By: David S. Johnson, MPA
Assistant to the City Manager, Haines City, FL
During the spring of 2015, a young couple from New York came into city hall to speak with Haines City’s then new City Clerk, Linda Bourgeois. Their request seemed simple—they wanted to verify the final resting place of the husband’s mother, located in the South Parcel of Haines City’s Oakland Cemetery.
Like dozens of other municipal cemeteries throughout Florida and the rest of the country, the Oakland Cemetery was originally owned and operated by a private entity. Inherited and abandoned cemeteries often bring with them inconsistent and unique forms of record-keeping, burial standards, and payment histories that were dependent upon the preference and processes of the previous owner(s). Haines City’s Oakland Cemetery was no different in this respect, but with it came the historical underpinnings of a once segregated cemetery. This history was accompanied by a great sense of pride and heritage, yet a remembrance of wounds past. Thus, an added measure of genuine care and sensitivity played a unique role in the continued maintenance of the Oakland Cemetery.
Unfortunately, at the time Haines City only had ownership of the North Parcel at the Oakland Cemetery and did not have ownership or related records for the South Parcel to help this young couple find where the husband’s mother was buried. In a persistent effort to assist the couple, Ms. Bourgeois reached out to Polk County, whom city staff presumed to be the caretaker of the South Parcel. However, she discovered that the County also did not have ownership or records for the property. Upon further investigation, the name and information of a private owner was discovered, as well as the names of three trustees whom the property was deeded to in 1932. However, after a title search and information gathered from the Polk County Genealogical Society, staff was not able to locate successors to the trustees.
The difficulty for the young couple and Ms. Bourgeois only seemed to grow and Haines City now found itself in the position to identify the next steps to deem it an abandoned Cemetery and address the maintenance and records issues involved.
As with most situations in government, staff needed to take a step back and look at the issues holistically to ask a few questions. Were there other abandoned cemeteries within Haines City? What other cemeteries were assumed from private entities? Were inherited records made consistent with current City records and processes? What were the City’s current processes for all of the cemeteries? What did the City’s current cemetery ordinance specify?
Throughout the process of answering these questions, several issues were identified. Below are brief descriptions a few key issues:
Abandoned & Assumed
In researching and reviewing the history of all of the cemeteries in Haines City, the City Clerk learned that the North Parcel of the Oakland Cemetery was originally purchased as a grove by Haines City in 1979 to create an expansion of the Oakland Cemetery, but the City did not go so far as obtaining the South Parcel at the same time. Likewise, there was another cemetery in the Oakland area that was abandoned, but only had the unofficial name of the “Cemetery on the Hill.” Finally, Haines City’s largest cemetery, Forest Hill Cemetery, existed before the City’s incorporation and was presumably assumed at that time. In addition, records before 1945 were limited or incomplete.
Secure & Maintain
Since the South Parcel of Oakland Cemetery and the “Cemetery on the Hill,” were not owned by Haines City, the City did not yet have full legal permission to adequately secure and maintain the properties to the degree of the other cemeteries. To further complicate the issue, Haines City’s Cemetery Ordinance did not directly identify what it meant to “secure and maintain.” Unfortunately, some residents were upset by this and voiced their displeasure. At one point, a well-known R&B artist from Haines City took to social media and garnered some national attention to these concerns.
The whereabouts for records on the South Parcel of the Oakland Cemetery and the “Cemetery on the Hill” were unknown. Records for the Forest Hill Cemetery were also incomplete and the records by previous City Clerks had some variation from clerk to clerk.
Ownership & Sales
Several residents were coming into the City Clerk’s office to claim burial plots without issued and recorded deeds. Two causes played a role in this issue. The first cause was due to some of the inconsistencies or lack of records kept by prior ownership or record keepers. Some of these inconsistencies were also the result of unclear designation as to whose name the plots were deeded to—the purchaser or a designee to be buried. Second, The City Clerk discovered that residents were purchasing cemetery plots for non-residents at the residential rate. Thus, some individuals claimed rights to burial plots not in their name, while others claimed they did not own plots that were in their name.
Interments Without Authorization
Since discovering that ownership of the South Parcel of the Oakland Cemetery was not being administered by Polk County or a private entity, it was discovered that interments were administered by funeral homes and burial plots were marked at the discretion of individual families.
This problem was simple, but a large undertaking—there were several burial plots in each cemetery with unknown occupancy or records on file.
Solutions to the issues were addressed in four key areas: City Ordinance, Processes, Public Outreach and Record Keeping.
One of the first items of business was for the City Commission to authorize the City Attorney to request approval from the Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services, in accordance with the state law (sec 497.285), for Haines City to secure and maintain the two abandoned cemeteries. On September 24, 2015 the Division approved Haines City’s request to secure and maintain the abandoned cemeteries. The next step was to define “secure and maintain” within Haines City’s Cemetery Ordinance. However, the City also needed to address outdated portions of the ordinance, prevent potentially unauthorized interments in the abandoned cemeteries, create a flat fee structure that would prevent non-residents from purchasing plots under resident names, and establish a perpetual care fund that would provide 100 percent funding for the future maintenance of City Cemeteries. The ordinance passed one year later on September 22, 2016.
After receiving approval to secure and maintain the abandoned cemeteries, the City Clerk’s Office purchased a cemetery software program to organize all records collected into one consistent format and database. To support new information collected from sales of cemetery plots, the City Clerk’s office also established consistent forms for customers to fill out, regardless of which cemetery they wished to purchase a burial space. In addition, an optional “designation of space” form was created for customers to fill out. This form allows City Staff to collect more thorough information about who burial spaces are intended for. In addition, City Staff was now able to move forward with cleaning, fixing, and maintaining headstones, as well as other maintenance, security and oversight of interments on the property.
During the effort to secure and maintain the cemeteries, City Staff worked with the public through public meetings, the City website, phone calls, in-person meetings and social media to answer questions and address concerns. The R&B artist who expressed concerns on Twitter about the maintenance of Oakland Cemetery did so in the middle of the night. Regardless, Staff responded immediately and extended personal invitations to meet with the artist and others who also expressed concerns after reading the artist’s posts. That following morning, City Staff contacted a family member of the artist who still lived locally to provide information on current efforts to maintain Oakland Cemetery and answer any questions. That same day, the artist and several others on Twitter publically expressed appreciation for Haines City’s responsiveness to their concerns. In addition to responding to concerns, Staff worked with the public and the City Commission to officially designate the name of the road entering into the Oakland Cemetery as “Oakland Cemetery Road.” Likewise, the City Commission officially changed the name of “Cemetery on the Hill” to “Oak-Hill Cemetery.” Furthermore, Staff began the process for designing, approving and installing signs at each cemetery.
Public outreach played an important effort in collecting and verifying cemetery records. The City reached out to local churches, community organizations, and long-term residents to confirm records. One such collaboration with the Polk County Historical Museum led City Staff to a book that cataloged burial plots within the City’s own library. Although helpful, the book was 10 years old, incomplete and contained gaps in the information. The process for numbering burial plots in the book was based on existing burials, thus leaving unoccupied plots unaccounted for and created large gaps between the consecutive numbering of plots. As such, the City Clerk’s office walked the cemeteries to probe plots and glean or confirm information from each headstone while researching and organizing documents to help complete the burial records that were available. In a stroke of luck as this article was written, more files were found in storage containing records not previously accounted for.
Haines City’s effort to resolve the issues identified with the abandoned cemeteries arose from a seemingly simple request from a young couple looking to identify the final resting place of loved one. However, the solutions for addressing the issues identified after their request took time and considerable effort. Just as importantly, City Staff is continually working with the community to gather information to put together the pieces for families like this young couple.
As with most solutions to broad reaching issues, there are rarely quick fixes. For Haines City, it was vitally important for Staff to sort out and ensure that each issue was managed with great sensitivity to residents and legal compliance with the State of Florida—all within a reasonable and timely manner. The solutions achieved by Haines City really came down to five key factors: 1.) Taking a holistic approach 2.) Implementing thorough and diverse research 3.) Engaging and educating the public with sensitivity and reasonable timeliness 4.) Implementing consistent and identifiable steps to move forward and 5.) Having one amazingly professional, diligent City Clerk who led the charge with collaborative support from the City Commission, administrative Staff and the public.
For more information on this article and Haines City’s steps to address inherited and abandoned cemeteries contact David S. Johnson, Assistant to the City Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org or Linda Bourgeois, City Clerk at email@example.com.