Cemetery marks its own history: 100 years owned by West Palm Beach

“This is not a ghost tour. We’re not here to tell spooky stories.”

Ginger Pedersen wanted to set the proper mood right away, standing in the dark beneath a large December moon, while 60 people stood, their flashlights darting through the black and briefly illuminating the gravestones at Woodlawn Cemetery.

The Dec. 5 edition of the monthly tour (October-May), which local historians Pedersen and Janet DeVries have guided for the last year and a half, had drawn a larger crowd than usual.

By coincidence, this tour came a week from the centennial of the December 1914 action to deed the cemetery to the city.

During the 90-minute tour, participants stood silent as cars whooshed by on adjacent South Dixie Highway, their occupants heading off to suburbs that didn’t exist in 1914.

The two tour guides snaked between gray tombstones and looming crypts, from simple markers to a bench with a statue of a woman on one side and room for a visitor on the other. As they moved, they called out names from Palm Beach County’s history.

“It is in this cemetery that our pioneers are buried. We help tell their story of this great paradise they had to tame,” Pedersen said.

Among those standing in the dark was Kathy Willoughby, a decade-long resident of nearby Flamingo Park. While the tour had been under way for just a few minutes, she remarked, “I was just saying, ‘I already got my money’s worth.’”

Woodlawn was not the city’s first graveyard; some pioneers were buried across the street under what is now the Norton Museum of Art. Some bodies later were moved to Woodlawn, but some remain at the museum, under a stage.

Henry Flagler founded Woodlawn on 17 acres of former pineapple fields, naming it for a cemetery in New York. It was dedicated in 1905. In December 1914, a year after his death, the cemetery association deeded the site to the city.

Flagler, meanwhile, never cashed in his ticket to Woodlawn. When town fathers of West Palm Beach, the city he had established, threatened to incorporate Palm Beach behind his back, an enraged Flagler withdrew his wish to be buried in the large circle that still stands empty in the center of the cemetery. Instead, after his death in 1913, he was interred in St. Augustine, in a tomb with his daughter, Jennie; her baby, Margery; and Jennie’s mother, Mary, Flagler’s first wife.

Another sarcophagus in the tomb is empty; it was put there for Mary Lilly, his third wife, but was to be unused if she remarried, which she later did, to Robert Bingham, part of the Kentucky family that owned Louisville newspapers.

Definitely buried in the cemetery are veterans of the Civil War from both the Confederacy, of which Florida was a part, and the Union army.

Buried in the back of the cemetery are 69 white victims of Palm Beach County’s most profound disaster, the great 1928 hurricane. Most were buried in coffins, after loved ones had been given 12 to 24 hours to identify them. Black victims were given no such consideration — or a place at Woodlawn. Instead, 674 were dumped, anonymous, into a mass grave at 25th Street and Tamarind Avenue.

Black people were not in the cemetery until 1966, when the city commission, under pressure, voted to integrate it.

One of Woodlawn’s most fascinating features is the inscription on the front gate: “That which is so universal as death must be a blessing.”

It was on the original iron gates, which came down in 1925 when Dixie Highway was widened and the cemetery lost more than an acre of its area. When the current concrete arch was built in 1925, public donations paid for the inscription to be etched on it. Stories have quoted pioneers as suggesting Henry Flagler himself coined the phrase, although they also cited German philosopher Johann Schiller and 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift. Other scholars have credited Greek scholars and Chinese proverbs.

In a 1937 article, The Palm Beach Post offered a reward of $10 for the answer. But an article 12 years later referred to the inscription as “one of the city’s unsolved mysteries.”

The offer still stands, but so far, no one’s collected.

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