Social Media, Blogs, and Death

Over the last few weeks my aunt has been sharing a blog on her Facebook page about a family with a newborn that was very ill. His name was Michael. He had a host of problems at birth, and each week or sometimes more often, his mom would write an update about his progress or his setbacks, what the next steps were, and the prayers that they needed for their family. I read all of the posts that my aunt shared, prayed for this child and this family, and somewhere along the way became emotionally invested in this family’s story.

I knew that Michael had a big day on Friday and that his parents were praying for a good outcome. It would be a step in the direction of having this little boy able to begin the process of healing rather than suffering. I prayed for him that morning, thought of him during the day, and went about my work. Michael had never been off of a machine to help him survive since birth. His mother couldn’t actually hold him. I hoped he would have some relief that day during the procedure and that this family would be able to see progress in their tiny son’s health.

On Saturday morning I reached for my phone and opened Facebook to find that Michael had died swiftly and painlessly the day before. I sat for a long time looking at that post by my aunt before putting my phone down and trying to start my day with some sense of normalcy, but I felt horrible. In the afternoon I went Christmas shopping by myself, and when I was about a mile from the house I started crying. The road became blurry, and I gave in to the tears.

I didn’t feel like I could cry at home about this. How do you tell the person you live with that you’re grieving for someone you didn’t know? I felt so strange. I knew that Michael was no longer hurting, and that death might have been the best way for that to happen. Based on his mom’s writing he would have had a life of surgeries and pain. No one wants that for their child, but they still want the child and the hope of well being for that child.

When David Bowie died I remember my roommate coming out of her bedroom crying the morning that it was in the news. I felt sorry for her, because I remember being very affected by Princess Diana’s death years ago. With a celebrity I could get it and not feel odd about being so sad. Their lives were always so public and they were always in the news, on TV, on magazine covers. But I still came back to the fact that I didn’t know this family except through social media.

Social media and blogs bring people together that would otherwise never know about each other. While I don’t care at all about what someone on Instagram wore on a specific day, I do care when they share something more personal. A feeling. A story. Why something matters to them. And I suppose that because of this constant sharing, grieving is now a public thing too. (Something Grace pointed out to me.) I thought back to times when people grieved as a nation over Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr., or as a city recently when the Pulse shooting took place here in Orlando. I still can’t visit the part of the local cemetery where the victims are buried, even though I’ve been several times. I can’t think about it. I didn’t know any of those people either, but I finally gave myself a break over feeling so much emotion around that incident after talking to a friend and having her tell me she couldn’t go either, and that it upset her greatly to even think about going. I know that if I went no one would say anything to me if they saw me in the cemetery crying. So why did I feel so strange and so secretive about crying for a child I didn’t know? I honestly think I just didn’t want to explain that particular kind of sadness to anyone.

My friend and I are considering going to visit the Pulse victims at the cemetery this year, together. Maybe nobody owes the world or anyone an explanation of their sadness or despair. Maybe that’s what I haven’t learned yet. I can just be sad. I don’t have to explain it or rationalize it, or act like it’s not there.

I am grateful to Michael’s mom for putting their story out there for the world to see. I think it was a brave thing to do and I know it was hard to write. I hope her writing about Michael brings her healing and peace.

The photos in this post are of my favorite infant’s graves that I’ve visited in the last 2 years. The first photo, Billy, is from Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando and is one of my all time favorites.

Tampa Cemetery Tour With Grace

My auto correct automatically changed the word Grace to Grave. That seems to say a lot about my life, but I’m going to ignore it for now.

Grace and I jumped in the Jeep a couple of weeks ago and drove to Tampa with a full tank of gas and a bag full of snacks. We had a list of several cemeteries to visit, and we wanted to hopefully be heading back to Orlando before the traffic got out of control.

The first stop was Marti Colon. We spent a lot of time at this cemetery because we both loved it, and it was interesting for me to notice which grave sites Grace gravitated toward and pointed out to me. There are some stunning portraits here, so take your time looking.

The next stop was Centro Asturiano, the immigrant cemetery within the confines of Woodlawn for members of the local Spanish Club. It was here that I got a burr stuck underneath my toes, and I had to find a sturdy headstone to brace myself against while Grace got the evil little thing off of me. This cemetery is such a treasure; I love visiting. Here is where you’ll start to see the graves made out of blue and white tiles, and some with a wreath with a pink tile bow if the grave belongs to a woman or child. Many of the ones in here are still in excellent shape, though there is a considerable amount of damage at the front of the cemetery.

After this- Woodlawn. We drove though and got out to visit the Hampton plot, and also to get a better look at a few portraits on the headstones. This cemetery is enormous and one you could easily spend the day in, with lots of mausoleums for added interest. Since we don’t see many of them around here they always draw me to them and yes, I peek in windows.

A quick stop for drinks and a snack- then Robles Cemetery and it’s 26 burials. This cemetery was one that I feel literally too intimidated to write about. It’s small, uncared for, clearly ignored, and suffering damage, but the history of this family is fascinating and the story is so good, I know I can’t do it justice. Check the link for the contributions they made to Central Florida.

Next- La Unione Italiana and Cento Espanol next to it. La Unione was the site of a break in in 2016 where several caskets (including the bodies) was stolen from one of the mausoleums. I didn’t see any evidence of damage, thankfully, but I felt terrible for the family. There was a descendant living and a reward was offered, but I never heard anything else about it. Grave robbing is still a very real event and it literally happens all the time. It saddens me and makes me angry because I just don’t get it, and I don’t understand how profitable it can actually be. Definitely something for another blog post, and if you have ever witnessed anything like this please reach out to me on here. I’d like to hear your experiences.

While we were there Grace said she wanted a picture of what she kept referring to as “Anchor Jesus”. We walked toward a huge statue and stood at it’s feet, both squinting up at it.

“I don’t think that’s Jesus,” I said.

“Who would it be?” she asked, taking photos.

I looked it up when I got home. It’s a statue of Hope, which is often depicted with a large anchor and a star. The anchor motif is popular in coastal cities, and Tampa does have a number of anchor symbols on grave markers. I especially love this beautiful statue, she’s on the right side of the main aisle (If you’re facing the gates) when you visit, but you can’t miss her.

At the Spanish Cemetery next door I stayed in the car with the A/C running while Grace ran around. I don’t like the feeling of that cemetery at all, I feel like someone is throwing a heavy, wet blanket of grief onto me when I’ve gone in before. No thanks. The funny thing is, she came over to my car door and I rolled the window down, smiling and asking her what she thought about the place.

“This one doesn’t feel right,” she said musingly, and got back in the car a few minutes later.

We planned to end our day with Orange Hill, which is the less prim and proper cousin of Myrtle Hill next door. Myrtle Hill is the fine wine of active cemeteries in Tampa. It is very grand, very large, and very beautiful. Orange Hill, however, has it’s charms. One is an empty mausoleum that you can pop your head into to look around, and another is a huge and strange building at the front with no discernible purpose. I did some digging online and can’t figure out if it’s a funeral chapel or something else, it seems way too large to be a mausoleum. Grace sent a photo to her girlfriend and got this gem in response:

On the way out of Myrtle Hill we noticed a memorial park across the street and decided to drive through for a minute, but it turned into a lengthy adventure. First, it has a huge columbarium in the middle of it that has some interesting architecture and we decided to get out and go peek. We found the doors to the chapel area open and walked inside, and then Grace covered her face with her tee shirt because the SMELL was unbelievable. I mean, BAD. I thought about either backing out of the doors or gagging, but the inside was so interesting that I swallowed hard and walked farther in. After a few minutes I had to leave, but kept looking around for a source of the smell and could only see a few spills on the floor that had dried and were crawling with small bugs. I have no idea what happened in there. Grace said it smelled like the craft supplies that had been stored for a year in a mildewed closet at at Bible Camp. I had nothing to compare it to, but I’ll say again that I hate smells in cemeteries.

I’m encouraging everyone to get to Tampa and take a cemetery tour of your own design. We really had a stellar day, and went home in horrible traffic (we didn’t avoid it after all) full of French fries and caffeine and covered in bug bites.

 

 

American Ghost Adventures in Greenwood Cemetery

Shawn surprised me for Halloween. He booked us for a ghost tour in Greenwood Cemetery, and I was under the impression that it was the moonlight walking tour I’d been on many times before. However, this one was different. When we arrived at the cemetery just after dark we were issued K2 meters and presented to our guides for the evening, Mark and Debbie, both sporting Victorian attire.

They pretty much had me right there with just the clothes and the meters, and we weren’t even IN the cemetery yet. Debbie wore a hat with a double veil and I was really impressed with her ability to lead the tour and see so well. She looked fetching. And I really love Victorian dress on men. Something about those coats….

We began with our group of eight by the offices, where we were shown the area that used to be the African American Jonestown settlement when Orlando was all about celery and citrus. Many of the workers were former slaves and they lived here. Several people from the Ocoee race riots are buried here in the original segregated part of the cemetery, with well visited and tended graves. I remember stumbling on their funeral records in the Carey Hand books once and being startled by reading about such a violent death when many of the other records said things like, ‘senility’, or ‘heart attack’.

We then proceeded up the hill to the highest point by the Wilmott Mausoleum, which I love for it’s creepy, domed, paint peeled beauty. It’s close to the Carey Hand family plot, so I gave them a nod on the way past as I always do, still thinking that a book about that family would be so much fun to write.

It was here that Mark and Debbie brought out a flashlight and placed it on top of the Robinson grave in the off position. It was also here that it began to rain and the umbrellas came out, and thunder rolled across the sky. I was thinking that there was nowhere else I’d rather be in that moment when the flashlight began to blink and flash, and Mark and Debbie began talking with a spirit.

Do I believe I ghosts? Yes. Do I go looking for them? Normally, no. This is only my second ghost tour, and while I believe they’re around us all the time, the skeptic in me does rear it’s shaggy head at times. But strangely, this was not one of them. The little flashlight blinked on and off, once for yes and twice for no, and eventually it came out that were were in the presence of a young boy who really wanted to chat. I think we were there for at least 20 minutes, and while I would never do something like that myself, I did like witnessing the whole event. I feel safe in cemeteries. But I know that a lot of people don’t and that there are many who would have been upset by something like that.

We went to visit Fred Weeks by his mausoleum for another show with the flashlight. Fred Weeks was a man who knew how to get revenge with grace and style. When he was ripped off by 3 businessmen in the Orlando area he erected a headstone with their names on it by the front gates of Greenwood with a bible verse,  Luke 10:30. When the men bought back the swampland they had sold him in order to get him to take the headstone down, he built his mausoleum, and put their names on it instead. On the doors you can see where the names were removed. Mr. Weeks died alone; his wife left him and took the children with her so he’s in the mausoleum all by himself. It’s a good story, but just goes to show you that seeking  revenge hurts you as well as the other person. On most of my visits to Greenwood there is a flower on Fred’s door. I always wonder who leaves them.

Toward the end of the tour it was raining in earnest and we stopped briefly at Babyland 3. I took a few photos but mostly hung back. When they tried to get interaction with the flashlight again nothing happened. The babies were all resting peacefully tonight.

A few days later Shawn and I went back to Greenwood to look at some of the places we had stopped on the tour, and as we drove past Babyland there was a couple sitting together on one of the little graves. I’m pretty sure my heart just fell out of my chest because I felt so heartbroken for them.

At the end of the tour we went back to the cemetery office, where I bought a tee shirt and handed Mark my card, asking him if it would be okay if I wrote about the tour on the blog.

“Yes!” he said. ‘Will you write nice things?”

“Of course!” I replied.

“And will you tell them how good looking and single I am?” he asked me.

“Yes, I will,” I said. And I’m keeping my promise.

So lookout, ladies! If you like history and have a thing for men in bowler hats, he’s your man. You can take a tour with American Ghost Adventures here in Orlando- I’m definitely taking one of the city tours so I can learn more about some of the buildings downtown. Check them out on Facebook for upcoming dates and events!

 

 

Marti Colon Cemetery in Tampa, Florida

I took a much needed day off to be alone and just wander, and what better place to do that than in Tampa’s cemeteries. I had several on my list that I had missed on my last trip, and decided to head in that direction. I needed to just stop thinking for a day.

My favorite of the several that I visited was not the most showy or ostentatious, quite the opposite, in fact. I had passed it back in February and was unable to see the name on the sign, I just saw the large, white mausoleum with Jesus on the front of it and knew I had to go back. It took me a bit of researching to figure out which one it might potentially be, but I found it, and went there after visiting Myrtle Hill (amazing), and Orange Hill (interesting). Marti Colon is not terribly large, and has a checkered past involving the city, the parks department, dumping of raw sewage, and a LOT of bodies that were not moved during the Columbus Road expansion and then a few more bodies that were moved improperly- stacked in graves one on top of the other. That’s a no-no unless the plot was sold to the family for that kind of burial. But when you go there, you’d never know it’s had problems. It was established in 1895.

The one family mausoleum at the front is huge and I’ve never seen one like it. First, the doorway was tiled in bright colors and there were no doors. Over the door was a very large plaster figure of Jesus with the stigmata on his hands. (I absolutely loved it, of course. It was amazing and only slightly ghoulish.) The windows were some kind of blurred glass that you could still see out of, and inside the ceilings were surprisingly high. There were niches in the walls for flowers and tributes, and the marble for the name plates was an unusual pink color. The niches had been painted a robin’s egg blue and were discolored from candles being burned in them over the years. One side held flowers and the other a dead plant. An old broom was in the corner. The windows on either side of the doorway actually had crank handles so that they could be opened. It was really remarkable and didn’t exactly remind me of a mausoleum, more of a house. Like you could put in doors and a couch and be good to go. I’m thinking the family must like that. The mausoleum was almost full.

The thing about the mausoleum that really struck me though, besides all that I’ve mentioned, is that the light inside was extraordinary. It was perfect for photos; I’m not sure if it was the blurred glass or the high ceilings, or the reflective tile floor, but it was really beautiful. I stayed in there a long time, just looking. Finally, I walked out to see the larger mausoleum. It was flat and wide, dark on the inside, and I felt a need to duck going in. It had skylights throughout the central section that gave it an eerie feeling with lots of shadows. I can’t say I’d want to be in this one on a rainy day. Tributes were scattered all over the floor and at the end of the main section was a broken stained glass window that had been of some religious figure. My guess would be Mary. One hand was left in the glass, perfectly detailed and holding a flower stem, while the rest of the figure was gone. It needed a good mop, broom, and bucket of paint. It was just dirty and sad, in the way of homes that get run down because the occupants can’t afford to replace things as they get old or break. I flipped the light switch praying for the lights to come on, but the electricity had probably been turned off for years. I walked out to look at the gravestones.

Like the other cemeteries in Tampa this one was full of photos on the graves. It’s one of my favorite things about visiting this area. The Spanish, Cuban, and Italian immigrants loved their fancy graves and rituals. The photos mean that you will usually see at least one post-mortem while visiting the cemeteries, and I saw what I thought was one in the back, but Maryanne said she didn’t think so. Hard to tell on that one. They always startle me a bit, but it’s either something you love or something that makes you shiver. I usually like them.

 

I was following a path through the graves and looking down at one grave at a time as I walked when I saw a small handmade marker. Baby Sanchez June 16, 1961, Love Mom and Dad. The phrase had been scratched into the concrete with a nail or sharp tool, and I got down on the ground to take a closer look. I thought about the parents that must have made that and what they felt like at the time, and then I saw another one. And another. There was an entire row of the handmade markers, all in the same hand, and all identical otherwise aside from the dates and names. The parents had not made them. One person in the community had made them for the families that lost children for several years. And then I took a closer look around and saw that I was standing in Babyland.

I don’t willingly enter these sections anymore, and I felt something akin to fear grip my heart when I realized where I was, so I looked at one other grave that caught my eye and then went back to the pathway to view the section from there. The babies were under large, shady trees and the graves were so tiny, and some quite ornate. In the back I saw one that had small toy truck left on it, which amazed me as it looked fairly old. I made my way back to the front of the cemetery.

This is one that I’ll be going back to in the next month, and bringing a few cemetery-loving friends for an outing. I’m also interested in viewing the records on some of the families there. It’s a little run-down, but I think that’s exactly what I liked about it. I doubt it has many visitors since I saw little evidence of recent visits like fresh or new flowers and cards. Instead, like the cemetery itself, everything was worn, slightly faded, and had seen better, brighter days. But to me, that made it glorious.

 

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.

Heavenly Bodies at Eau Gallie Cemetery, Melbourne, Florida

First a little bit of business. To the person who ran a search on my site for…and I quote… “pictures of 14 plus naked girls”, I believe that you are on the wrong site. We all wear our clothes around here, sir. I always read the search terms every week to see what people are looking for and I’ve gotten some good tips for cemeteries to visit, but not this time.

It was extremely hot the day that Shawn and I decided to head to Melbourne just to get out of the house and see what was over there. I wasn’t super thrilled with the area, but I’ll admit that I also didn’t really know where to go or what to see. We did go to several cemeteries, and Eau Gallie was one of my favorites. The sign in front said “Welcome! Booker T. Washington Neighborhood”. After some research I found out that it appears to be part of a neighborhood development plan, and there is actually a whole section of Melbourne that is part of this. I had read online from some ghost hunter that this was in a bad neighborhood but I never saw any evidence of that. The surrounding areas were clean and busy and the cemetery itself was in perfect condition. I would have gone in by myself and felt totally comfortable.

The cemetery is large and well designed with a roundabout in the center, a common design, with the cemetery moving out from the circle into quadrants. It had the most beautiful trees and the plushest grass I’d ever seen in a cemetery though, and for that alone it was worth getting out for a walk. Besides its beauty, there is one other thing that stood out in this cemetery. It is full of angels. The people who come back to visit their loved ones tend to leave angels on the graves, and there were so many everywhere I looked. I felt well protected while we were there! There was even a huge modern headstone with a crouching angel leaning over it, which is a style I’ve also seen in Greenwood Cemetery here in Orlando.

The cemetery was established in 1902 so it’s certainly not the oldest one I’ve been to, but it’s worth a visit. The surrounding area used to be a city called Eua Gallie, and the cemetery was operated by that city at one time until it just became part of Melbourne in 1969. It appears to still be an active cemetery and has about 1400 burials, though we didn’t see any new graves while we were there.

The grave of John P. McMillan was my favorite one that we saw and was also very poignant. It was a white marble obelisk with the Woodmen of the World symbol on it, and the dates told the story. Born 1896, died 1918. He gave his life for his country is the epitaph. I don’t see too many first World War veteran’s graves, or it could be that when I see the date 1918 I tend to first think of the beginning of the Spanish Flu pandemic. But this grave hit me hard, not only because the man was so young when he died, but to die at the end of the war when he had survived thus far seemed especially sad.

It was too hot to be walking around but we had one more cemetery to visit- the Shady Oaks African American cemetery nearby. More on that one soon. You should visit Eau Gallie if you’re in the Melbourne area. If you like taking photos in cemeteries, you can’t find a better subject. If you like the paranormal, everything I’ve read indicates that this is the place to be. However, this cemetery seemed very quiet and peaceful to me.

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.

After receiving a couple of comments on this post I’d like to add that all of this was based on the information that was available at the time. I’m still following the story and may post updates as they come available.

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.