Compared to golf course superintendents, cemetery groundskeepers certainly have less fussy clients. But like golf superintendents and sports turf managers, cemetery groundskeepers deal with turf damaged from weather events, foot traffic, vehicle traffic, limitations from budget constraints and more.
As the UF/IFAS Extension Brevard County commercial horticulture agent, I work with golf and sports turf often, but I wanted to learn more about its close cousin, cemetery turf. So, I set out on a journey along the Space Coast and beyond to find out more. Not only did I learn more about how these turf management sectors are related, but I also discovered some local mystery in Brevard County as well.
Keeping Cemetery Lawns
Cemetery groundskeepers, also known as greenskeepers, caretakers, sextons and sometimes gravediggers, are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of cemeteries. Their duties can include mowing the lawn, pruning trees and vegetation, planting grass of over newly established graves, and sometimes digging graves. Sometimes they might also have to set and align headstones, build mourners’ shelters, and erect casket lowering devices.
Like golf superintendents and sports turf managers, they also must contend with wet conditions. But the main issue with wet conditions in cemeteries is that saturated soil will cause new gravesites to sink, often to only about 18 inches above the vault.
When fresh graves have sunk or turf has been lost, these sites will be re-seeded with some mix of cultivars suitable for the area. One cemetery supervisor in Virginia in Turf Magazine in 2008, reported using a mix of rye, Kentucky fescue and grass seed for shade and sun.
Turf cultivars suitable for cemeteries in the southeastern US were evaluated in a 3-year study in the early 2000s in Mississippi. They looked at the mowing requirements and weed competition without regular fertilizer applications for St. Augustinegrass, centipedegrass, zoysiagrass, bermudagrass and an ultra-dwarf bermudagrass. They found for overall performance, aesthetics and low inputs; St. Augustinegrass worked well.
Cemeteries in Brevard County
In Brevard County, there are several important and historic cemeteries, including the Cape Canaveral National Cemetery in Mims. It is here that one can find the final resting place of the first female U.S. Naval Admiral and Director of the Naval Nurse Corps, Alene Bertha Duerk. Also here is the grave of World War II Tuskegee Airman Edwin Cowan, a B-52 pilot with more than 500 hours of flight time.
Another historic cemetery in Brevard is Lagrange Cemetery in Titusville, which was established in 1869. It is the oldest cemetery on Florida’s lower East Coast and contains gravesites of many pioneer families including Tom J. Cockshutt, founder of the Lagrange Church, Mims, for whom the town of Mims was named, and Colonel Henry T. Titus, founder of Titusville. It also is the final resting place of the social reformers Henry and Harriette Moore.
Several major league baseball players are buried in Melbourne, including Andy Seminick, Jake Early, Jimmy Pattison, and Les Sweetland.
But the most mysterious and interesting cemetery I visited was old, quaint, and eerie Georgiana Cemetery, also known as Crooked Mile Cemetery, just off Crooked Mile Road in Merritt Island. The cemetery is most famous as the burial site of Ethel Allen, a local murder victim who was just 19 years old when she was found dead and mutilated on the banks of the Indian River Lagoon in 1934. Nearly a century later, her murder is still a cold case and the possible suspect was never found.
The grisly circumstances surrounding her death, along with the eerie atmosphere of the old cemetery with tall trees overcome with Spanish moss, make the many ghostly sightings seem real. Many locals believe Ethel’s ghost haunts her final resting site here. Ethel’s grave stone is homemade and stands out among the other graves marked in the cemetery.
Taking the Knowledge with Me
When I started this journey, I thought I’d learn more about managing cemetery lawns in Brevard County or in Florida, and I hoped to talk to some local cemetery groundskeepers. What I learned was that many of the cemeteries here, with the exception of the national cemetery, are managed by large turf management companies rather than a single groundskeeper of old. I also found that cemetery lawn care is a unique niche of turfgrass management, and one that doesn’t seem to have been heavily researched in the state. What I leave with though is a deeper understanding of the challenges these lawns face and of the mysteries and stories that surround them. For more information about cemetery lawns in Brevard County or if you have information to add, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter at @BrevardPlantDr. To find more about more about some of the people whose final resting place is in Brevard County, visit the links below.