Wednesday, April 25, 2018
News Roundup

In Orlando, the gravedigger's work begins

ORLANDO — It wasn't until Tuesday that the gravedigger woke up to the enormity of the task before him.

For Juan DeLeon, 33, the murders of 49 people in a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando on Sunday morning were an unspeakable tragedy. His wife knew two of the victims from her job at Universal Orlando. While their deaths struck him as most deaths don't, it wasn't until later that he realized the role he would play.

"Oh, I've got to go and dig graves for these people," he said.

In DeLeon's line of work, death has a peak season, and summer in Florida is it. He typically digs three to four graves a day, but after Sunday's massacre, work orders are flooding in from Orlando, Kissimmee and Clermont.

Many of the dead are being sent back to their families in Puerto Rico and Mexico. A small number are being cremated. But the task of burying victims here in Florida will fall to him and the staff of Quality Vaults Inc.

"It's tough to deal with the sorrow every day," he said. "And now with this tragedy, it makes it even harder."

The day after Omar Mateen walked into Pulse armed with an assault rifle, Orlando's mayor, Buddy Dyer, called Don Price, the longtime sexton of the city-owned Greenwood Cemetery, with a request. He wanted to donate plots to as many victims' families as wanted them, and he wanted Price to find a prime spot, preferably one with a view.

By Thursday morning, Price was waiting and ready for the men with the backhoe and shovels to arrive. The families of three victims had already chosen their sites from among the cemetery's 120 acres of nearly silent green.

Friday morning, 25-year-old Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25, would be buried there, followed by Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21, and Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25, on Saturday.

DeLeon has been digging graves in the Florida heat for three years. When he answered an ad looking for someone with a commercial driver's license, he didn't know exactly what he was getting into, but it was quickly explained to him at the job interview.

"To me, it's a job, it's work," he said. Anyone who digs half a dozen graves a day is bound not to be overly sentimental about those he has buried.

But there are aspects of the work that trouble him — children, for instance. As the father of two boys, ages 11 and 8, there is nothing worse than burying a child.

"I prefer not to know the person," he said. Sometimes, he comes across his own last name on the work orders and he calls his family to make sure they're not missing anyone.

It hasn't happened yet, he said. If it ever did, "I don't know if I'd be able to do it."

Price, who began working at Greenwood 30 years ago, still remembers the first gay person he buried. It was in 2005. The deceased's sister came to his office with a man she kept calling her brother's "business partner," but it was plainly obvious he was more than that. Price said he badly wanted to tell her she didn't have pretend.

"It was a shame," he said. "The saddest part was that the man's partner had no legal rights over the burial."

The significance of burying Pulse victims at Greenwood is not lost on him. Under Jim Crow, the cemetery had been banned from interring blacks and whites in the same section, a restriction that was only lifted in 1964. If anything, Greenwood is somewhat unusual for a city cemetery in the south because there aren't separate cemeteries for each race, he said.

Greenwood remains relevant partly because of Orlando's changing population, which includes 400,000 Puerto Ricans. Although many white families increasingly ask to have loved ones cremated, Latinos and Haitians continue to prefer burials, Price said.

As DeLeon maneuvered the backhoe, uprooting mounds of dirt and bahia grass, Price described nascent plans to erect a monument to all 49 victims. He considered quieter parts of the cemetery, sections where it's impossible to hear passing motorists, but he chose the land along Anderson Street for its visibility.

"We wanted it to be something that's not hidden," he said. "This is where it needs to be."

Anna Phillips can be reached at [email protected] Follow @annamphillips.

     
Comments

Updated: 16 minutes ago

Updated: 20 minutes ago
Hillsborough says its teachers are well-paid; the teachers say it’s not true. Who’s right?

Hillsborough says its teachers are well-paid; the teachers say it’s not true. Who’s right?

TAMPA — Seeking to show that Hillsborough County school officials waste money that could go to teacher raises, union director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins talked about highly paid administrators. She talked about legal fees paid to outside firms when in-...
Updated: 1 hour ago
For senior week, Lakewood High School must mourn a senior

For senior week, Lakewood High School must mourn a senior

ST. PETERSBURG — Lakewood High School principal Erin Savage has never planned a candlelight vigil. But this week, Savage must learn how to do so as her school mourns the tragic death of one of its graduating seniors.Bryson Welton-Williams, 18, died T...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Updated: 1 hour ago
Editorial: St. Petersburg’s waste-to-energy to wastefulness project

Editorial: St. Petersburg’s waste-to-energy to wastefulness project

A St. Petersburg waste-to-energy plant now under construction has been billed for years as an environmentally friendly money saver. Now it looks more like a boondoggle, with the cost and mission changing on the fly. It’s yet another example of a city...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Senator wants to put a tighter leash on airline rules for service animals

Senator wants to put a tighter leash on airline rules for service animals

WASHINGTON — Congress will consider tightening the rules on service animals allowed to accompany passengers on airliners under legislation introduced this week.Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has introduced an airline bill that would align the definition ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Rays bring Jonny Venters back to majors

Rays bring Jonny Venters back to majors

UPDATE, 5:34: Venters, understandably, was humbled and happy to make it back. "It's hard to put into words how I'm feeling," he said. "It's been an emotional day."Venters was in uniform in the Durham clubhouse during rain delay when he got called in ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Yelp search results reflected racist stereotype that Asian American restaurants serve cat and dog

Yelp search results reflected racist stereotype that Asian American restaurants serve cat and dog

A strange thing happened when typing "dog menu" into the restaurant ratings website and app Yelp. It automatically generated suggested searches. There were dog massage, hot dogs, pet groomers. Also: "dog meat." But it got more disturbing. Take Yelp...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Report: Former ‘Bama starting QB to visit USF

Report: Former ‘Bama starting QB to visit USF

USF's quarterback derby could have a prominent 11th-hour entrant.Former Alabama QB Blake Barnett, the Crimson Tide's opening day starter in 2016 who transferred to Arizona State shortly thereafter, is leaving Tempe as a grad transfer, several media o...
Updated: 3 hours ago