Words and images by Justin Belichis
Death is absolute and as ancient as the stone slabs towering over a plot of graveyard green, especially in America’s oldest city.
In fact, it’s hard to forget St. Augustine’s past when cemeteries that root the city’s history can be found at almost every street corner downtown.
There are several guided private tours curious cemetery dwellers can take, some focusing on both the whereabouts of notable gravesites and suspected ghosts.
But visitors also can amble at their own pace down cobblestone roads as the most well-known cemeteries are within walking distance from each other.
Adjacent to the old city gates, towering cedar trees shroud Hugenot Cemetary in a calming shade and the foliage creeping around the gravestones is rich in color. It is open to the public on the third Saturday of every month and on national holidays.
When the yellow fever epidemic struck St. Augustine in 1821, the city recognized its need for a public graveyard. Because non-Catholics could not be buried in the already existing Tolomato Cemetery, according to laws at the time, St. Augustine city council established what residents now know as Huguenot Cemetery.
A notable person buried here is Thomas Buckingham Smith, who is today listed as a Great Floridian. He died on Jan. 5, 1871. Today, an obelisk stands toward the center of Huguenot Cemetery in his honor.
“[Smith] was a humanitarian and a historian,” said Friends of Huguenot Cemetery member Karen Harvey. “He was the first person to go to Europe and start getting Spanish documents written about (St. Augustine’s) Spanish history and he was one of the first people to go and investigate the Everglades.”
War is a common theme among the city’s cemeteries, especially at the St. Augustine National Cemetery. Located on Marine Street, several rows of white gravestones carrying names of veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War, the second Seminole War and the Civil War.
Three emerald-colored pyramids made of coquina and an 18-foot marble obelisk mark the green sprawl’s south end. They are known as the Florida War Monuments.
The trio immortalizes Major Francis L. Dade and his 110-member army who perished in battle on July 25, 1842, during the Second Seminole War. After the Seminole Wars ended in 1842, Major Dade and his men’s remains were reburied underneath the pyramids.
The St. Augustine National Cemetery served as a Union Army burial ground for soldiers stationed at Fort Marion, which was built as Castillo de San Marcos centuries before the Civil War. The graves of 82 Union army soldiers, 40 known and 40 unknown, litter the ground surrounding the cemetery’s main path.
“At the Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration, it is our sole purpose to fulfill Abraham Lincoln’s promise, which is ‘to care for those who have borne battle, for their widow and their orphans,’” said Director of the St. Augustine’s National Cemetery Alpheus Richburg. “It is my duty to ensure that it is maintained as a national shrine.”
Tolomato Cemetery, on the corner of Tolomato Lane and Cordova Street, is open to the public every third Saturday of the month. During the days it is open, there are free self-guided tours and live music.
“It’s a small cemetery,” said Elizabeth Gessner, president of the Tolomato Preservation Association. “There were about 1,000 burials, but only 105 markers that are still visible.”
Tolomato Cemetery is home to St. Augustine’s oldest extant marked grave.
It belongs to Elizabeth Forrester, a 16-year-old from Philadelphia, who died in 1798. Her tomb sits by other gray-colored gravestones that line a small path shaded by trees leading to the cemetery’s centerpiece, the Varela Chapel.
The Varela chapel held the remains of Father Felix Varela, who played a pivotal role in Cuba’s independence from Spain and is currently in the process of canonization. His remains were moved to Cuba in 1911.
The first bishop of St. Augustine, Augustin Verot, died in 1876 and his casket was placed in the Verela Chapel. Verot’s remains were later moved to a tomb in the center of Tolomato Cemetery in 1988, and now the Varela Chapel serves as a reminder of Cuba’s gratitude for independence.
“The impact of trade has a lot to do with the diversity here,” Gessner said. “It’s a function of the fact that St. Augustine was such a point of change, a cross between the English-speaking culture and the Spanish-speaking culture.”