How to Raze the Dead
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."
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."
Andrew Holmes, Cates's 37-year-old assistant, reports that Bastos had come to the cemetery on the sexton's day off. "I told him that we shouldn't bury them because there might be more remains [in the Hanna dump pile]," Holmes recalls. "He told me: Let's just bury the bones.' He said that if Clyde would go back and dig and take out the bones, that would be a crime, like a felony or something, and Clyde would be wrong for doing that. I didn't know what else to do, so I did what I was told."
From May 14 to May 29, Cates spent his working hours digging through the Hanna dump pile. His scavenging turned up more than 275 bone fragments, all of which are now stored in the sexton's office. Most of the fragments are no bigger than a thumbnail, but two stand out: a four-by-two-inch bone and half a jaw with three teeth intact. Cates claims he reported his startling new finds to parks department administrators as soon as he uncovered them.
What those administrators plan to do with the additional remains is anyone's guess. The city's cemetery rules and regulations do not address the subject of inadvertently misplaced remains such as those found by Cates. State laws, however, stipulate who can handle human remains; under what conditions they can be buried, interred, or exhumed; and the minimum depth (twelve inches) remains must be buried. But municipalities like Miami that operate their own cemeteries are exempt under those statutes. State law, though, does require that a funeral director be present to observe all burials and transfers of remains.
Barbara Jennings, a funeral director with the respected Stanfill Funeral Homes of Miami, officiated a burial at the city cemetery earlier this month. She believes Mr. Hanna's exhumation should have been more painstakingly conducted. "Every burial is different," Jennings explains. "Under these circumstances, with a wooden casket that probably all but decayed, I would do very little digging with the backhoe. You have to do some, because in Miami, in the older cemeteries, you're digging into coral rock. But after that I would say that everyone would have to get down on their hands and knees and dig manually. That kind of thing requires the delicacy of an archaeological dig."
Paul Johnson, director of two Catholic cemeteries -- one in Miami, the other in Fort Lauderdale -- agrees that Mr. Hanna's exhumation should have been performed with greater care. He describes a seven-step procedure and interment process workers at his cemeteries follow that includes outfitting gravediggers in protective gear. "In the case of Mr. Hanna, because this was a wooden casket and he was buried in 1952, you have to do it by hand," Johnson says. "It's disrespectful to do it any other way."
The city has used a backhoe for exhumations for more than a decade, says parks and recreation chief of operations Raul Garcia. In his opinion the use of a backhoe was appropriate in Mr. Hanna's case. "It was what we normally do," Garcia says. Funeral director Tony Ferguson also sees no cause for criticism, and he is adamant that the city workers he supervised found all Mr. Hanna's remains. They couldn't have missed a bone as large as half a jaw, he insists. Funeral director Jennings concurs: "If they were finger bones, I could understand how someone would miss those. But a jaw bone? Wow."
Jennings and Johnson agree on something else: Larry Hanna and his sister, Jacqueline, should have been contacted as soon as the misplaced remains were discovered. City officials claim they were unsuccessful in reaching either of the Hanna children, who only learned of the exhumation mishap when contacted by New Times for this story. "I thought this was taken care of. It just makes me want to cry," Jacqueline says. "I cannot believe this is happening."
Her brother believes it. "This kind of thing happened at the cemetery when I was there," he says. "So I know they have some problems." He plans to meet with parks department officials this week to gather his father's newly recovered remains and bury them one more time. "I hope," he sighs, "this is the last time I have to do this."
Get the Weekly Newsletter