Regina Bailey in Page Jackson Cemetery

We were out for a morning of picking up trash and taking photos recently in Page Jackson. It was so pretty outside, and we were all chatting and enjoying the weather and the sound of the birds in the trees. The cemetery is heavily wooded and walking around can be treacherous, but we’re committed to going out there regularly and keeping up with any changes, staying on top of the dumping, and making sure there’s not any additional vandalism. I will admit that I went at night recently just to look around. It’s a busy place when the sun goes down because we saw cars coming and going and even though I was there at night I wasn’t too happy about all of the activity. The Sanford police park an empty car outside of the cemetery as a deterrent, but it’s clearly ignored.

For the time being just being present and picking up trash is enough. Plus, the more we go out and walk around the more the paths will stay clear and people can still get around. That morning there were 3 of us on garbage duty, two of us with grabbers and one just using her hands and gloves. We were carrying lawn sized trash bags and filling them up rapidly.

Gus happened upon a piece of metal in the sandy soil and when he was unable to get it with the trash grabber he bent down to unearth it. When I glanced over I thought it was another buried can. The people who frequent this cemetery at night have a taste for Natty Light, and we see tons of those cans out there. However, it was a grave marker.

It was a standard funeral home marker, aluminum, with the name Regina Bailey on it. The dates were intact and the name of the funeral home was on it, but that’s all. The date of death was 1997.

We raised it, took a brief photo for later research, and went on about our task. Soon after we gathered up the bags of trash to dispose of them and left for the day. On the way out of the cemetery we saw an elderly man driving past, and he waved a hand at us to get us to stop. I jumped out to go speak to him.

“Do you work here?” he asked me.

I told him we just came out to pick up trash.

“I’m looking for my dad,” he said simply. “I think he was buried around here somewhere but I don’t know where, and he died in 1980.”

I looked at the ruins of the cemetery behind me with a sinking feeling. Since we started our cleaning and research efforts a few months ago we’ve realized that while 1,083 burials are listed and mostly photographed, there could potentially be up to 2,900 people buried here that nobody knows about. I thought about Regina Bailey’s buried marker and wondered how many more there were waiting to be found.

I asked for his father’s name and he gave it to me, and I looked him up on the Find A Grave app. There was no one by that name listed for the cemetery.

It REALLY bothered me on so many levels. I tried again when I got home, opening up the search to nearby cemeteries and was unable to locate the man’s father. When I said goodbye to him I recommended that he call the cemetery office or the funeral home, and he said he would try that. When we drove out of the cemetery he was by the sign looking for a number.

First, I was upset that people still come there to look for loved ones and the place is trashed. Second, what if his Dad’s marker was in there and we just hadn’t found it? What if, like Ms. Bailey’s, it was buried and no one had been able to see it for the last survey in 1998 when people photographed the cemetery?

The next weekend the three of us went back and took a better photo of Regina Bailey’s marker. In the past week I’d found her obituary online and the houses she’d lived in in Sanford. I knew a little bit about her, but there really wasn’t much information. After we took the photos I added her to Find A Grave and that was a good feeling. Now someone in her family can look her up, find her, and at least try to come see her if they feel like walking in here. The only problem is that we don’t know if that’s where she was actually buried, or if her marker was taken from another part of the cemetery and buried there in some other scenario. The area of the cemetery where her marker is located is pretty packed already, and she would technically be in the roadway.

It’s one more thing here that doesn’t make sense. If you’re interested in coming out with us in the next few weeks please feel free to email me at marnie.bench@gmail.com. It’s getting hot here already so we take it easy.

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Lincoln Memorial Park in Miami, Florida

Imagine a massive amount of above ground, inaccessible burials and a feeling of complete overwhelm and you have Lincoln Memorial Park in Miami- Dade county. It was the one that I wanted to see the most, and not to be a complete drama queen, but after I got my photos I got back in the car and sat in my seat, crying. It’s a horrible place and it made me desperately sad.

Front entrance, Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery.

Shawn and I pulled up to the front gate to see if it was even open for the public and we found the gates shut and closed with a rusted padlock. The last update I’d seen online about this cemetery was from 2015 on a website someone had created in an effort to get help for the cemetery from the city. They were asking for signatures from the public protesting the sorry state that it’s in. I had no idea what to expect, so when I saw the locked gates and saw a cleared path through the center of the cemetery, I thought with relief that someone was caring for it. Maybe the city had become involved after all. There was also a dead Gofundme page with the last donation made 14 months ago. The total raised was 1,600 dollars of a 10,000 dollar goal. And here’s the thing- it’s not enough, even if they make it. An incomplete project in a cemetery is still a problem because it’s not fixed. People who start these pages with good intentions always low-ball the figure expecting the community to help out if the goal is less intimidating, but it’s not enough to complete the project in most cases and if the public doesn’t really know the value of the place, why would they help out? Like anything else you have to sell a cemetery and explain WHY the place is important and why people should want to save it.

I think I just created a job for myself. Call me if you have a defunct cemetery you want to publicize.

Most of Lincoln Memorial Park is above ground.

Here is why this cemetery is vastly important to the community in Miami and in South Florida’s history: the first black millionaire in Miami, Dana Albert Dorsey, is buried there. The first undertaker to serve the black community is there, Kelsey Pharr- in fact, he bought the place in 1937. Gwendolyn Sawyer Cherry is also buried there, the first black woman on the Florida Legislature. The founder of the Miami Times is there, H.E.S. Reeves. But there’s no way to see them or get to them because the cemetery is not even functional as a public space. And it’s disgusting.

When I got out of the car I left my door open and the smell hit me. I turned to look at Shawn through in the driver’s seat, and he was making a face.

“I’ve never smelled anything that bad at a cemetery,” I said. He agreed. It was a stench of decay and trash rotting in the sun, and it was rolling across the crypts like a wave. The farther down the fence line I walked, the worse the smell got and I started to wonder about the possibility of broken crypts. At the end of the fence at the corner I turned and the graves were almost completely obliterated by vines and garbage. People had thrown bags and raw trash right over the fence on top of the above ground vaults, and it was nauseating. I moved a few steps closer to get a photo and saw the tail of a large snake moving silently through the green growth. Much of the fence was topped with rusted barbed wire, but on the left side of the cemetery it was regular chain link, and anyone could reach over it or climb in if they were brave as hell.

The side of Lincoln Memorial Park, with trash thrown on top of the graves.

This cemetery has had a problem with vandalism tied to Santeria or some other similar practice. Several years ago seven crypts were broken into and body parts removed, including a child’s skull. Please believe me when I tell you that this is something that happens in most cemeteries that are not cared for, and some that are. In 2015 the owner Elyn Johnson was too broke to do anything about this place, and she was quite elderly. There is no money for upkeep, or at this point- damage control. The cemetery was passed down to her with no funding and she wanted to keep it, even though she can’t afford basic cemetery maintenance. And I get that, it was left to her. But I also don’t get that, because the people buried there deserve better and the families deserve a safe place to go visit. Let it go to someone who can afford to care for it because most people don’t want their legacy to be a rotting, hideous cemetery that no one can enter.

There’s a lot more to say here, but this isn’t the right time or the right cemetery for me to get all preachy. I say choose your battles, and I chose mine awhile back and it’s here in Central Florida.

I dried my tears and Shawn took me out for Cuban coffee and pastries, which helped some, but that night when I closed my eyes I saw those graying vaults in the sun covered in garbage and vines and smelled the stench all over again, and it took me awhile to get to sleep. It’s not ghosts haunting this cemetery, it’s the place itself that haunts you.