Category Archives: Musings

Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery

I was watching Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil last night and this morning I stumbled on John Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. In both books Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery figure prominently. It must be a sign. I found this passage which, to me, perfectly describes why Bonaventure draws so much attention. From John Muir:

Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light.

Like many family historians, I’m fascinated by cemeteries. We have several beautiful ones here in St. Augustine, but even with the many photos taken and books written about Bonaventure, it’s almost impossible to describe its beauty. John Muir came very close. See for yourself.

The Living Book of the Dead

Sometime back I wrote a column for the <a href=””>Graveyard Rabbit Online Journal</a> discussing a cemetery inventory project I’m working on. The point being made in this article is that this project, like many family history projects, will never be “finished”. There will always be more research and new information to add. But, thanks to today’s electronic publishing options, that’s not a problem. Find out why . . .

Fixing the National Cemetery System

A recent guest post by Air Force veteran Jay Harden at the Veterans Administration’s VAntage Point blog brought to light some surprising information about our national cemetery system:

There is no coherent, common management of national cemeteries in this country and I, for one, cannot let that stand.

Today, our national cemeteries are managed by the Department of the Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Defense. They naturally do some of the same things differently, and each way (naturally) is best. Such stovepipes are unjustified and absurd to my logical mind.

There is room for significant improvement across the board. For starters, there is no common digital record system (paper record prevail), no common mapping system, no common photo data base, no standardized procedures for interment, maintenance, or military honors as far as I can tell, and no common application of precision GPS for repositioning of remains and headstones in the event of a natural disaster. The Georgia flood of 1995 did not adversely affect Andersonville National Cemetery but other local cemeteries were not so lucky. As a result the State of Georgia now requires remains (not containers) to be uniquely identified in a public registry. There is no national requirement that I know of.

We have all heard of the management issues at Arlington Cemetery. The national cemetery here in St. Augustine has been closed for years and while the grounds are always beautifully maintained, there are still many questions about the graves themselves. Some recent street repairs next to the cemetery found graves outside the cemetery walls. Who are they?

Mr. Harden suggests we learn from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the American Battle Monuments Commission who maintain the American military cemeteries outside the United States.

All cemeteries are important links to our past. Most of us have looked to our national cemeteries as models for cemetery management. It’s a shock to find this may not be the case.

White Bronze

White Bronze Monuments

White Bronze Monuments at Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah.
From the author’s collection at Flickr.

White bronze monuments are neither white nor bronze. These markers are made of zinc. Produced by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, CT, between 1874 and 1914, these unique monuments can be found throughout the country. At first glance they appear to be a detailed stone with a blue-gray cast. As you get closer, the difference becomes more obvious. Because these monuments were cast, not cut, some are quite detailed. They have stood up to the harsh environment of the coastal south. White bronze markers in the St. Augustine area have maintained their detail more than many carved marble pieces of the same age.

Nancy A. S. George

Nancy A. S. George monument at Evergreen Cemetery
in St. Augustine. From the author’s collection at Flickr.

One problem with white bronze monuments – especially the larger, taller monuments – is called creep. The weight of the metal causes the monument to slowly settle causing cracks and even breaks.

The Monumental Bronze Company sold the monuments through a series of subsidiaries located around the country. Markers ranged from $2 to $5,000. A catalog of standard styles – like the rounded marker in the photo above – was used by salesmen to market the product. The plates containing burial details were cast separately and bolted to the standard marker using decorative screws. The marker shown below is a larger version of the small marker above and shows the text detail.

John & Mary Reyes

John & Mary Reyes monument at Tolomato Cemetery in St. Augustine. From the author’s collection at Flickr.

One would think that Florida would have been a major market for these monuments. We have no local stones suitable for carving and the cost of shipping stone monuments from Charleston had to be exorbitant. These metal monuments were much cheaper and easier to ship and would seem to be a reasonable alternative. While I do find these markers in several local cemeteries, the numbers are quite small. It appears that marketing was the toughest challenge for the company.

A detailed history of the Monumental Bronze Company can be found at the Kent County Civil War Monument restoration site. This group in Grand Rapids is working to restore a white bronze monument in a downtown park.

Dining with the Dead

A1A Ale Works is one of my favorite restaurants in downtown St. Augustine.  Located on the “corner” of the plaza and the bayfront, it’s upstairs dining room and balconies overlook some of the most beautiful views in the area.  Their menu is divine and the in-house brewery offers many delicious options for those who imbibe.  It really is a fun place to enjoy a meal.

Imagine my surprise to learn that the building also sits atop one of our earliest graveyards!  An early parish church from St. Augustine’s first Spanish period was located in what is today the city block bordered by Aviles Street, King Street and Charlotte Street.  Burials have been documented from Aviles Street to Marine Street and down to Artillery Lane – which includes the property where the restaurant currently resides.

I learned this interesting historical tidbit during the T’omb It May Concern conference which ended today.  All of us attending the conference have gained an increased appreciation for the efforts involved in researching and preserving our historical cemeteries as well as learning where to find the resources to help make that happen.  It was also delightful to discover a surprising number of people are just as fanatical about graveyards as we Rabbits.

To that end, yesterday I had lunch – between conference sessions – at A1A Ale Works with one of my new acquaintenances from the conference.  The only encounters we had with spirits were of the alcoholic variety, but you never know – someday those other spirits might just decide to join us.

Day 1: T’omb It May Concern

Thursday’s tour of Huguenot Cemetery conducted by Karen Harvey (right). From the author’s collection at Flickr.

Day one provided not only an education on our local historic cemeteries, but also an increasing appreciation for the efforts of Florida’s archaeology community in researching and preserving these treasures. This conference is a collaborative effort of the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) and Flagler College. Additional sponsors include the St. Augustine Archaeological Association, St. Johns County, the Menorcean Cultural Society, Historic Tours of America and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.

The people of FPAN have worked tirelessly to put together an impressive list of speakers combined with tours of several cemeteries lead by people who have worked to document and preserve these historic treasures. Flagler College has provided the facilities for our lectures in their student center and last night’s keynote presentation in the beautifully restored Flagler Room.

All-in-all, it has been a delightful day and I’m looking forward to the next two days.

Photos from the Huguenot Cemetery tour have been uploaded to the Huguenot Cemetery album at Flickr.

A Visitor’s Voice: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson arrived in St. Augustine in January of 1827.  He came here because the climate – especially in winter – was beneficial to his health.  While here, he kept a journal recording his observations of the area and it’s people.

There are two graveyards in St. Augustine, one of the Catholics, another of the Protestants.  Of the latter the whole fence is gone, having been purloined by these idle people for firewood.  Of the former the fence has been blown down by some gale, but not a stick or board has been removed, — and they rot undisturbed such is the superstition of the thieves.  I saw two Spaniards entering this enclosure, and observed that they both took off their hats in reverence of what is holy ground.

An overhead view of the Huguenot Cemetery.

An overhead view of the Huguenot Cemetery taken in the late 1880s. It was probably taken from the San Marco Hotel. Part of the Florida Memory collection.