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.

 

 

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.

 

Centro Asturiano Cemetery in Tampa, Florida

There are actually several of these cemeteries, including one in Ybor City, but the one that I visited and loved was the one on North Ola Avenue, within the gates of Woodlawn Cemetery. This cemetery is historic and in delicate condition, but it is maintained by the city. Well, lets just say they’re doing the best they can after what looks like years of damage and decay. It is easily accessible and clean despite being a bit on the spooky side. When you walk in and look to the left you’ll see a few collapsed/vandalized crypts that were a little shocking the first time I saw them.

On my first visit back in February I picked up my friend Hannah at the airport, whom I had never actually met face to face. Fortunately meeting her was like picking up where we left off in our last conversation, as though we had known each other for years. So I didn’t feel too badly when I asked did she need to stop for anything… food, water, a smoothie? No? Okay, well, we had 2 hours before we were supposed to meet the other people for the convention we were attending, and we would be visiting a cemetery during that time. To my delight she said that she was up for it.

I drove to Woodlawn Cemetery looking for Showman’s Rest, which is the old circus cemetery that serves Tampa’s more entertaining residents. It was not at all what I expected and hoped for, despite a few notable burials. I wanted big headstones with clown shoes and elephants, like the ones I had seen online. But I think that particular cemetery is in Sarasota, so there’s another road trip and another cemetery added to my ever-growing list that I keep in my planner. This one was a small memorial park and a nondescript mausoleum, and I had expected something a bit more showy. We decided to jump back in the car and drive through Woodlawn instead.

At the back I saw a smaller gated cemetery in one corner that looked different from the rest of Woodlawn. I parked the car and we were opening the doors to get out when Hannah told me that she really didn’t like cemeteries where they had the pictures of the deceased on the headstones. We slammed the car doors and stood looking around to find that there were literally thousands of pairs of eyes on us. That cemetery is LOADED with portraits on the headstones. I looked at her to make sure she was okay, but she seemed to have rallied, and we walked over to the small gated cemetery called Centro Asturiano.

Tampa has a long tradition of clubs for immigrants who came over for work; they were places to make them feel more at home, have a place to safely socialize, and to provide benefits for them such as health aid, a hospital for club members, and eventually a place to be buried when they died. This cemetery was for Spanish immigrants, and it is a treasure. It is one of three that are associated with this particular club in Tampa. Sadly, the club started to decline in 1990 after the the hospital closed.

This cemetery has a lot of damage which is sad, but it’s also still standing and is obviously cared for. Many of the monuments are in perfect condition, but many have been broken or in the case of the ledger stones topping the graves, simply pushed to the side for some reason. I really think people expect to find a casket or bones right there, but that’s not how it is in most cases. While I have spied the occasional bit of casket through broken cement in a few cemeteries,  it’s a very rare occurrence. This cemetery also has a lot of beautiful tiled graves that are very ornate. I love how bright they are compared to the usual dark headstones.

There are a couple of special finds in this cemetery. One is a small headstone near the gate for a young girl who died, and on her headstone is a portrait of her in her ballerina outfit, complete with a little tutu. She has a beautiful bob haircut and is just precious. It’s a heart wrenching photo, but I love it.

At the back left along the fence is a headstone with a type of glass case built into it that holds the remains of a wreath of white flowers that appear to be made out of some type of porcelain or bisque. The frame that the flowers are attached to is made of rusted metal. This particular one has been damaged and the glass is broken and dangerous to reach into, but there is a perfect example at the Italian Club Cemetery nearby that is still behind glass and whole. It is very beautiful. On that side you will also see a grave entirely covered with conch shells.

This cemetery dates back to the late 1800’s and is closed for burials.

 

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.