How to Raze the Dead

Get yourself a big old backhoe, head over to the historic Miami City Cemetery, and dig in

This past April 11, a heart attack took the life of 74-year-old Mary Ellen Bethel Hanna. Her children, Larry and Jacqueline, wanted a simple burial for their mother, whom they affectionately describe as old-fashioned. Mary Ellen had not remarried after losing her husband, World War II veteran Wilbert Hanna, in 1952. The Hannas had buried Wilbert in the veterans' area of the historic Miami City Cemetery, final resting place for many local pioneers, from Julia Tuttle to the William Burdine family.

The Hanna children wanted to reunite their parents in death, so they asked the city to retrieve their father's remains, which they would then place in their late mother's casket. Mrs. Hanna's coffin would be lowered into the same grave once occupied by her husband. The request wasn't unusual for the Miami parks and recreation department, which operates the 104-year-old, ten-acre memorial park at Eighteenth Street and NE Second Avenue. With 9000 occupied gravesites, the cemetery is full. Anyone wishing to bury a loved one there today must own a family plot in which a relative of the deceased has been interred for at least ten years.

On April 13, the day before Mrs. Hanna's funeral, 53-year-old Larry Hanna led two city employees -- cemetery assistant sexton Andrew Holmes and funeral director Tony Ferguson of Hall-Ferguson-Hewitt Mortuary -- to his father's grave. Coincidentally Hanna had worked ten years at the cemetery, and he didn't trust the city's spotty record-keeping, which consists of a file of disorganized index cards that don't always provide detailed information about who is buried where. "There was a chance that they could dig up the wrong grave," Hanna reveals. "I knew that that sort of thing had happened before, and I didn't want anything to go wrong with my dad."

These suspected remains of Wilbert Hanna were collected by city cemetery sexton Clyde Cates
Steve Satterwhite
These suspected remains of Wilbert Hanna were collected by city cemetery sexton Clyde Cates

Hanna left after showing the workers to the correct grave. As mandated by Florida law, Ferguson observed the exhumation of Wilbert Hanna's remains, which were buried in a wooden casket. A city employee used a backhoe to dig down four to six feet, a depth he and the others assumed would be adequate. (No cemetery records indicated the actual depth of Mr. Hanna's grave.)

According to Ferguson the workers excavated the entire gravesite and dumped the soil onto plywood sheets covered with canvas. Then they raked the dirt in search of remains. Hanna's wooden casket likely had rotted completely, leaving loose bones for the gravediggers. "The process was very thorough," the funeral director says. "We missed nothing." The skeletal remains were put into a container that was given to a Hanna family member, who then placed it in Mrs. Hanna's casket during the April 14 funeral.

The service itself was brief and comforting, Jacqueline remembers. In remission from cancer and living in Gastonia, North Carolina, she had depended on her brother to handle most of the arrangements. "I was so glad to finally have some closure," she says. "Larry looked calm afterward, too."

But their late father wasn't resting so soundly. A week after the burial, cemetery sexton Clyde Cates was tending the grounds when something caught his eye in a "dump pile," a mound of leftover burial soil. "I looked at it, then looked at it again," he recounts. "I said, “Whoa! That's a bone!'" Cates says he deduced the soil had come from the Hanna burial.

The sexton, who oversees the cemetery's daily operations, dashed back to his office, grabbed a shovel, and went to work on the pile. By the end of the day, he had unearthed about twenty bone fragments. Cates called parks and recreation supervisor Saul Bastos to tell him what he had found. In the meantime he kept the bones -- all of them about a quarter-inch to two inches in length -- in his office desk drawer. This was not the first time Cates had discovered misplaced bones at the cemetery. In 1998 he stumbled upon a nearly intact skull in a dump pile. "I guess ever since then I just kind of keep my eye out," he notes.

During the next two and a half weeks, Bastos, parks and recreation chief of operations Raul Garcia, and parks and recreation director Albert Ruder went to the cemetery to view the remains but did nothing with them. Then on May 13, Cates came to work, opened his desk drawer, and discovered the bones were missing. "I had my suspicions about what happened," he grumbles. "The city didn't want to deal with me. So I went right to [Hanna's] grave, and -- no surprise -- there it was: a freshly dug hole."

Cates wasted no time. He snatched a spade from his office and began digging. Soon he hit something solid and reached for his tape measure. The same bones he had kept in his office had been buried ten inches deep, atop the concrete vault holding Mrs. Hanna's casket. "I didn't touch them," Cates says. "I was so upset that someone had come into my office and taken them, but I wasn't going to be stupid enough to take them back out. I have no idea what I can and cannot do legally with human remains. It just all spelled trouble."

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