by Tim Gilmore, 8/7/2016
“The people we thought we buried, Lillie Yearwood and Edward Westlake, are over at the Medical Examiner’s Office.”
So said Roy Loyche, deputy director of Jacksonville’s health department in early June 1988. Westlake had died back on January 2nd. He was 55 years old. Yearwood had died on January 5th. She was 39.
The misidentification occurred when Lewis Howell pointed to the unembalmed corpses in various coffins and named them to health department workers.
The thought of digging up the bodies out at Hillside Cemetery, Jacksonville’s potter’s field, filled Loyche’s gut with lead.
The next day, authorities found 36 more corpses in Howell Morning Glory Chapel in the 600 block of Florida Avenue on Jacksonville’s Eastside.
The Associated Press quoted an anonymous police officer as saying bodies were “stacked like cordwood” in a closet, in various states of decay, some little more than skeletons. Four decomposing bodies were removed from a hearse.
Lewis Howell had a contract with the City of Jacksonville to prepare the city’s indigent for burial or cremation. The city paid Howell $450 for adult burials and $100 for child burials.
Howell said the money the city paid him didn’t cover his costs and that people frequently left him bodies without instruction.
Here stand no grand gates, no obelisks, and no sorrowful marble angels. Hillside Cemetery hardly resembles a graveyard at all. In fact, it’s only a field. A potter’s field.
Potter’s fields are cemeteries for the indigent, those with no money and no family willing to claim them. In the New Testament, an unnamed potter sold a field to priests for the purpose of burying paupers. The priests paid him the same 30 pieces of silver for which Judas Iscariot sold Jesus.
Judas had given the payment he’d received to the priests, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood,” then left them and hung himself. The priests called the potter’s field Haceldama, or “field of blood.”
If that transaction redeemed the blood money, potter’s fields show little sign of redemption for those buried in them and the lives they left behind.
Hillside Cemetery lies behind locked iron gates between an overgrown turn on Owens Avenue and the street’s dead end. Owens turns off Moncrief Road, after miles of large derelict cemeteries, some with graves yawning open.
One block prior to Hillside, a sign reads, sic: “ired? Hurt? Confused JESUS wants to heal you…give you rest and comfor You: He says come…Matt 11:2”
The gate stays locked. None of the 8,000 graves here regularly receives a visitor. Hillside opened as Jacksonville’s potter’s field in 1920 and many of its graves are unmarked.
Small granite rectangles scattered among the longleaf pines bear names and grave numbers, but no other information. Some of the markers are almost completely submerged and others lie upended and moved aside.
Not far away, rough stone squares lie face up, bearing no names, just hand-chiseled numbers: 5310, 5325.
Three hand-formed crosses stand beside numbered markers, but only one offers information. By “Deborah Fortney 6090,” a square black cross bears stenciled letters and numbers: “Deborah Lynn Fortney March 29 1961 Oct 25 1994.”
In June of 1988, authorities discerned that some of the bodies had been inside Howell Morning Glory Chapel funeral home since 1979, 1980, and 1981, and one body had decayed inside since November 26, 1978.
In the middle of October, 1988, city workers exhumed four coffins in Hillside Cemetery. In early June, Howell had produced four death certificates for the coffins.
As the number of bodies found inside Morning Glory rose, investigators weren’t able to identify them all.
Howell admitted that at times, in order to catch up on his backlog of the dead, he “might have” buried multiple bodies in single caskets.
When investigators exhumed the four early June burials, they found one coffin with a single corpse, two coffins with two bodies in each, and one coffin with three bodies. They also found “assorted bones probably belonging to several different people.”
Including the 26 boxes of cremains recovered from Morning Glory, the Jacksonville Medical Examiner’s Office counted 70 sets of old remains.
The Associated Press quoted Chief Medical Examiner Peter Lipkovic: “There will be about 10 that no matter what we do we will not be able to identify them. One doesn’t have a head or legs, so even if we had a dental chart, what could we do?”
Rose was going to turn her life around. She’d almost done it a couple of times.
She lived in an un-air-conditioned trailer on Philips Highway, the street she walked each night selling blowjobs for a few dollars.
Rose had grown up in Philadelphia, lived for a while somewhere in Georgia, where her adult daughter resided still, then come to Jacksonville in 1996. Working at a car wash and a strip club, Rose started General Equivalency Diploma classes at Florida Community College at Jacksonville, but never earned her GED.
On Wednesday, March 16, 2005, Rose told her pimp she was leaving town. She might live with her daughter in Georgia. She had to get her life right.
Later that day, in another Philips Highway trailer park, her Fallopian tube ruptured and she died from internal bleeding. She hadn’t told anyone she was pregnant. The medical examiner found cocaine and hydrocodone in her system. She was 39 years old.
Almost two months later, on May 12th, Rose’s body and two others were driven to Hillside Cemetery in back of a Cadillac. It cost $2,550 to bury the three of them in coffins made of particle board.
Down a gulch outside the graveyard, mounds of garbage, scattered old clothes, and a toilet seat adorn the ground beneath blighted trees.
Over the field itself, however, longleaf pines flourish stalwart and tall against light-lined storm clouds. Hillside harbors no cedars, hollies, magnolias, or azaleas—trees and shrubs traditionally planted in graveyards.
Though the potter’s field lacks marble headstones and family plots, I lied when I said it offered little sign of redemption for the bodies in this ground.
For here the dead are lost in the earth that made them.
Unlike their wealthier fellow Americans, their bodies won’t be confined from the elements in titanium or stainless steel caskets. They’ll join the hundred billion dead elsewhere in the planet. They’ll feed the pines and nourish the hibiscus and the hummingbirds. They’ll be reborn and reborn and reborn. They’ll travel the world. Forever.