cons: 

One person said she could imagine a whole family heading to McDonald’s first and then eating fries and drinking shakes while looking at the body in the funeral home drive-thru. One person said if parking was more inconvenient than the fact that the person died, then maybe they shouldn’t go to the viewing at all. One friend said that they thought looking at a dead body was a weird tradition anyway and that looking at one through a window was even weirder.

What this reminded me of was the Victorian practice of photographing dead bodies, a historical quirk that I personally love. Many of the photos are beautiful and peaceful, and while I’ve seen a few that have really disturbed me, I find that many are artistic and certainly valuable for their historical detail. However, when the house was quarantined the photographer would have to stand outside and take the photo through the window of the house, and that gave me the creeps for some reason. It seemed voyeuristic and changed the whole dynamic, but I could see the need for it if the family had no other photo of that person.

Photo first seen in Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America by Stanley Burns. of the Burns Archive. Photo accessed from https://www.buzzfeed.com/leonoraepstein/haunting-post-mortem-photography?

I don’t know that this fills a specific need in the funeral industry, but I admire the creativity for sure and I certainly look forward to seeing if this catches on and and ends up in one of the Orlando funeral homes. I think that for years people have either chosen to attend a funeral or not – it’s been that simple. This seems to place some people into a gray area where they want to be there to support the family of the loved one- but don’t. They want that last look at their loved one- but not in person. I can’t say this with any judgement because everyone’s feelings toward death are different, but I’ll be really interested to see if this becomes a regular funeral practice.

Grieving for Pets

Last week I lost my beautiful little Cricket, who I’ve shared my life with for 14 years. She made my house a home, and I am still getting used to life without her. For me, the hardest part besides watching her decline was coming home from work each day and not seeing her calico face in my bedroom window, waiting for me. She has always treated my bedroom as her personal apartment at every place I’ve lived and I always accommodated this since like me, she was shy and preferred to have her own space. I truly miss her presence in my room and the house feels emptier without her, even though we have two other cats.

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What I’ve struggled with besides just feeling the lack of her presence has been all of the empty space in my head that was previously filled with worrying about her. Did I give her her fluids Monday or Tuesday? Why isn’t she eating? Do I need to take her back to the vet again? Am I hurting her when I give her fluids? Who can I trust to watch her when we go out of town? (Thank you, Owen!) It was a lot of worry and anxiety over a period of one and a half years from when she was diagnosed with advanced kidney disease. I lost a lot of sleep and had mounting expenses for her health care, but it didn’t matter to me because I loved her.

So now I find all of this space, and I still find myself locked into routines that revolved around her care and making her happy. I open the blinds every morning, still expecting her to jump up on the couch to look out. I close them but leave space at the bottom at night, still thinking she’ll look out during the night. I leave my robe on my bed for her, still used to the fact that she LOVED sleeping on it. I still come home from work thinking it’s time to feed her.

After a week I started wondering if I should stop any of these behaviors, but my answer was no, that I shouldn’t, because for now it makes me feel better. I have sympathy cards in my room from friends and from our outstanding vet, who sat next to me in the room the day she died and put her arm around me, crying with me. I have flowers from a friend who lives in another state who went with me to learn how to give her fluids because I was terrified of fainting. I did clean my room and removed her food dishes, corralled all of her toys into a basket in the corner of the room for now, and tried to make everything look clean and peaceful. For a few days there was a lot of chaos as we took care of her and waited to see if she would take a turn for the better.

I grew a lot in the last year and a half and I realized that I’m a lot more capable than I ever thought I was. I’m pretty good with a needle now. I can manage multiple medications, and I can see warning signs that I couldn’t see before. I was financially capable too, more so than I thought I was.

I have a few suggestions for anyone who loses a pet, because whether it’s a horse or a hamster or anything in between, it’s still painful. But here is what I’ve learned that has helped me cope.

  1. Don’t give yourself a time limit for when you’re supposed to be done grieving, and ignore anyone who tells you to get over it. It takes as long as it takes, and some people have a harder time with grief than others. I remember when I lost my first cat, Sam, I was in a restaurant with my mom 3 months later and when she mentioned him I started crying. I’d had him for 16 years! If an animal spends a significant part of your life with you, you’ll probably spend a significant amount of time missing them. Be gentle with yourself and cry when you need to, you’ll feel so much better if you don’t hold it in.
  2. The flip side is also knowing when to get help. If you feel like you can’t function in your normal life, are losing sleep, or are feeling so sad that you don’t want to get up, please see a counselor. Also you might try supporting yourself with homeopathic remedies for grief or stress (these helped me, especially Rescue Remedy), using aromatherapy, and just generally taking really good care of yourself. If you’re not sleeping and having trouble eating you’re going to be more emotional, whether you realize it or not.
  3. Say thank you to the people that helped you with your pet, whether it was your vet, friends, or family members that were there for you. Writing thank you notes to those special people that made a difference for me in the last few days helped me to have closure.
  4. You can have your pet’s ashes returned to you, which is something I chose to do. No it’s not weird and no it’s not scary. She’s in a beautiful cedar box with her name on it, and it’s smaller than a box of Kleenex. I’m glad I did this, it made me feel better somehow. You can also purchase custom urns on Etsy and they also have memorial jewelry for your pet’s ashes or fur, and most are reasonably priced.
  5. You can also create a ritual for your pet or do something meaningful to create a sort of memorial. My mom had a friend that passed away and she decided to knit a scarf in her friend’s favorite colors to wear when she was missing her. I light a candle at home every night next to all of the cards that I got for Cricket, which makes me feel better. You can say a prayer for your pet or even talk to your pet, whatever helps you process. Frame your favorite picture of them, or if you feel like you need to, take their pictures down for awhile. It doesn’t have to be forever. Finally, if like me you’re still embedded in the daily rituals of having your pet, like opening blinds or leaving their favorite blanket out, keep doing it if it helps you cope. For the time being keeping those routines is helping me and I know that one day I won’t need them anymore.

 

Special thanks to the East Orlando Animal Hospital staff and Dr. Yaicha Peters, Shawn, Keila, Owen, Terri, and Robert, and Greenbrier Memory Gardens and Crematory, who specialize in afterlife care for animals.

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