Renewed City focus on Bosque Bello Cemetery

Submitted by

Suanne Z. Thamm, Reporter News Analyst

As the City of Fernandina Beach looks to complete required elements of its Comprehensive Plan, one of the areas that is undergoing current review is the municipal cemetery located at the southern border of Old Town west of North 14th Street.  Formally named Bosque Bello, Spanish for “beautiful woods,”  this cemetery was founded in 1798, but the first evidence of a grave dates to the headstone of  French soldier Peter Bouissou de Nicar, who died in 1813.  It has been suggested that Native Americans used this land as a burial place long before Europeans arrived in the area.

Why is the municipal cemetery important to the city’s Comprehensive Plan?

City Planner Adrienne Dessy Burke explained that the Comprehensive Plan, more often referenced as “the Comp Plan,” serves as the City’s guide for making decisions on land use matters, capital improvement programs, and the rate, timing, and location of future growth.  Goal 6 (Recreation and Open Space) of The Comp Plan requires the city to have a cemetery master plan “providing for the long-term viability and care of Bosque Bello, assigning priority to areas in most need of preservation or care.”(Policy 6.09.01)  The cemetery is again referenced under Goal 11 (Historic Preservation):  “The City shall have a cemetery master plan created providing for the long-term viability and care of Bosque Bello. Such plan shall include provisions for the maintenance and treatment of historic markers and walls and maintenance of landscaping and the tree canopy  in the cemetery, assigning priority to those areas in most need of preservation or care.”  (Policy 11.10.02)

In September, Burke formed a group to tackle the formidable task of creating a cemetery master plan.  The group is comprised of city staff and interested citizens, including representatives of the Amelia Island Museum of History, the Amelia Island Genealogy Society, and the Historic District Council.  Burke chairs this group, which has now met twice.   Committee members are working on a variety of tasks including:  researching the legal framework governing the cemetery; mapping infrastructure and gravesites; documenting history; examining environmental issues, such as trees, erosion and future impact of rising sea levels.

How is Bosque Bello administered and maintained?

Over the years, responsibility for cemetery maintenance and sale of gravesites has resided in various city departments.  Today Bosque Bello is under the administration of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, where two people are responsible for cemetery related matters:  Meredith Jewell, the administrator; and Robert Owens, the caretaker.  A part-time maintenance position was eliminated due to budget cutbacks.  Nan Voit, Parks and Rec director, said that help is sometimes received from other city workers when maintenance problems loom especially large.  The existing irrigation system is inadequate and does not service all portions of the cemetery.

The cemetery is roughly divided into two parts:  Old Bosque Bello, generally included in the Old Town Historic District, located west of Magnolia Street at the back of the cemetery; and New Bosque Bello, dating from the 1940’s, located between 14th and Magnolia Streets.  While some burials still take place in Old Bosque Bello, they are rare.  Records for that portion of the cemetery are not maintained by the city; ownership is generally believed to be in the hands of the families that own various plots.  The city does maintain records for plots in the new portion.  Prices for burial lots are $1,200 for city residents and $1,500 for non-city residents.  But the cemetery is running out of unsold lots, with roughly 1100 lots currently unsold. Within the next 3-5 years, it is anticipated that all remaining lots will be sold.

The city has no current plan to acquire more land for Bosque Bello, open a new municipal cemetery at a new location or to add alternatives to in-ground burials at Bosque Bello, such as a columbarium or a memorial wall.

What are some of the other challenges facing Bosque Bello today?

Time, nature and neglect have taken a serious toll on Old Bosque Bello.  A walk through this portion of the cemetery provides a wealth of information regarding early residents.  Names such as Acosta, Latham, Traeye, and Salvador, representing families that played an important role in the development of Fernandina, may all be found in this section, along with veterans of the Civil War and the Sisters of St. Joseph.  In 1987, the Duncan Lamont Clinch Historical Society of Amelia Island under the leadership of local historian Hal Belcher conducted a survey of this section in an attempt to identify gravesites and locations.  The Amelia Island Genealogical Society updated this survey in 1997.

But walking through Old Bosque Bello is a formidable task due to erosion, tree roots, crumbling markers and walls.  Savannah cemetery preservationist Patricia Davenport recently visited the cemetery with city staff and pronounced that Old Bosque Bello “isn’t terrible—yet.”  She made a series of recommendations based on the top priorities:  safety, stabilization and aesthetics.  Her suggestions are among the many that the Cemetery Master Plan Group will consider.

Another serious challenge is security.  Despite stepped up police patrols, witting and unwitting vandals have done considerable damage to grave markers and statuary over the years.  There is no wall or fence to protect gravesites.  The cemetery has been especially attractive late at night to those bent on mischief.

Where can I find more information regarding city cemetery policies and rules?

Bosque Bello Cemetery is governed by the Municipal Code found in Chapter 30.

As a municipal cemetery, it is exempt from state rules (Chapter 267 FS).  According to Nan Voit, the city’s Parks and Rec director, the city has streamlined many of the rules that once governed Bosque Bello.  For example, it is no longer illegal to whistle, skip or lie down in the cemetery.

How can concerned citizens help?

With only one full-time caretaker, the city is always looking for volunteers willing to help on cemetery cleanup days.  Additionally, the city is hoping to tap into local expertise to help in repairing damaged coquina walls, and other gravesite enclosures.  Volunteers are urged to contact Meredith Jewell [email protected] for more information or to sign up.

The Amelia Island Genealogical Society  is also looking for volunteers to help in their current mapping project.  For more information or to volunteer, you may contact Marie Santry [email protected].

If you have any stories, documents or photos relating to the cemetery (especially Old Bosque Bello), the Amelia Island Museum of History would be interested in talking with you.  Contact Museum Curator Teen Peterson [email protected] to set up an appointment.

The Cemetery Master Plan group will meet again in early March 2013.  Information and input to that process may be directed to city planner Adrienne Burke [email protected].

December 12, 2012 1:41 p.m.