The Dead Are Grateful

The Miami cemetery is like the city's diary. And after years of abuse, this book is getting a new cover.

Despite all the attention, vandals continued to find the place a desirable target. In September 1996 mischief-makers defaced 57 gravestones. Dozens of grave markers were toppled, and many smaller tombstones were cracked in two. The cemetery had suffered many incidents of vandalism, but this attack drew more significant media coverage. Local television stations carried reports of the damage, and the Miami Herald and the Associated Press also covered it. Cemetery sextant Clyde Cates, who had complained to city administrators for years about neglect, found himself in the limelight. The sextant scared up some pretty good horror stories, including a claim that burial records were incomplete and inaccurate. When columnist Howard Kleinberg reported the problem in the Herald in 1996, "that finally hit a nerve with Miami-of-means, yuppie Miami," Paul George says. Soon city administrators began repairs and heritage trust members offered help. Penny Lambeth, then-trust vice president, founded another committee, the Miami Cemetery Task Force. Lambeth's goal was to transform the site into a garden suitable for self-guided tours. "I saw it becoming the most beautiful place in Miami," she opines, "another botanical garden like Fairchild, where all the trees are labeled, and tourists and residents can come to enjoy the history."

Lambeth had her work cut out for her. A small shantytown of twenty to thirty homeless people had set up camp on cemetery's southern border. Attracted by the ready supply of water from numerous faucets at the site, the transients took to using the wall along the Jewish section as a makeshift toilet. And on morning strolls, one could find clothing left out to dry atop the graves of members of the pioneering Sewell family. Although the homeless village was wiped out in 1997 after Lambeth called police, even today a ream of suspiciously unrolled toilet paper wafts in the wind beneath a royal poinciana.

What else has happened recently at the cemetery? Besides the new fence and lights, which will be paid for with nearly $150,000 in state and federal funds, a do-gooding Eagle Scout named Robert Ringeman spent an early December day and significant elbow grease scrubbing 500 veterans' tombstones with a toothbrush and Joy soap. Ringeman and several other volunteers also installed cement bird feeders, key-operated faucet bibs to discourage transient bathers, and painted markers so mourners could more easily locate their loved ones. Michael Mitchell, an emergency worker at Jackson Memorial Hospital, has repaired almost 50 headstones. The city has done its part, too; several businesses neighboring the cemetery have been issued citations for not cleaning up their trash. Cates is not satisfied: "Where [administrators] won't respond to me, they'll respond to [volunteers] because they're outside the city structure; that's what the city needs to get moving: outside pressure."

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