The Grim Keeper

The sexton's post at the Miami City Cemetery is a burial ground for troublesome municipal employees. But Clyde Cates wasn't about to just roll over and die.

Of all the stories the Miami City Cemetery can tell, very few involve ghosts. Yes, it's the final resting place of some of Miami's most fabled founders, but civic matron Julia Tuttle is rarely seen rising from her grave. Dr. James Jackson, namesake of the hospital, makes no clandestine crypt calls. Early Miami mayors Rielly and Sewell keep their meetings eternally adjourned, while several members of the Burdine clan skip one Labor Day white sale after another. Oh, some swear a gravestone once moved in a way no human could have moved it, but that's an isolated spooking. For the most part, Tuttle and her pioneer pals sleep soundly through the long good night.

Which means the souls who trashed the cemetery on September 28 were probably all too human. Under cover of darkness, one or more people wantonly toppled dozens of the 10.5-acre Edgewater graveyard's historically precious markers. Some smaller tombstones were cracked in two. In the walled-off Jewish section, where the mayhem seemed most concentrated, the imposing headstone of Rebecca Shaff (1888-1952) fell forward, breaking a granite slab engraved with the word Mother.

Clyde Cates, the cemetery's city-employed sexton, discovered the damage the next day, Sunday, when he drove by to feed three homeless dogs. He assessed the damage and called the police. The final tally, recorded on the incident report: 57 gravestones assaulted. There are no suspects. "I don't know who did it," Cates says. "It must have been somebody who was fairly strong. There was a lot of anger vented to go through all that trouble, though I don't believe it was vented at me. I get along great with the people in that area."

Vandalism at the Miami City Cemetery -- or any other cemetery -- is not unheard of. "People are drawn to cemeteries, for whatever reasons," observes Perry Caudill, a marketing executive for ECI Corp., which manages the three city cemeteries in Fort Lauderdale. "You can't keep people out. If they want to get in, they will get in." And when people get in, they often want to wreak havoc. "Vandalism is routine," says Ed Libengood of the Loewen Group, parent company of six local cemeteries. "It happens. All cemeteries from time to time have an occasion like that, when somebody comes through just for the fun of it."

In its 99-and-a-half-year history, the Miami City Cemetery has been violated dozens of times. "Vandals upset headstones on city cemetery graves," reads a Miami Herald headline from 1939; several overturned gravestones were "damaged badly." In one strange incident in 1970, a pack of monkeys swung through the place. That same year then-sexton Felix Cornejo reported regular findings of voodoo dolls with pins stuck in their limbs and "nine pennies" (which are actually nine dimes stacked together in a symbolic way). He put the coins in his pocket.

"I tell Clyde, 'Listen: Whatever you are going through has happened before,'" says Miami Parks Coordinator Robert Frazier, Cates's supervisor and a former cemetery sexton. "I mean, people coming in and practicing voodoo? You find the pennies. You find the quarters. Sometimes you may find a dollar bill. Hell, when I first got there, we found nineteen dollars," Frazier recalls. "Of course you know that was lunch!"

What was unusual about the September incident was the way it captured the attention of the media. Not only did the Herald report the crime, but all the local TV stations did too. The Sun-Sentinel followed up; later so did an Associated Press reporter looking for a Halloween feature.

In most of the stories, the vandalism rode shotgun to Clyde Cates, who grabbed the spotlight to complain that the graveyard is a victim of neglect at the hands of city administrators. "They don't care about the cemetery," Cates told the Herald. "This is an exile spot." If they wanted the place run the way it should be, he declared, he'd need more money, equipment, and staff.

His high-profile sniping struck a chord. Community activists scurried to the cemetery's aid. A private cemetery management company donated manpower to restore the toppled gravestones, and city administrators finally moved to spend a $250,000 grant they'd received from the state a year ago, specifically awarded for the repair of damaged gravestones and other cemetery improvements.

"Vandalism has happened so many other times, but this time it piqued an awful lot of interest and a lot of outrage," says Paul George, a historian who'd conducted one of his popular walking tours through the cemetery only a day before the vandals struck. "In a way, that vandalism was the best thing that could have ever happened to this cemetery."

"Oh yeah, hi," says Cates, not at all surprised that another reporter has stopped by for a visit. "I'm just trying to get this map in order here."

With his sinewy left forearm anchoring one side of a blueprint to his cluttered desk, he presses his right palm to the other edge. The top and bottom sides curl inward, forcing him to rock his head and midsection forward until he has the document pinned to the desk the way a wrestler might subdue an opponent. Realizing that he can't possibly read the blueprint in this position, Cates sits back and folds it up. "This is a listing of all the trees," he explains. "I guess it's from the Forties or Fifties, so most of the trees are gone now. But what I'd like to do is find out what trees are left and get name tags on them. A big giant African mahogany tree we have up in the front is so gorgeous. We have a hernandia sonora in here that most people probably have not heard about. That's what the sexton should really be working with -- getting that stuff organized in a professional manner instead of just mowing."

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