The Church in the Woods

Way, way back in the woods in Marion County.

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Cedar Grove Methodist Church.

You turn off of the 2 lane highway onto a dirt road that goes a mile back into the Florida scrub. There’s no other turnoffs, no driveways, nothing to show that you’re actually going…somewhere. And then when you’re starting to get all sweaty and worried about how in the heck you’re supposed to turn your car around in the middle of this forest- a clearing appears and there in the middle of it is the cutest little Methodist church you’ve ever seen, and there’s a cemetery behind it.

This church is a well protected site and there are signs everywhere saying that you’re on camera. So behave yourself. We did, for once. The church has a charmingly misspelled sign that reads Cedar Grove Cemetary, which is one of my pet peeves especially since it’s showing up in glaring red as I write this. However, that’s the only fault I could find with this beautiful place. It was well maintained and we never saw another soul as we looked around late one Sunday afternoon. This was a mission church and they have owned the cemetery since 1860. It appears that the church is most likely without running water since there is an outhouse (not even kidding) and a hand pump outside, which Shawn gleefully tried. states that the church is no longer in use, and that the cemetery is full. A second source says that this is not the original church; this one was built around 1936 because the first one from 1860 burned down.

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Outhouse. No plumbing inside, apparently.

Well that just sucks. It’s one of the things that I don’t like about visiting historical sites. Everything has burned to the ground at least one time already.

My favorite stone was a hand-stamped one made of pale yellow stone for Annie Clara Brass, who was just a few month old when she died. Several of the stones in the cemetery were made by the same hand, and they’re beautiful. The Brass family also lost another daughter in 1900, Nina, who was 7 months old. Facts like these make my heart feel heavy when researching these sites. We went recently to the Powell Cemetery on Orange Avenue in Orlando and the dates made it clear just how many people there died from the Spanish Flu. I’m imaginative and these events are easy for me to picture, and then sometimes feel. Three people buried in Powell Cemetery died within one day of each other. It must have been horrible to witness in a small community.

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Anna Clara’s grave in Cedar Grove.

Another cemetery resident is Archie Brass, who was a local farmer. He married twice, first to Delia, who died, and later to Pennie (Pennie Brass. What a name!) who he later divorced. Delia is buried in the cemetery but Pennie is not. His draft records from 1917 indicate that he was ‘stout’ and had brown eyes and black hair. He was on that land for at least 30 years according to the census- and both of his parents were born in Florida as well.

This area is considered the Gaiter settlement, and nearby was Camp Izard, site of a siege between 1500 Seminole Indians and General Gaines in 1836 which lasted nearly 2 weeks. In 1842 the site was abandoned. Florida became a state in 1845, a few years after the bloodbath. 15 years later the original church was erected on this site.

When we wandered through that day I looked down and found myself standing in a pile of white bones. This would be odd but it’s actually the second time this has happened to me in a cemetery, the first time was in Oakland Cemetery and the victim was a rooster that had been killed some time ago, the tiny bones of the neck and spine looked at first like teeth until I noticed the feathers and leg bones scattered everywhere. This time it was a deer that had died and had completely decomposed down to the bone. The spine was still arced in a gentle curve on top of the pine needles, the leg bones were thick and sturdy and for a few minutes I couldn’t figure out what it was. The jawbone still had the delicate teeth attached. The skull was sadly missing. I sent a photo to a friend of mine that has done a lot of biology work for his art and he pronounced, “It’s a deer”. It had been there undisturbed for so long that I would have wondered if people ever visited, except that the property had been raked and weeded.

If you find yourself in Marion County near Dunnellon anytime soon, look this place up. There’s so much history here that it’s hard to write the post in a concise manner. Just go.





Funeral School… Accepted and Declined

Cheesin’ with the Plague doctor.

Last spring I had the opportunity to visit the Renaissance Fair in Tavares, Florida. I am not a festival girl or a fair girl. I will go periodically if invited and if I really can’t think of an excuse not to go, but they’re not my thing. However, if I am forced to go to a fair, going to one with a medieval-y theme is the best way to go. At the time I was dating a man who was really into it. As in, I was worried that he might dress up for it and expect me to do the same. Fortunately, we met that day and were both wearing shorts and tee shirts like many of the other people there and our relationship plugged along for a few more months. If he had shown up in a costume I wasn’t sure how I’d respond, which proves that I’m just as judgmental as anyone else even though it’s something I feel constant pressure to work on.

He knew at the time that I liked cemeteries and funeral history, and I always had the sinking feeling that he didn’t really like that about me. If we were looking at a display of Hello Kitty items, he wanted to buy me the kitty with the pink bow on her ears, and I wanted the kitty in her coffin with her little fangs showing.

I think this bothered him.

At the time I was considering funeral school and was looking into courses, transferring credits, and embalming textbooks, and he never asked me one question about it, even though he knew exactly what I was doing. I had the curriculum on my kitchen counter with classes like Thanatology, Burial Law, and Funeral Home Management listed. He never wanted to know why I did the things I did or why I felt drawn to certain things, which should have been a red flag. Even though I saw and recognized the flag for what it was (doom), I looked the other way.

At the festival that day we walked around in the bright sunlight and looked at everything. We did a few things, and I enjoyed just being present and taking pictures, but every time we would pass a booth he would say, “Does anything look interesting? Anything you want?”. I always said no, not because I felt weird about him buying a gift for me, but because I didn’t see anything that interested me.

He found one booth that sold incense and wandered in. I followed, and a small coffin immediately caught my eye. It was made out of terra-cotta; it was a little toe-pincher with a tiny cross on the lid. The whole thing was probably three inches long and it had a cork at the top for you to pour in scented oil. I was smitten, and had planned to walk up and buy it myself when he appeared behind me and said, “I should have known that’s what you would choose.”

He took it from me and went to go pay for it, then gave it to me a few minutes later wrapped in paper and with a small vial of lavender oil. It’s hanging in my bathroom at home. I think about that day and about him buying that for me and how for one minute, even if he didn’t understand me, he tried to support me and not judge me.

Toward the end of the day we decided to make one last loop around the entire fair and see if we missed anything.

“I never saw a plague doctor,” I said. “There should be one here. There should at least be a nod to the Black Plague.”

He laughed at me. We walked on and a moment later I looked up to find that the powers of manifestation had worked for me. There was a plague doctor in an incredibly detailed costume right in front of me. People were asking for pictures and he was allowing it, but he didn’t let anyone touch him and he didn’t speak. I waited and asked for a picture. He silently nodded and then graciously posed for a shot. I was grinning so much my cheeks hurt afterwards. I put some money in the coffin shaped box at his waist and he bowed. I wanted to take him home. It was the highlight of my day.

Later that afternoon I sent the photo to one of my best friends and she texted me back.

“ROFL can’t even believe how incredibly happy you look!!!!!!! HAHAHAHA!!!!”

I do not have a picture of myself with my date from that day, and I didn’t realize that until many months later when I was writing this post. In June I applied for funeral school and turned in my financial aid paperwork. He waited until July and broke up with me, giving me a totally lame excuse for doing it. I let him go, but when I was throwing out various reminders of him I decided to keep the little coffin.

I kept the Keurig too. (Wouldn’t you?)

I decided not to attend funeral school after I was accepted. I never could tell if it was cold feet or if I understood on some level that that particular path would only get me out of one office and into another one, when I truly want out altogether. I thought I should wait until I was clear on what I wanted and I started this blog instead since I had racked up so many cemetery photos over the last year and I really wanted people to understand why these sites are important. I was finally able to realize that my interests were really two completely different things.

I may not be on my way to being a funeral director, but I’ve learned so much about Florida, Southern history, death and grief, cemeteries, and myself in the last year that I can’t be sorry for that decision not to go back to school. I think if I had I wouldn’t have met Shawn, gotten engaged, or had time for anything except school and working full time. It’s a true calling for those who enter into that profession, but for now I’m called in a different direction.

I still love that photo of myself with the plague doctor. It’s really the history of things and people that I love. Keeping them alive.

Photos in Greenwood Cemetery

I’ve been to visit Greenwood so many times I felt like I’d never see anything in there to surprise me, but that wasn’t true when I went last week. It was the middle of the day and I needed a walk to clear my head. If you haven’t been here this cemetery is magical, very old, and run by an amazing staff who keep it impeccable. It is full of people who made Orlando the city it is and you’ll see headstones with the name of local streets and businesses everywhere- Bumby, Corrine, and my personal favorite- Carey and Hand, the men who started the Carey Hand funeral home here in Orlando. Their buildings are still downtown and have other businesses in them, but plaques commemorate the family and what they did in Orlando, including the fact that they had the first crematorium in Central Florida and the first chapel included in a funeral home in Orlando. (Now the UCF building.)

Greenwood is huge, and in the years I’ve lived in Orlando I still haven’t seen all of it’s 82 acres. One of the things that I love about this cemetery are the ceramic portraits included on many of the graves. Today if you add one to a headstone they can range in price from 100 to 300 dollars, so it’s not inexpensive, and must have been quite an extravagance in previous decades.

On this muggy day I saw three things that I had never noticed before.

The first was a large monument near the front of the cemetery in black marble that looked large and imposing, however, on one side was a small engraved plate with the deceased’s initials. When I touched the plate it slid over to reveal a beautifully colored portrait of the man. I always expect photos like this to be black and white but it just shows that I’ve been rather small minded and that sometimes people still like the old fashioned tributes that are done in new ways. There are a few more of these at the back of the cemetery on newer monuments and they’re lovely.

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The second was a small headstone with a lamb on top of it that was not in either of the three Babyland sections, meaning that the child was most likely buried near his other family members instead of with other infants. These small headstones rarely have photos on them for good reason, and if they do the ones that I’ve seen tend to be more somber. This one had a small oval portrait of a beautiful toddler holding his ball and smiling, walking down a sidewalk. Sadly the portrait is worn and a bit hard to see, but at one time it had gold trim painted around it.

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My heart pretty much fell out of my chest, but it was precious.

Finally, on the way out I decided to visit Fred Weeks, and on that day someone had left him a flower! If you don’t know about Fred Weeks or his unusual mausoleum, nobody can tell it like the tour guides on the moonlight tour that takes place every month at the cemetery. Get some walking shoes on and go! I’ve been twice and both times was fortunate enough to get Don Price as the tour guide. You’ll never forget it.

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On the way out I noticed another portrait on a headstone, this time in sepia. Quite the dashing young man, don’t you think?

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Taft Memorial Cemetery- Where They Don’t Allow Anything

When you get out of the car at Taft Memorial Cemetery here is what you’re greeted with- a life-sized statue of The Lord standing next to a large sign that lists all of the things that you can’t do there. Here is what you CAN do…you can bury somebody. But, you can’t bury them and then plant a tree, park a bench, bring a chair, use mulch around the grave…and rocks are also forbidden. Did I mention no pavers? Basically you can just put them in the ground and then sit on the ground with them when you come back to visit. The sign does not mention rules prohibiting any kind of vandalism, but it’s effective anyway because I’m thinking that people are probably scared to come in if they’re faced with a giant list of rules before they even get all the way in the gate. Rules, plus Jesus. I’d think twice.

The Rules and Regulations.

I personally like a more relaxed cemetery environment. In Orlando Lake Hill Cemetery comes to mind. Out of state, Holt Cemetery in New Orleans, where people do tend to get creative because they’re unable to afford more expensive monuments. I like it when people are allowed to get artistic with their tributes and I think that it assists in the grieving process when you are able to create something for that person. Formal cemeteries are pretty, sure, but I like knowing I can sit down with grandpa and really talk, have a glass of iced tea, and plant a tree or even a damned tomato plant if I feel like it. I can make a marker that suits grandpa’s personality. I bought the plot, I hold the deed, and that’s my grandpa.

Lots of flowers everywhere.

Taft is an active cemetery with a lot of room to grow, and it is very well tended and visited. There are a lot of graves here with entire gardens of fake flowers surrounding them, and a lot of personal mementos left on the graves. If you can get past the front gate the cemetery starts to have a friendly feel to it. Most of the ones I visit have handmade stones as older tributes, but in this space, some of the newer burials had hand made stones, and I thought that was wonderful, even if it was strictly forbidden by The Rules. There was also an unusual section to the left of flat handmade stones, all with a cross motif on them, that ran in a long line through the cemetery. They were quite beautiful. If you walk straight back to the fence there is a section of thick, older handmade stones that cluster together between two small trees. One of the trees has an active swarm of bees in it, so we didn’t stay long.

This cemetery has a very large Hispanic section that was impeccably maintained and brilliant with colored flowers, balloons, and small statues. We stood in the bright sunlight and just looked around for awhile, sweating because it was hot that day. There were statues of the Virgin, cherubs, rotating pinwheels,  and solar lights. It looked like a very quiet party.

Some of the burials go back to the 1880’s and maybe even a little farther, but the cemetery is a good mix of modern and older burials. It’s worth a visit if you aren’t allergic to bees. Unfortunately there is no historical information on this cemetery, none that I could find, anyway. So I can’t say why the place was chosen as a burial site way back in 1880-something, but I always like visiting these places and wondering what was going on at that time.

There may be a lot of rules, but there is a lot of love here as well. You can feel it.