Greenwood Cemetery Is a Travesty On the Dead and a Blight on City

The following story appeared in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times on July 2, 1944. What follows is the text of the original story, interspersed with photos from the Times’ archives.

By Lorna Carroll, Times staff writer

Greenwood cemetery is a rotting corner in the heart of St. Petersburg.

Here the sanctuary of the dead is a travesty. Reverence is strangled in the confused and twisted fingers of decaying boughs. The dead, hidden under weeds and snake snares, are desecrated by rusty cans, garbage and empty liquor bottles.

Greenwood cemetery covers approximately a city block. It is bounded on the west by Ninth street south, on the north by Jasmine way, an alley, south by Eleventh Avenue and east by small rental properties.

Original caption: The depth to which this grave has sunken is revealed in the dark shadow at the left and the uncovered base of the headstone. There are several sunken graves at Greenwood. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944
Original caption: The depth to which this grave has sunken is revealed in the dark shadow at the left and the uncovered base of the headstone. There are several sunken graves at Greenwood. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944

A pedestrian ambling along its outskirts achieves a view of impressive tombstones bearing names of the city’s aristocracy. But already at Jasmine corner and Ninth Street, the austerity of these tombstones crumble into disintegrated monuments, whose tops have toppled from their bases.

If the pedestrian will penetrate deeper, he will find himself in a maze of rubble and neglect unbelievable anywhere, especially in a city whose pride is cleanliness and beauty.

For no funds have been levied on Greenwood for its perpetual care.

Here lie the beloved of many, forgotten even to their identity, their headstones lost, rotting or defaced ... forgotten even to the locality of their graves, which lie somewhere beneath the heaps of refuse, fallen trees, moss, briers, chicken wiring, shaggy grass and piercing weeds.

Greenwood Cemetery, St. Petersburg, Florida. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944.
Greenwood Cemetery, St. Petersburg, Florida. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944.

The pedestrian, edging his way through this mess, will have the disquieting impression that the ground is about to cave under him or that he will slip upon a writhing snake.

He will move gingerly along, mourning this ugly obliteration of the dead, half the time not knowing he is treading over mortal remains until he stubs his toe on a chipped and blackened tombstone. He will be careful, as he steps because suddenly under his raised foot is a sunken grave, dragging down with it, its broken and defaced marker.

There, tangled in a bush, he sees a faded flag. Nearby leans a Confederate insignia, and next to that a metal identification marker framing a slip of paper under mud-splashed glass. But the paper has yellowed, or isn’t there at all, and the once proud soldier lying beneath this monument is lost even to memory.

These ugly little metal markers stand, drunkenly throughout the cemetery, rusty bent, and for the most part so disintegrated that the card bearing the departed one’s name is entirely gone or is illegible. Prone on the ground these markers lie, too, shuttled here and there away from their graves by those who prowl the cemetery.

Original caption: Moss and rubble screen the graves in sections of Greenwood cemetery. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944
Original caption: Moss and rubble screen the graves in sections of Greenwood cemetery. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944

And now, except for an occasional flash through the gruesome trees with their musty shawls of moss, the pedestrian catches only glimpses of the elite’s tombstones. He is captured left, right, front and back, by a webwork of brush and undergrowth. He proceeds, but thorns snatch at his legs and scratch at his eyes. Morbid curiosity nudges him on. Over there is a little mound of dead leaves and moss. He brushes it aside with his toes. An empty whiskey bottle comes to light hugging a brown streaked stone marked “Mother.”

Prone in front of him lies a tree felled by a storm. Its dried branches stretch out like arms embracing grave stones, metal markers, flags. Bits of these can be seen through the worm eaten boughs.

A broken metal pipe lies near a freshly dug grave with its naked covering of white and thirsty sand. So many of these graves bulge from the ground without even a fringe of grass in memoriam.

A family walks past Greenwood Cemetery. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944
A family walks past Greenwood Cemetery. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944

Farther down Jasmine Way lies buried the dream and cherished sweetness of a couple long since dead. It is a child’s tomb. Love and tears enclosed it years ago with a fine wrought iron fence. Today the fence has rusted into a labyrinth of metal. Whatever marker it encloses, is forever sealed by the dead boughs and brambles that awning the grave and grip the earth beneath.

There in Greenwood, sacred resting place of the cherished dead, come by night the jetsam and flotsam of St. Petersburg. Curled in the shelter of its wilderness, they sleep away their alcoholic dreams and their empty liquor bottles monument the graves.

Here and there feeble efforts have been made to tidy up Greenwood. Mounds of garbage, boughs, yellowed newspapers, dead flowers punctuate the cemetery. But the effort is minute in view of the vast amount of work that is to be done.

The history of Greenwood, fourth oldest cemetery in St. Petersburg, dates back to Feb. 1, 1897, when it was platted by H. P. Bussey. Starting as a five acre tract about the size of a good city block, it was portioned into lots and sold by Bussey to individuals. Since no maintenance funds were appropriated, its care fell upon the lot owners or relatives of the dead.

Original caption: This child’s grave is enclosed in a fine wrought iron fence which is rusting away. The grave is completely shrouded by dead leaves and broken branches. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944
Original caption: This child’s grave is enclosed in a fine wrought iron fence which is rusting away. The grave is completely shrouded by dead leaves and broken branches. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944

As time went on, many of these people died or moved away, and Greenwood became a genuine problem. A group of conscientious lot owners then banded together and formed a board of trustees for the sole purpose of maintaining the cemetery. From time to time, this board appointed a member to collect funds for dispensation in the interests of Greenwood. But collections became ever more scarce, for the simple reason that it is difficult to extract contributions for the dead when the living need so much.

John Blocker, county attorney and historian, explains the Greenwood situation with, “At no time has malicious negligence been intended. From my observation the board has conscientiously tried to live up to its self-imposed position as custodian of Greenwood, but there has been a steady decrease in outside interest from lot owners down the years.”

“My solution to the problem,” said Blocker, “would be a legislation which would authorize cities and counties to make suitable appropriations at least to protect cemeteries from becoming a fire hazard and to beautify them for the general good of the city.

Greenwood Cemetery, St. Petersburg, Florida. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944.
Greenwood Cemetery, St. Petersburg, Florida. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944.

“I also think that the municipal and county governments owe it to the memory of the early settlers to bring about suitable legislation whereby sufficient funds can be put to work to beautify the last resting place of those who labored and devoted years of their life to the building up of this and similar communities.”

With that Block sums up the solution of the city’s tragic burial place rotting along its main artery.

Original caption: Broken headstones like the one above are frequent sights at Greenwood cemetery. Many of the stones are mere fragments defaced of all data pertaining to the dead. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944
Original caption: Broken headstones like the one above are frequent sights at Greenwood cemetery. Many of the stones are mere fragments defaced of all data pertaining to the dead. Photo taken by St. Petersburg Times staff, 7/2/1944

Jeremy King