RIVERVIEW, Fla. — Michael Bunting’s riding lawn mower gurgled to life as the 74-year-old turned his wheels towards an overgrown plot of Hillsborough County. Dozens of his lost loved ones sit buried beneath the dirt.
The Samford Cemetery has fallen into despair.
“Me and my wife would come out here quite often,” Michael said.
The family connections run deep in Michael's family. He shared a birthday with his mother-in-law’s mother. His mother-in-law’s father was born on Michael’s dad’s birthday. All of them and many more family members are buried at Samford Cemetary.
The glue which held it all together was his bride, Susan.
“She was a beautiful woman inside and out,” he said.
Susan Bunting died on November 29, 2015. For the two decades before her passing, she served as the president of the cemetery association. Now, that role has fallen to her husband.
“I feel her sometimes around here,” Michael said.
Susan was cremated at her own request. Even if she had wanted to be laid to rest next to her ancestors, there was no room left in the Samford Cemetery for her. There are more than 400 headstones in the acre-long lot.
Michael estimates more than 600 people are actually buried there. The land wasn’t plotted in its earliest days. That decision means it’s nearly impossible to identify bodies underfoot. It’s illegal, now, to bury bodies in unmarked cemeteries, too.
“It’s what you call an abandoned cemetery,” he said.
It’s abandoned and somewhat forgotten.
A local Methodist church was its first owner. Funeral homes tried to maintain it for a short while before quickly losing interest. The city of Riverview didn’t seem to want it, either. Nor did Hillsborough County. Nobody really seemed interested in the property as a long-term asset. Neighbors certainly didn’t care.
But, Susan did.
“We would come out before we were married. My wife was very into her family, ancestry and stuff,” said Michael, who believes the lack of money-making opportunities with old cemeteries is the main reason driving away potential caretakers. “Your mother, your grandparents, your great-grandparents; she was proud of her family.”
Now, Michael hopes someone else will show some pride in the community eyesore, either in a corporate sponsorship capacity or by designating the cemetery as a historical site. Some graves date back to 1857. Multiple veterans are buried there. Michael knows, at 74 and in failing health, he’ll join them soon.
“It’s (about) memories, me and her,” Michael said in a noticeable southern drawl.
Gopher holes have become almost a big of a problem as the weeds. Volunteers would come to try to trim trees and clean grave markers but often wound up breaking headstones.
The deceased deserve better, Michael said.
“Oh geez. I’d be disheartened,” said Michael’s friend, Dick Baldwin, who preserves headstones. “It’s here and it needs attention.”
It costs roughly $3,000 for the upkeep on Samford each year. That money has been coming out of Michael’s pocket. He mows the grass and edges the graves with weeding equipment in his spare time. He is hoping a company will step up to help preserve the local landmark with a corporate donation.
“We’re going to have to find somebody to take over this place,” he said.
Until then, he’ll keep pouring his time, sweat, and money into an old abandoned field full of bodies and memories.
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