Miami City Cemetery Tour

A few times a year History Miami presents a tour of the Miami City Cemetery, one of my favorite places in the city. The tour is hosted by eminent local historian Dr Paul George, who is not only exceptionally knowledgeable about the history of Florida, he’s also a skilled and enthusiastic storyteller.

Dr Paul George

Traditionally one of these cemetery tours is presented on Hallowe’en weekend, and at night. While this provides a challenge for those who want to take photos, it does provide a properly haunting atmosphere for the history lessons, atmosphere which is only partially negated by the bright street lamps illuminating the graveyard like a high school football field. Sadly, the lamps are necessary due to the frequency of vandalism.

Students examine a memorial marker

Approximately 75 people braved the threatening weather and the prospect of ghosts for the tour, several in costume. Flashlights were recommended accessories, handy for avoiding exposed tree roots in the shadows, illuminating shadowed grave markers, and reading the names of the deceased whose graves you were using as a thoroughfare.

The Belcher Mausoleum, best-maintained on the grounds

As I mentioned, Dr George is an enthusiastic storyteller and teacher. It would be easy to fill two thousand words just listing the facts and bit of trivia he tossed out during the two hour tour, and still have missed half of what he said. Rather than try, here are a few points of interest.

The final resting place of Jolly Jack Peacock

This is Miami’s oldest official cemetery, containing some of the oldest marked grave sites in the area. Approximately nine thousand people are buried in its ten acres, and while in theory several hundred plots remain empty, they are strictly reserved for the deed holders for the plots, or those who can prove direct family ties to the deed holder. Consequently, there are about five to seven new burials each year.

Many of Miami’s pioneering families and early leaders are buried here, including Julia Tuttle, the “mother of Miami” who was recently (and finally!) honored with a statue. On this special night Julia’s ghost appeared beside her grave, giving a short presentation about her role in Miami’s founding. Okay, maybe it was a little corny, but it was well-presented, and very engaging.

The Ghost of Julia Tuttle appeared to give a short speech

It’s tempting to share many of Dr Paul’s stories, but I’d hardly know where to start. The eerie tale of Mr Miller, who was so taken with the story of the Romans entombed in lava during the eruption of Mt Vesuvius that when his wife died he had her body — on its bed! — encased in concrete? Perhaps the 1905 double murder that remains unsolved to this day? The crackhead who killed his prostitute girlfriend and set her body ablaze on the steps of the Burdines family crypt? No, I couldn’t do them justice. You should take the tour and hear the history of Miami from one of its best-known experts.

A solitary royal palm, a species indigenous to the Everglades

You can learn a lot about a city and its people by visiting its cemetery. Take one of History Miami’s tours — particularly those with Dr George — and you’ll come away with a far greater appreciation of South Florida’s history.

History Miami (previously known as the Historical Society of Southern Florida)  puts together excellent tours and provides a good blend of entertainment and education in their offerings. I hope this rebranding effort helps them get the exposure they deserve.

8 thoughts on “Miami City Cemetery Tour”

  1. It would have been nice if when I was in school they would have taken us to the cemetary instead of the seaquarium or the Deering Estate. I love cemetaries, always have. I would love to take a guided tour someday! DS

  2. I’ve taken this tour often enough (and done enough reading on my own) that I could probably give you a tour on your next visit, Danielle. You’ve been to scary places with me before.

  3. Fabulous wrap-up Kevin! You know I can’t say enough about Dr. G’s tours either.

    The cemetery is such a surreal place not just because of its tenants but because of its urban surroundings, including that concrete factory on the other side of the track.

    I took the same tour during my history class with Dr. G and that was three hours long … and even then, he had many stories left over. There are so many stories captured here.

    Thanks for the link! 😉

    Do you plan on ever doing a story on Pinewood Cemetery?

    Danielle — the Deering Estate is quite known for its hauntings!

  4. Nice story about the old cemetery. I’m proud to have some notable ancestors buried there in the first plot. The locals that put a lot of time into keeping it well manicured deserve a lot of credit. Paul George is an amazing sponge of local knowledge, always absorbing more and more every day, then passing it along to so many students that otherwise wold have no clues about local history. I’m always fascinated by the stories of these hearty, talented and often stubborn pioneers that refused to leave a place of natural beauty in spite of the serious hardships of living here long ago.

  5. Robert: Thanks for your comment (and for the Rum Renaissance!).

    Maria: Thank you for the tip on Pinewood Cemetery. I visited it on Hallowe’en, so there will be a story on it very soon.

  6. You know, I always thought Vizcaya was a little creepy. Kevin you make me laugh which is a rarity these days! I cant wait to get back down there and run the streets again. Are you sure thats a royal palm in the pic? I thought that was a cabbage palm? I thought the royals looked like the Queens? Cabbage palms are all ove the place up here. I have 2 in my yard. DS

  7. I’m a homeschooling mom who recently visited the cemetary with my kids and realized there is so much to learn from this cemetary. I’d love to return with someone who really knows the history. I think the Halloween tour is a great idea but i’d rather not wait until next year. Are you interested? I know there would be great interest from our homeschooling community.

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