By Matthew Armstrong
Webster, Florida hosts the biggest flea market in the state every Monday, and although I have been many times, there are always a few items that catch me by surprise. The treasures range from the beautiful to the bizarre: like a purse made from an armadillo pelt or a set of incredible measured drawings of locomotive engines made by a recently deceased model train enthusiast. But my most astonishing moment by far came several weeks ago, when I saw a man with a headstone for sale.
Now, call me old old-fashioned, but pretty much the only place I expect to find a headstone is in a cemetery. I was shocked to see it just sitting there in the grass, as if it were some common place thing, or part of your standard flea market fare. As a self-proclaimed taphophile I would like to tell you that I already knew what to do, that I followed some sort of protocol and that I am writing this to tell you the textbook example of how to respond to this kind of situation. In actuality, I had no idea what to do. In the hope that others may be more prepared if they are faced with a similar circumstance, and that my plan of action will be expanded upon in the future, I want to share how things played out.
Once I got over my initial shock I decided to try and gather as much information on the stone as possible. I feigned interest and tried to sound as generic as possible: “Wow, this is pretty neat.” Luckily, that was all the catalyst this vendor needed. He told me it came from Salem, NJ. He acquired it from a buddy of his who had done some work demolishing the chapel at a cemetery that had been relocated. The stone had somehow been hidden under or near the chapel and left behind when the other stones were moved. Apparently, that somehow made the stone fair game and ripe for commodification in this man’s eyes. He was quite proud that he was able to offer some provenance for the gravestone. I asked what brought him to Florida, and he explained that he was in town for the Renningers Antique Extravaganza, a weekend-long antique fair a couple towns over in Mt. Dora. He had sold the bulk of his wares there, and was trying to sell off a couple more items so he wouldn’t have to drive them home to Pennsylvania. He asked if I would buy it, and I told him I had a couple other purchases to make, and that I would see how my money was holding out at that point. I began pressing my luck on the detective work, asking, “maybe I could contact you later and see if you are still here? What is your phone number? What is your name?” His tone changed, and his eyes narrowed a bit. I’m sure he began to wonder what the deal was with the third degree, and his answers became increasingly succinct. He told me his name was Mark. He gave me a number that I believe at this point to be a false one. When I asked him when he thought he would be back to Webster he responded, “Never.”
“Good riddance,” I thought to myself, but that didn’t help that he still had the headstone. A thought flashed through my mind; what if I purchased the stone and shipped it up to the historical society in Salem? The logistics of such a scheme began flooding in and quickly eroded any hope of success: shipping a 120 year old, +25 pound, sugaring slab of marble through the mail from Florida to New Jersey… the stone probably wouldn’t survive the trip, and would likely arrive home in Salem as a pile of dust. Not to mention there’s no way I could afford the shipping cost. No, that just wasn’t going to work.
I walked over and snapped a few photos with my phone. “Lucy H. Dubois… Asleep in Jesus.” My mother’s maiden name is Dubose, a common alternative spelling of Lucy’s surname. As I stood and prepared to leave, I wondered if maybe she and I are somehow related. She died when she was only a couple months old, and her parents had provided that headstone as a testimony to their love for her, and as a dedication to her memory. I understand that time marches forward, and that countless numbers of our forebears have slipped through the cracks of memory, but it didn’t seem right to leave this one teetering on the edge of that crack, just within reach. It wasn’t fitting, not for Lucy or for anyone, not even for the guy wheeling and dealing headstones at a flea market. But, I had nothing else to offer, and I left. Could I have called the police? I didn’t know what laws were at my disposal. Would they have taken me seriously? Would Mark have altered his story in the face of the law? Who knows. I went home and the bad guy got away.
The next day I wrote an e-mail to the historical society in Salem, New Jersey and relayed my experience. They got back to me promptly and explained that a cemetery had been relocated in the area some years back. They also confirmed that Lucy’s death was listed in the parish records, but her headstone had not been accounted for. They thanked me and said that would put the word out so folks could be on the look-out for the stone.
Daughter of Leuis H.S.
Born May 29, 1885
Died Aug 15, 1885
Asleep in Jesus
Hindsight being 20/20, I really wish now that I had jotted down the license plate of the car Mark was driving. If I had, the authorities could have easily tracked him down if they decided he was in violation of the law. Also, I wish I had just told him that I thought what he was doing was wrong. I may not have had the section and paragraph of some law, but maybe someone looking him in the eye and saying, “I don’t care how you’ve justified it to yourself, but that is a sacred artifact – it belongs in a cemetery with the rest of her family, and you should be ashamed of yourself,” would make him think twice about peddling gravestones. Heck, maybe he would have even done some soul searching on the drive back to Pennsylvania and returned it to the Salem historical society. But, like I said, hindsight is 20/20. At the time I was too concerned with keeping up my ruse that I was interested in buying the stone. Given the Jekyll-Hyde transformation once he saw through that ruse, I’d say he was keenly aware that what he was doing was wrong, and illegal.
So the story may not have a happy ending, but the lesson is clear. I urge people not to remain silent if they see anyone selling headstones, or any form of grave good or funerary art. As individuals who value historic cemeteries, we have a responsibility to hold others accountable. If you see someone selling headstones or grave goods call the police, take photos, contact a local historical society, and inform the vendor that what they are doing is wrong, and there are consequences. I know I would appreciate it, and I’m sure Lucy would too.