It had been a year since Roberta Deal visited the grave of her daughter, Christina Gerene Lorch, who was delivered stillborn and buried in a dark green casket with her multi-colored blanket. Her daughter would have celebrated her 22nd birthday recently. So on Sunday, Deal traveled from her Clearwater home for another visit to Tucker Cemetery, where Pasco's poor are laid to rest. What she saw left her horrified.
Unlike the rest of the cemetery, which appeared to have been recently mowed, the small section of infant graves was overgrown with vines and covered with a thick layer of dried leaves from the giant oak that curves over the graves.
A chain link gate was tied to a nearby shrub, which had grown thick and unruly, she said. Spiderwebs zig-zagged across it and the other bushes.
"I couldn't get to her grave," said Deal, 41, who said she endured nearly 16 hours of labor on Oct. 29, 1990, to deliver the baby girl after a nearly full-term pregnancy.
Only 19 and already raising a 2-year-old, Deal lacked the money to provide a final resting place in a private cemetery. A simple funeral was held under the oaks at Tucker Cemetery. Originally owned by a pioneer citrus family, the cemetery was deeded to the county in 1965. The back section includes the Tucker family, while the front is set aside for indigent burials.
County officials say Tucker is one of at least two publicly owned burial grounds. The other is in the West Elfers cemetery.
David Edwards, the county's real estate manager, said he hadn't received any complaints about Tucker Cemetery. He said the parks department was responsible for maintaining the site, but budget cuts during the past few years forced it to delegate duties to a subcontractor. He said the file showed it had been mowed about two weeks ago.
Deal said the cemetery used to be well kept. That meant a lot.
The first few years after Christina's death she visited often. A couple of times she even brought her blanket and pillow and spent the night.
"People thought I was insane," said Deal, now a waitress at a Pinellas County Japanese restaurant.
Over the years, she made improvements, like the curved bricks that border the grave site. A tiny teddy bear, its head stained green from moss, sits at the head. Each year she spent time talking to Christina. She'd tell her about the older sister and younger brother she never got to meet. She'd wonder what Christina might look like had she lived.
When Deal moved to Pinellas, the visits decreased to once a year. Someone planted shrubbery around the babies' area, but that wasn't trimmed back, she said.
"Maybe they were trying to make it decorative," she speculated.
Deal sent an email to every media outlet in the area about the condition of the cemetery. She wrote to every Pasco County commissioner. She even wrote to Gov. Rick Scott.
"I will not stop," she said Wednesday. "These babies deserve better."
This isn't the first time the cemetery has been criticized.
Jo M. Lee, who conducted a survey a decade ago for the US GenWeb Tombstone Transcription Project, described the area as "a wasteland" and conditions as "deplorable." Drought had sunken many of the graves, and mowers had destroyed markers, shredded artificial flowers and knocked down jars that held them.
"I will not fully describe the conditions that exist in this portion of Tucker Cemetery," Lee wrote after a 2001 visit. "However, I will that say that the Pasco Parks Department should broaden their requirements for employment to include the ability to discern the difference between funeral markers, plastic flowers and grass! I do not believe the Tucker Family would ever have condoned this kind of treatment."
Edwards said he took Deal's concerns seriously and would send crews out this week to examine the area.
"We'll look at it and see what the situation is," he said. "We haven't been able to do it ourselves. We'll have to send someone out there to see what's going on."