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Irma heaves up graves at historic Florida cemetery

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/22/2017 AMY BENNETT WILLIAMS
Hurricane Irma flooded the Buckingham Cemetery in Florida. Several Confederate soldiers are buried in the historic cemetery. Donna Lang's aunt and uncle's vaults also were among those moved by flood waters. © Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com Hurricane Irma flooded the Buckingham Cemetery in Florida. Several Confederate soldiers are buried in the historic cemetery. Donna Lang's aunt and uncle's vaults also were among those moved by flood waters.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Hurricane Irma didn't just swamp and savage the living.

The massive storm took a grim toll on the final resting places of many of the region's pioneer families: historic Buckingham Cemetery.

On a quiet road near the banks of the Orange River in Buckingham, a rural community in east Lee County, the cemetery dates to the 1800s. It's one of 20 known private cemeteries in Lee and Collier counties, remnants of a time when most of the region's towns had their own burying grounds.

It contains 11 well-tended Civil War veterans' graves and a statue dubbed Sgt. Franklin, installed a few years ago by Commander Robert Gates and other members of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans. The sergeant weathered the storm, but the rest of the site didn't fare as well.

The wind splintered many of the ancient live oaks that have long shaded the site, then floodwater surged over its 196 recorded graves, lingering for days.

When it receded, in addition to toppled markers and branch litter, family members discovered the water had displaced some of their loved ones' vaults.

It shoved some above-ground burials  off their foundations, sending one into the chain-link perimeter fence and it toppled other monuments.

More than a week after the storm, Donna Lang was dismayed at what she found.

"It looks like my Aunt Dot and my uncle David (Wooten) ... their caskets have moved," Lang said. "So I don't exactly know how we're going to put that back together.

"There's not a whole lot of family members left who can help with that," she said, her voice breaking.

SCV member Sean McFall, who looks after the cemetery's Confederate graves, says he's ready to step up.

"I live out there and I drive by the cemetery all the time," McFall said. "If family members need help getting those things back in place, they can just hit me up on Facebook."

That kind of volunteer spirit is what keeps most non-municipal cemeteries like Buckingham's going.

Unlike those run by for-profit corporations or municipalities, private cemeteries depend on descendants or other volunteers to do the necessary work, which is neither easy nor cheap. (For example, the Fort Myers Cemetery has several full-time employees and an annual budget that usually exceeds $400,000.)

If descendants know where their relatives are buried — even if the land's no longer in the family — they have the right to visit the graves and ask the landowner to provide "reasonable maintenance" or do it themselves if the owner refuses.

But when there are no descendants to keep up the graves, it's not the state's responsibility, nor can it force anyone to do it. Though several Florida statutes govern burials, they're designed to preserve the sanctity of human remains, not the appearance of the land above them.

But McFall's not worried. Devastated as the cemetery may look now, he predicts it'll be spruced up sooner rather than later.

For one thing, it's got Buckingham builder Billy Flint in its corner. As a matter of honor and community pride, Flint has taken it upon himself to tend the place where many of his ancestors rest. Using his own mower, weed whacker and spare time, he keeps the cemetery clean and trimmed.

And McFall also knows many others who care about the cemetery. "I think from the phone calls and all the messages I got on Facebook, the community (will) really come to help."

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