Weather-beaten, crooked gravestones nestled in tall grass and weeds. Faded polyester flowers poke out of vases where the dead were laid to rest; at least the ones whose graves are still marked. These are the neglected and forgotten cemeteries found in virtually every town in America.
In Hillsborough County, there are 83 active cemeteries, 12 Inactive cemeteries, and 32 “ghost cemeteries”, or cemeteries that are now destroyed, the bodies moved, the headstones gone or paved over so that the exact locations have been lost over time according to The Florida Gen Web Project, a nonprofit crowdsourced research website.
In an industry mostly privatized for profit, the business of caring for the memorials to the dead is proving hard to sustain for several reasons, not least of which is financing perpetual care for the burial grounds of the long-deceased.
Tampa architect Patrick Thorpe is one man working to find a solution.
This issue is particularly important to Thorpe, who said he had his first bad experience with death care at age 12 when his mom died. Since then, he has sustained a lasting interest in how death is handled.
Thorpe, who now specializes in funeral home design, recently bought 2.1 acres of the Marti/Colon Cemetery on Columbus Drive in Tampa. He is in the early stages of creating a nonprofit organization to raise the funds needed to care for not only that cemetery but other graveyards owned by the city.
He told 10News in an email, “My intent is to form a non-profit cemetery company in order to create a revenue stream for the City of Tampa that can be used to maintain, preserve and protect the city’s five cemeteries that [they] currently own which are not generating any income or providing any financial surety to provide for their perpetual care. This non-profit cemetery company would help to offset those expenses.”
So far, Thorpe says he’s had positive feedback from “diverse individuals” who are interested in “affecting the American way of death and memorialization,” including former State Senator Victor Crist.
Thorpe became interested in exploring “how we could positively affect the American way of death and return cemeteries to a position of being a central public institution that people could visit and enjoy on a regular basis much like any other public park,” as a result of what he learned writing his master’s thesis on issues around cemeteries, he said.
Thorpe told 10News he doesn’t think it’s the job of the government to care for cemeteries just because private owners die off or can’t take care of them anymore. He believes it should be a community effort to take care of the resting grounds of the dead. He adds that it’s up to families to lay their loved ones to rest in a meaningful manner in perpetuity.
Perpetuity, though, is the tricky part.
Outside of national cemeteries, those run by houses of worship and county and city governments, cemeteries are privately owned. Clients who purchase burial rights at a cemetery do not buy the actual land where they are buried, only the right to be buried there forever.
That means someone or some agency is expected to care for the gravesites, even as the years come and go, the land is bought and sold, or the massive responsibility is left to busy children, aging spouses, or to abandonment.
That’s what happened in the Bunting family.
The late Susan Bunting’s mother and relatives are buried in The Samford Cemetery in Riverview, a town in southeast Hillsborough County. That burial place dates to the 1850s. According to her husband, Michael Bunting Sr., The two-acre plot of land was being neglected, so Mrs. Bunting started caring for it. Ultimately the county signed the deed to part of the cemetery over to Mrs. Bunting in 1995. She spent the next two decades of her life dedicated to the care of the cemetery.
When she died in 2015, the cemetery became the responsibility of her husband, son, and daughter-in-law. Now, it’s up to them to keep it maintained. There is no outside funding.
“There’s no reason for anybody to care about this other than the loved ones around here,” Bunting told 10News.
At 74, he still gets out when he can to mow around the unevenly-laid gravestones. Bunting says occasionally there is an inspired group effort for a clean-up of the Samford Cemetery, but those are few and far between.
The family’s hope is that the cemetery would be designated as historical due to some of the town founders being buried there; but so far, the state hasn’t shown interest in their applications for that designation. A historical designation would make it eligible for government funding.
The last time the Florida government officially counted the state’s cemeteries was in 1998. The Florida legislature passed the Cemetery Preservation and Consumer Protection Act and formed the Task Force on Abandoned and Neglected Cemeteries.
According to their report, “Reasons for neglect and abandonment range from saturation of the burial grounds and economic failure, to the transient nature of the general population, migration from rural areas to cities, lack of funds, lack of interest and changes in societal norms all of which contribute to deterioration of unregulated cemeteries.”
Until October 1, 1993, Florida did not require the registration of unlicensed and private cemeteries. The task force found 40 to 50 percent of the 3,580 cemeteries they counted in the state were abandoned or neglected. They also said there were more than they counted. They expected there to be at least 1,500 more discovered.
Fast forward to 2019. The discovery of the missing Zion Cemetery in the Robles Park area of Tampa illustrates the most egregious of society’s disregard for the dead, as the African American cemetery where 130 bodies have been found so far has been sitting underneath a housing development where 96 people live. Those housed on the property are now being relocated.
Turns out, much of the Zion Cemetery was paved over in the 1950s. That’s when Tampa’s Housing Authority built the Robles Park public housing complex.
Leroy Moore, chief operating officer for the housing authority, told 10news, “Certainly, no one today can justify the activities that occurred back in the late 40s and 50s, but the people around today are the people [who] can right that wrong.”
Prior to its discovery, Zion was listed as a ghost cemetery by the Florida Gen Web Project which began keeping track in 1996. There the Zion Cemetery is listed only as being “found in the 1920 city directory.”
It’s hard to know how many African American burial places have been lost or forgotten. According to the American Anthropological Association, “There is no official national record or database for African-American burial ground locations, and the location of many sites is unknown.”
Rebecca O’Sullivan of USF’s Public Archaeology Network told 10News, “The African American cemeteries that we do have…it's a miracle that they're still there because the system of segregation was set up to destroy those places and destroy the places that African American people held dear.”
To that end, there is currently a bill sitting in the Florida Legislature proposing a new Task Force, specifically to find abandoned African-American Cemeteries. If passed, the task force would work to discover all the abandoned and forgotten black cemeteries in Florida in order to preserve their history, restore their dignity and better inform development decisions.
Whether cemeteries are ravaged by time and neglect, or willfully disregarded as not worthy of memorialization, people at both the state level and the individual level are working to locate, maintain and protect our aging burial grounds.
As land changes hands and becomes a scarce resource in urban areas while human populations continue to grow, it will take a combined effort at all levels to preserve that sect of history that is intrinsically human; remembering and valuing our dead.
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