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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.