No room at the memorial park
Tuesday, September 26, 2023
An expansion project will add nearly 5,300 new burial spaces to Winter Garden's 100-year-old cemetery.
Updated Sept. 27, 2023.
Benjamin Franklin once observed that “nothing is certain except death and taxes.” So what happens when a city cemetery reaches capacity? It expands.
That’s what the city of Winter Garden will be doing within the next 12 to 18 months as the Winter Garden Cemetery, located Lake Butler Blvd. and State Road 535, is very short on space.
With a current total of 8,579 burial plots, 104 mausoleum spaces and 264 columbarium niches for individual urns, the cemetery may have spaces available but only a “very few, a handful,” according to Assistant City Manager Stephen Pash who added that he was unable to confirm the exact number.
“They may have all been purchased,” Pash said. “You know, unfortunately, when the pandemic was going on, there were a lot more sold than anticipated. And oftentimes, people buy them in advance. So there’s no burial, but the plot is no longer available.”
Cemetery sexton Eddie Crabtree, who manages day-to-day operations, did not return multiple calls about cemetery capacity.
The cemetery is just shy of 100 years old, according to Jim Crescitelli, director of operations for the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, who located a deed to the property.
“We have a deed dated June 11, 1924,” Crescitelli said. “There’s no information as to when it was recorded, but it was written June 11, 1924 so it’s almost 100 years old.”
According to a 1987 article in the Orlando Sentinel, Winter Garden Cemetery was once two separate cemeteries, separated by a road — one for white people and one for Black people. The late Marvin C. Zanders, founder of Marvin C. Zanders Funeral Home in Apopka and namesake for East Winter Garden's Zanders Park, said in the article that the Bouler family maintained the Black cemetery from the early 1900s until former Winter Garden city commissioner Harold Bouler died in the 1960s. At that point the city took it over and combined it with the white cemetery. Even so, Zanders told the Sentinel, there was an unspoken understanding that Black people didn’t get buried in the white section. Even in 1987.
“Nobody had to tell you. You just didn’t bury over there,” Zanders told the Sentinel then.
Today, Black people freely bury their dead in the white section of the cemetery, according to Helen Zanders, CEO of the Marvin C. Zanders Funeral Home and Zanders’ daughter. “But if they had a preference, they want to be near their relatives,” she said in a phone interview.
“Right now, if you don't have a grave space out there, you can't bury. Winter Garden people are now being forced to come to Apopka [to Edgewood Cemetery] and to Orlando Memorial Gardens. If they have not already purchased a grave space out there in the Black section, it's no longer available. Until Winter Garden can do something about purchasing more land, they're dividing families.”
Helen Zanders expects that once there’s more space in Winter Garden cemetery, families will exhume relatives to keep families together. “It’s very important, very sentimental, particularly if it’s husband and wife. You know Mom is here but we had to take Dad to Apopka," she said.
To accommodate future burials, the city commission, which in 2018 had added 400-plus spots to the cemetery, voted Aug. 24 to substantially expand the grounds by just under 8 acres and to add 5,278 additional spaces (2,674 additional burial plots and 2,604 columbarium vaults). Pash said the project is budgeted around $300,000 as “construction costs vary substantially.”
"There will be new plots adjacent to the traditionally Black area," Pash confirmed, while emphasizing that the city does not segregate.
Plots currently go for $800 and columbarium spaces, $600. Non-residents can be laid to rest as well for $900, according to the city website.
The city still needs to hold community meetings with “adjacent residents” in the residential development Clarice Court Plantation before construction plans are sent out to bid, Pash said.
Community meetings are now a requirement for any construction project to move forward in Winter Garden. This is the result of a 2021 helipad project for Riegl USA’s W. Colonial Drive headquarters. That construction project had city staff approval and had made it onto the agenda for a city commission vote three times without meetings with the three communities that would have been directly affected by the helicopter noise and traffic. Residents were furious. City Manager Jon Williams called it an “oversight.” The helipad was tabled indefinitely.
While the cemetery expansion project doesn’t yet have a start date, Pash said plans are moving forward.
“Like I said, we’re trying to finalize these construction plans,” Pash said. “And once those get done, and we get it off to a bid, I think we’ll know a lot more about the timing.”