A State Task Force Is Scouring Long-Ignored Places in an Effort to Find and Reclaim Neglected Cemeteries Forgotten Lives He Was 2 Years Old, and He's ... Just Thrown Away'

Article excerpt

GREENVILLE -- Elmer Spear pulled his truck alongside a rural Madison County highway and shoved his way through a wall of bushes, kudzu and sharp briars.

Spear, 55, was going hunting, but not in the traditional sense: Spear was hunting for the dead.

"Believe it or not, there's a cemetery in there somewhere," said Spear, a member of a statewide task force that recently documented the location and condition of 3,850 Florida cemeteries and found about half to be neglected or abandoned.

When Spear finally broke through the underbrush, he walked around the bushes and thickets, scanning the ground for any signs of graves or headstones.

Suddenly, he found a small piece of limestone, and he used his boot to clear away two inches of leaves that covered the grave of Julius Cox, born Oct. 7, 1921; died Jan. 3, 1975.

"We're here," Spear said. "This is it."

Spear had an idea the cemetery was there, but he wasn't sure of its precise location. All he knew for certain was that the two dozen graves he discovered had been forgotten by what he terms a "throw-away society," a modern American culture that isn't interested in protecting the memory of those who have gone before.

"Look at this," Spear said, holding a tiny aluminum marker that bore the name of Timmy Williams and the years 1962-1964. "He was 2 years old, and he's been thrown away, just thrown away."

A state lawmaker is trying to end the neglect. Rep. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace, has proposed a bill that would create a way for municipal and county governments to apply for matching grants from the state to repair and then maintain cemeteries in Florida.

The proposal would force people who commit vandalism or other crimes in cemeteries to pay a fine to help cover the cost of restoring cemeteries. Crist's bill hasn't been heard this year, but he's hoping he can tack the measure onto a related bill during the final week of the session.

"We owe at least a basic level of dignity to our dearly departed," Crist said. "Cemeteries are sacred ground, and they shouldn't become parts of farms, or worse yet, parking lots for shopping malls."

Cemeteries can fall into disrepair or neglect in many ways. In some cases, a church operates a cemetery until the congregation relocates, leaving the old cemetery to the whims of the new property owner.

In other instances, a small family cemetery may be abandoned if the family sells its land or moves away, leaving the property to be subdivided, paved over or simply forgotten.

Other burial plots around Florida include the graves of slaves or other African-Americans who had their own rural cemeteries separate from whites. Many of those cemeteries have been either abandoned or hidden.

Floridians who want to preserve the state's cemeteries say the sites provide people with important frames of historical reference that allow them to find peace with their past.

"People have a desire to be remembered, and people also have a desire to do research about their ancestors," said Richard Mueller, Duval County's cemetery hunter who also operates the Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville. "If the only place where their ancestors now lie becomes abandoned, neglected or worse yet disappears altogether, they have no place to look. …