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.

There are some 8000 gravesites in Miami City Cemetery, most of them already filled, and some filled a few times over: Unless a body has been buried in a concrete-lined grave, the plot can be refilled every ten years. Because it is a municipal cemetery, the cost of burial is significantly lower than at a private operation, and there are no restrictions on who can be buried there. In addition to the Burdines and the Tuttles, there are Confederate soldiers, the city's first doctor, the first black judge in the South, and most of Miami's first Jews.

Never mind resting in peace -- in spite of their potential interest to historians, these people's remains have never reposed in anything approaching luxury. When the city bought the land in 1897, some complained it was too far from downtown. Others whined that it was in a seedy saloon district. After only twenty years, the graveyard was already a rundown afterthought. "We say that we are ashamed, deeply ashamed of the neglect and the carelessness that has been evinced in the city's care of that place where so many of its loved ones have been laid for their eternal sleep," reads a 1913 editorial from the daily Miami Metropolis.

Neglected describes the way the cemetery still appears. Some of the tombstones tilt at severe angles into the ground, pushed sideways by gravity, tree roots, or strong winds. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew knocked over several mature trees, damaging many graves. Careless scrapes from mowers and tractors have nicked the edges of many monuments, cracked the slate foundations of tens of others.

Although the grounds are publicly run, the graves themselves are privately owned, which conflicts with Cates's desire to repair some of the most damaged stones. "It's the family's responsibility," explains Robert Frazier, the parks coordinator. "The city doesn't have the time or the resources to fix up every grave even if we wanted to." Cates performs first aid on some of the more prominent graves anyway. Last winter he applied a mocha-color coat of primer to the weathered concrete mausoleum of Edward and Gussie Douglas. Sealer would have been better, followed by paint, but he didn't have the money to affix more than a Band-Aid. Two of the markers on the mausoleum were missing, either destroyed in the hurricane or taken by hooligans, so Cates wedged in some scrap plywood with Ed's and Gussie's names stenciled on it. "It's Mickey Mouse but it's all we got," he allows. "If I had left it alone, it would have still looked black and trashy, with the names missing."

In a Miami Herald column that ran soon after the September vandalism, former Miami News editor Howard Kleinberg reported that the cemetery's burial records are incomplete and inaccurate. "Two concrete-lined graves containing caskets were found recently where no one was supposed to be buried; the occupants are unknown," Kleinberg wrote. "Also...when attendants dug into the site of one grave that was recorded as filled in 1985, no casket was found." Cates confirms Kleinberg's charges -- in fact, he was Kleinberg's source of information for the piece. He argues that under the present management system, he has neither the resources nor the time to solve such major problems. "What I would prefer working on is straightening out the headstones and lining the whole area up right," he says. "I need more time to fix stuff like that. I need equipment to move that stuff around. I also need time to go over the records. They have me doing the weed-eating when I should be working on the research."

Alex Korsekoff knows of what Cates speaks. He ran the cemetery for about 40 years, until 1962, during which time he is credited for changing it from a barren tract of land into an arboretum with 200 different varieties of trees and exotic plants. The African red mahogany, the cassia, the Jerusalem thorn, and more were planted during his tenure. Korsekoff, too, fought with his bosses about the definition of his duties. He wasn't a mere laborer, he argued, as much as he was a Renaissance man who wielded a variety of skills.

Cates reaches for his predecessor's personal log, a musty old book resting on the corner of his desk. "'The sexton of Miami City Cemetery is 'groundskeeper' only in addition to his other proper and more important duties,'" he recites from a 1942 Korsekoff memo. "'The sexton should be intelligent enough to be a little bit of a lawyer, of a surveyor, of a psychologist in dealing with people bereaved and distraught by the loss of their dearest ones. He must be a man of integrity and character, and of proven honesty'" -- here Cates puts a pencil check next to the word honesty -- "'for he deals with people's property and money and may dispense favors for personal gain.'"

Korsekoff is the exemplar Cates tries to emulate. He studies the logs for insight into how the old sexton stretched his budget during wartime rationing. He marvels at the details about the trees, and at the odd facts, like how Korsekoff once controlled the city's 800-pound supply of dynamite (the sexton no longer has that responsibility). "He had a real problem fighting for some respect for this place," Cates reflects. "He talks about shedding tears over trying to get this place straightened out, and the politics involved in it. But compared to today, he was getting great support. I mean, today we are getting nothing. I am on my own."

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