Voodoo priests and grave robbers steal bones and topple headstones from historical cemeteries in Miami
Three of Miami’s oldest cemeteries are experiencing an increase in vandalism and trespassing, making it hard to preserve the already neglected historic sites.
When they first looked at the coffin, it appeared as if a tree branch had fallen into it. The lid of the coffin was torn off, leaving the naked remnants roasting in the sun.
But upon taking a closer look at the figure, Arthur Kennedy realized it was a smooth, brown, contoured tibia. “No, that’s a leg bone. See where the foot used to be?” he says.
Although Kennedy is not in the least a forensic scientist, he's been around bones more than anyone could be while serving as a cemetery caretaker. And recently, he's seen more bones lying around than he cares to remember, living in the middle of a cemetery.
The corpse has barely any bones left so it does not "rest in peace" anymore. For all Kennedy knows, the dead remains were stolen by "grave robbers" who either sell human bones on the black market or use them in religious ceremonies, reported Miami Herald.
“There’s a lot of witchcraft going on, and I’ve been offered $1,000 for a skull,” Kennedy said. “It’s inhumane how they’re attacking the dead and dismantling the graves. Our history is buried in these cemeteries.”
A stark increase in trespassing coupled with a surge in vandalism has complicated the struggle of protecting historical sites that have been neglected for years together, including Miami's oldest cemeteries.
Two months ago, three graves, including one of a child, were broken into and ransacked at the Lincoln Memorial Park, which is known as the burial place of some of Miami’s most prominent black leaders.
The caretaker has had to chase away drug addicts, prostitutes, vandals, bone burglars and Santeria worshippers every night as they deposit offerings that include fruit, candy, cigars, coins, and even slain chickens near the graves. Kennedy tries his best to guard the cemetery, living in the small office at the center of the 10-acre Lincoln property in Brownsville.
“I got shot once. Guy pulled a gun on me when I told him to get out,” said Kennedy, showing a scar on his thigh. “I might pick up 18 chickens in one day. I’ve picked up a boar’s head, a dead monkey, dead rabbits, apples, a birthday cake. We got some serious voodoo and hocus pocus out here.”
After the previous owner of the graveyard, Elyn Johnson, succumbed to Alzheimer's disease, Lincoln became unkempt and overgrown as time passed. Ultimately, Johnson's niece Jessica Williams took over responsibility and hired Kennedy to look after the cemetery. On a regular day, he clears the weeds and repairs graves, many of which are missing their headstones and can’t be identified.
Quite a few homeless people use the place “as a laundromat, hanging wet clothes on headstones to dry,” said Hurwitz, a historian, cemetery guardian, and a staunch volunteer who has restored hundreds of gravesites for the past 30 years.
Back in 1997, a task force was formed to reverse the decline of the Lincoln cemetery, which dates back to 1897 when Mary Brickell sold the land to the city, and now it looks to be in a much better shape. However, off late, once can see graves with stolen nameplates and more religious offerings, says Hurwitz. Sometimes, thieves go so far as to pick American flags from the graves of fallen soldiers.
“A goat’s leg, a pig’s head, little cups of espresso, voodoo dolls,” he said. “Every Sunday the grave of Lt. Gen. N.I. Egoroff of the Russian Imperial Army is covered with sweets — only sweets.”
Back in the 1980s, crack addicts stole bronze plaques from these graves. They have now been replaced by heroin addicts, who do the same.
“They broke the doors into a mausoleum and were shooting up and sleeping in there. I found 25 needles on the floor,” said Hurwitz, pointing to the Vereen family crypt that has been boarded up with plywood.
“You’d think Evergreen was a homeless shelter. They’re not zombies, they’re just resting,” Kennedy said. “It’s saturated with drug addicts getting high in the graveyard. People have sex right on top of the vaults. Prostitutes need a quick trick. Cemetery porn. It’s crazy.”
It is hard to tolerate the lack of respect for the deceased for Williams, the current owner.
“What goes on is not appropriate for a graveyard,” she said. “It gives me the creeps. If the right relatives ever show up it’s going to get ugly.”
Williams said, once she found a kettle with a skull and sticks inside on Lincoln grounds.
According to anthropologist and author Mercedes Sandoval, professor emeritus at Miami Dade College, practitioners of Haitian Vodou and an Afro-Cuban religion called Palo Mayombe perform rituals with bones. She further informed that while the orisha offerings may have come from Santeria followers, the priests do not use bones while performing their rituals.
“Santeria has nothing to do with human bones but in Palo Mayombe and Vodou they do work with human remains,” Sandoval said. “Palo Mayombe originated in a different part of Africa, in the Congo, and has its own priesthood and rules. They are looking for spiritual forces in the dead. They believe in making a pact with the dead. They used to buy skulls from places where they sold things for medical students.
“From the outside, it may look like a lack of respect for the family but they are not doing it to show disrespect.
“People who attribute all these practices to Santeria are ill-informed,” she said. “Remember, offerings and magic are found in every culture of the world.”
“I feel a spiritual connection to the people buried in these plots. Every single one has a story,” Kennedy said. “A hundred years from now we’ll all be dead, but this cemetery needs to be here so we’re not forgotten.”