BIG COPPITT KEY -- It was just before Memorial Day, 1986. Jose M. Font Jr., the 30-year-old manager of Horne’s Motorcycles and Sales in Key West, had perished in a hit-and-run accident. About 250 bikers from around the country rode their Harleys down to the end of the Keys to pay their respects at the Southern Keys Cemetery.
They watched Font’s dog jump onto the casket and put his head down. A final goodbye to a best friend.
“All these great big men who looked like they would kill you for a dollar had tears streaming down,” said Martina Thurmond, 92, longtime owner of the cemetery. “Me, too.”
Today, Jose’s grave is adorned with a pair of empty tequila bottles, surrounded by flower-covered memorials with a pristine view of the Gulf of Mexico. “His friends probably gave him a toast,” Thurmond said.
Nearby is the grave of the first person buried here, John McKnight, laid to rest on Aug. 25, 1955. Since then, 1,182 more (an average of 20 per year) have been buried there. Thurmond knew most of them.
So two years ago, when she began thinking about retiring and selling the family business, Thurmond didn’t seek the highest bidder. She was looking for somebody who would continue to take exceptional care of the forever home of Jose, her own dear friends, strangers she helped over the decades, and an unidentified newborn she named God’s Little Angel.
“I wasn’t going to sell it until I thought somebody would take good care of it,” Thurmond said. “I did not want somebody to come in here and put a bunch of salesman in to sell out the gravesites and then walk out.”
Right about then, across the state in Sarasota, general contractor Stanley Sabuk was smoking a cigar at the Lovers of the Leaf club when friend Jim Owens — related by marriage to Thurmond — asked him if he was interested in buying a cemetery. He knew nothing about the industry, but checked it out. In August, Sabuk wrapped up the purchase, paying $1.5 million for the corporation stock.
It was a grueling two-year process that required Owens to obtain state regulatory approval and pass a three-day grilling by Thurmond. The pair walked the cemetery’s developed 8 ½ acres, part of the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge just five miles from Key West. Thurmond wanted to know in her heart that Sabuk would worry as much about honoring dying wishes as he would fortifying the bottom line.
To wit: Thurmond once got a call from a woman who returned from a European trip to find out she had an incurable disease. Her request: bury her in the new ermine fur coat she would never get the chance to wear. “I did,” Thurmond said. “You’re doing the last thing you can do for a person.”
Running a cemetery might sound morbid, but Thurmond calls it a labor of love. Literally: Also a notary, she has performed two weddings on the premises. She’s proud of the monument dedicated to Monroe County’s veterans. A time capsule was buried next to it on the day of its dedication in 1977. She’s a bit sad she won’t be around to see it opened in 2027.
And in 1998, the Southern Keys Cemetery sponsored a float in the Fantasy Fest parade when the theme was “Fright Night on Bone Island.” With cobwebs, grave markers for four recently deceased rock stars and a mummy that popped out of a casket, it won first place, she said.