The Former Beaches Memorial Park in Atlantic Beach, Florida

I generally attempt to keep my temper out of these posts but I probably won’t be able to do that today. I’m talking about the Rayan’s, the previous owners of Beaches Memorial Park and the focal point in Florida funeral industry news for a year now. To put it quite simply, these people are turds. And yes, I understand the whole innocent until proven guilty thing, but in my mind that only applies to people who don’t leave bodies in broken refrigerators on their cemetery property.

Amanda Rayan owned this funeral home and cemetery and she and her husband decided to run it by taking the money from customers… and then pretty much not doing anything else. They racked up over 70 complaints from families before getting well and truly busted by a surprise inspection from the Florida Division of Cemetery, Funeral, and Consumer Services. During the inspection they found a man’s body decomposing in a broken refrigerator inside the facility, who turned out to be Burton Acker. He was supposed to have been cremated already and returned to his family, who had been asking to come and pick up his remains. Why he was left inside a broken fridge is a mystery. They also found that John Rayan had been selling the memorial plaques on the property for scrap metal, and also accepting payment for services he never rendered to families. The list of their accusations is too lengthy to mention here.

It was almost a year ago that things started to get really heated at the cemetery. A family showed up to bury their loved one, and there was no one there when they arrived. The plot was not marked, the grave not dug, no one answered the phone when they placed frantic calls. The family had to return the body to the funeral home for storage until they could figure out what to do. They called the police though, and they came out to document the situation. Soon after the Rayan’s funeral license was suspended by the state.

There is a video of Amanda Rayan at a funeral on her property, shot through some bushes, but showing her smirking face clearly as she stands under the funeral tent in a tight tee shirt and short shorts. I saw that video and felt so bad for the family who were all dressed respectfully. I know that if I were attending my grandparent’s funeral, and the cemetery owner (that I had just handed a stack of money) came out to assist with the coffin dressed like that, she’d find herself suddenly on the ground and I’d be cheerfully dealing with an assault charge.

News 4 Jax hounded this couple incessantly until John Rayan’s arrest at the cemetery, and they made sure to be there to film that as well. On the video John Rayan is in handcuffs and wearing what looks like pajamas, being guided by the elbow toward the police car, and the news anchor puts a microphone in his face and starts asking him questions. One minute he is sweating profusely and saying in a weird, breathy voice that he doesn’t have any cemetery experience, as though that’s an excuse for his deplorable behavior. The next minute he’s on the ground in a dead faint and the officers are staring at him like, “Well damn, what do we do with this jerk now?” And what they did was haul him up and literally drag his ass to jail. He is facing 16 charges and his wife, who they went after as well, is facing 45 charges, but for some reason he has been the focal point of this investigation.

So, how does the story end? That depends on how you look at it. Johns Rayan’s trial was set to begin on April 17th of this year and he skipped town, and the rumor is that he is ‘vacationing’ in Maryland. The judge issued another warrant for his arrest and to date, he has not been seen. Amanda Rayan is still awaiting trial. And yes, I still look them up on a weekly basis to see if they’ve been arrested yet (again).

The good news is that when they are brought to trial I’m sure it will be epic. The other good news is that Todd Ferreira bought the cemetery and not only is his name on the sign, but the place is actually quite beautiful. When my mom and I drove out there several weeks ago I wasn’t expecting much; I had this grim image in my mind of what the place looked like when the Rayan’s owned it and everything was brown and weedy. The mausoleums were painted brown along with the offices, and it looked awful. Weeds that were waist high were surrounding the fountain at the front of the property. I would never have gone to that place for assistance. Another point to be made is that the Jacksonville Beaches are beautiful and Atlantic Beach manages to have a small town feel with the fresh air, and  the sandy beach close by. I loved it. It seems hard to imagine that this couple would get away with having such a delapidated looking cemetery for long, and it appears that the residents of this pretty and peaceful area decided that enough was enough when they starting calling in complaints.

Mom and I pulled into an impeccably groomed property with graceful oak trees, mowed green grass, and buildings painted a fresh pale yellow with white trim. It looked like there was another fountain or some other kind of decorative ornament getting ready to go up, and everything felt peaceful and calm. I say good for Mr. Ferreira, because the place looks beautiful and I can’t imagine anything that would make it look better. At the back of the property you’ll find a larger mausoleum and a memorial chapel, which was locked the day that were were there.

I’m hoping that the families that were taken advantage of by this couple will find peace once some kind of justice is served, not only for them but for their loved ones resting in that cemetery.

As for me, I’ll be glued to my computer reading the news and eating Teddy Grahams when they finally get this couple into a courtroom.

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 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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