Top 5 Cemetery Tours in Florida
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
From Civil War soldiers to Latin American dictators, the famous and the forgotten share sacred spaces in Florida, where historic graveyards double as outdoor museums, connecting us to the state’s colorful past.
Cultural shifts, religious divisions, immigration and racial segregation are written in stone in these fascinating places. And, yes, a few notorious ghosts reportedly haunt the headstones.
1. Apalachicola’s Chestnut Street Cemetery
Avenue E and 8th Street.
Known as “The Old City Cemetery,” it’s the oldest burying ground in this salty town along Apalachicola Bay, about 75 miles southwest of Tallahassee. There are at least 79 Confederate veterans and seven Union veterans from the Civil War buried among the 540 marked graves, along with victims of yellow fever and shipwrecks. Also interred are some of Apalachicola's colonial founders.
Cultural insights: Names on the tombstones reveal the ethnic diversity of the old port city. Many buried here traced their roots to Greece, Italy and Ireland. Two beautiful headstones mark the graves of William and Mary Fuller, free blacks who owned Apalachicola's finest hotel in the Antebellum Era.
Architecture & design: From simple vertical slabs and wooden crosses from the 1830s to elaborate marble monuments and blankets of shells with no names, a variety of tombstones decorate the cemetery.
Who’s buried there: Famed botanist Dr. Alvin Wentworth Chapman, who died in 1899. Also look for the Hull family plot, where Confederate soldiers lie next to two Union soldiers – a permanent reminder of the brother-against-brother nature of the Civil War.
Cemetery tours: The Apalachicola Historical Society hosts cemetery tours, often staging living history performances to tell the stories of notable inhabitants. aahs.wildapricot.org
2. Miami’s Woodlawn Park Cemetery
Southwest 8th Street, between 32nd and 33rd avenues
Established in 1913, this sprawling, 68-acre burial place for more than 60,000 people is one of the oldest cemeteries in Miami. (It’s also a bird sanctuary.) Along with many of the city’s prominent pioneer families, it contains the oldest Jewish cemetery in Miami-Dade County, as well as South Florida’s oldest Greek, Chinese, Cuban, Roman Catholic and Masonic burial sections.
Cultural insights: Two funeral homes established in Havana, Cuba, (Caballero and Rivero) joined the cemetery in the 1990s. Most of the notable graves are of people of Cuban and Latin American origins.
Architecture & design: Commissioned in 1926, architect McDonald Lovell designed a beautiful mausoleum for the park that covers more than a city block, accented with marble, stained glass and hand-wrought bronze gates. Above-ground and flush-to-ground headstones, tombstones, memorials, statues, gothic columns and crypts dot the still-working graveyard.
Who’s buried there: Mary and William Brickell (founders of Miami), George Merrick (founder of Coral Gables and the University of Miami), Gerardo Machado y Morales and Carlos Prio Socarras (former presidents of Cuba), Anastasio Somoza Garcia and Luis Somoza Debayle (former presidents of Nicaragua), Desiderio Alberto Arnaz II (father of Desi Arnaz and youngest mayor of Santiago de Cuba), Cuban-American activist Jorge Mas Canosa, and Antonio Prohias (the Cuban cartoonist who created the comic strip “Spy vs. Spy” for MAD Magazine).
3. St. Augustine’s Huguenot Cemetery
8 S. Castillo Dr.
Created in 1821 for the burial of non-Catholics and yellow fever victims, the 436-plot cemetery is marked by a wrought-iron gate and surrounded by large trees and wispy Spanish moss. Across from the historic City Gate, it was closed in 1884 to stem the spread of disease. It opens to the public on the third Saturday of every month.
Cultural insights: Prior to American occupation, the Spanish city of St. Augustine was predominately Catholic and the only burial ground within the city, the Tolomato Cemetery, was reserved for Catholics. Huguenot’s opening marked the changing demographics of the city.
Architecture & design: Grave markers display a range of funerary art popular in the 19th century, including false box tombs with inscribed ledgers, hand-carved headstones and elaborate monuments.
Who’s buried there: “Heretic" Manuel Crespo, a Catholic Mason whose gravestone is marked distinctly with a sign. One of the famous “ghosts” of the cemetery is Judge John B. Stickney, who supposedly roams the grounds looking for his gold teeth, swiped out of his head by grave robbers as his children were preparing to move his remains to a plot in Washington, D.C. Also otherworldly: The Girl in White, a 14-year-old corpse dressed in a white dress who was reportedly left dead at the cemetery gates and never claimed. Visitors have reported seeing her spirit standing on top of the city gates after midnight.
Cemetery tours: Friends of the Huguenot Cemetery sometimes schedule tours. Several companies in the city also include the graveyard on their tours, including Ghost Tours of St. Augustine, www.ghosttoursofstaugustine.net.
4. Tallahassee’s Greenwood Cemetery
1601 Old Bainbridge Rd.
When a 1936 ordinance prevented the sale of burial plots to blacks in the Old City Cemetery, J.R.D. Laster, Tallahassee’s first black funeral director, led a group to purchase 16 acres and establish Greenwood Cemetery in 1937. The City of Tallahassee now owns the historic cemetery.
Cultural insights: From marble and granite stones showing wealth and prestige to more modest cast-concrete markers or hand-fashioned wood crosses, the gravesites generally reflect the social positions of the deceased. Folk art on some of the markers depict West and Central African cultural traditions, with decorative tile and mirrors in the designs and slabs painted silver to depict water or the afterlife.
Architecture & design: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, the graveyard includes memorial gardens common throughout the rural south, with crepe myrtle shrubs, evergreen trees as symbols of everlasting life, and palm trees symbolic of resurrection and triumph over death.
Who’s buried there: Maxwell Courtney, the first black person to attend and graduate from Florida State University, and Willie Galimore, three-time All-American running back for Florida A&M University’s football team and player for the NFL’s Chicago Bears. (His heart-shaped gravestone sports a carved stone football on the top.)
Cemetery tours: The John G. Riley House and Center for African American History, offers commemorative booklets and self-guided Florida ghost tour brochures, http://rileymuseum.org.
5. Key West Cemetery
701 Passover Lane.
The 100,000 people buried in this 19-acre graveyard outnumber Key West’s current population. The cemetery is on high ground in the center of town. It was established at its current location 10 feet above sea leavel, in 1847 after a hurricane washed dead bodies out of another cemetery closer to the coast.
Cultural insights: The crowded graveyard is known for its above-ground graves, which accommodate more bodies. Slaves who died during the sea voyage to the New World were buried here prior to the Civil War. A Jamaican Memorial Cemetery was dedicated beside the West Martello Tower in 2009. Key West’s Cuban heritage is strongly evident, with a section devoted to those who fought and died in the 1868 Cuban Revolution.
Architecture & design: The late poet James Merrill, a writer and Key West resident for many years, described the unique above-ground vaults as “white-washed hope chests.” Numerous family plots contain open roof structures, and some incorporate masonry buildings and eccentric delights, such as witty epitaphs and pet burials.
Who’s buried there: 1921 lynching victim Manual Cabeza, who was tarred and feathered by the Ku Klux Klan for having a relationship with a mixed-race woman. There’s also the real “Sloppy Joe,” Joe Russell (1889-1941), who was Ernest Hemingway’s fishing guide and a famous Key West bartender. A popular stop is B.P. “Pearl” Roberts’ stone, famously inscribed, “I told you I was sick.”
Cemetery tours: Historic Florida Keys Foundation staff offers walking tours of the cemetery twice a week, historicfloridakeys.org