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.