The cemetery got its start because Key West commissioners were concerned the city cemetery was running out of space. They approached Thurmond’s father, who owned a well-known monument company in Coral Gables next to the Woodlawn Park Cemetery, about building one.
He bought the land but died of cancer in 1952, three years before the first burial. Martina and brother Dan inherited the new cemetery and thriving monument business. The siblings later would start a sandblasting enterprise.
At the time, Martina was such a novelty in the male-dominated business that the 1950s and ’60s TV show What’s My Line accepted her as a contestant. But she missed the taping because of a hurricane.
When Dan died suddenly of a heart attack in 1982, right next to the main flagpole of the cemetery, Martina was left to run it all. She often worked seven days a week in a job that required logistics, bookkeeping, artwork design — along with all the comforting of others.
Thurmond is happy with Sabuk’s grand plans to modernize, doing many of the things she had wanted to accomplish herself. The old concrete administration building and living quarters, as well as the eyesore sandblasting and monument building at the entrance, will be demolished. All the business functions will be moved to a high-profile spot along U.S. 1.
That leaves the cemetery footprint strictly for honoring the dead. Architectural plans call for a celebration of life center, mausoleums with columbarium niches for cremated remains and a meandering pedestrian walkway with fountains and scattering gardens.
“We want to make this the nicest cemetery in the Southeast,” said Sabuk, 55.
Other potential buyers came courting Thurmond. The Southern Keys Cemetery is a potential gold mine with baby boomers entering their golden years and limited gravesite space in Monroe County.
The Keys’ largest cemetery, the historic city-owned Key West Cemetery that predates the Civil War, already has 60,000 to 80,000 people buried or in mausoleums on 19 acres. While the cemetery has space to build more mausoleums, all the remaining underground plots have been purchased by family members, said cemetery sexton Russell Brittain Sr.
The only other privately owned graveyard in the Keys is the smaller Memorial Gardens Cemetery on Big Pine Key. It’s unlikely any more will be built on the island chain; state law requires 30 contiguous acres of land and a population base to support it.
“Depression-age parents are now passing away,” Sabuk said. “Now, every day for the next 17 years we’re going to have about 10,000 people retiring every day. There will be 60 million Americans who have to face their final destination.”
Easing the space crunch is the growing popularity of cremation, said Robert Fells, executive director and general counsel of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.
“Some take urns home or scatter ashes on a golf course or the ocean,” Fells said. “The only problem is when anniversaries and birthdays come around, people do like to visit or send flowers. It is nice to have a permanent place for the last earthly remains.”
Sabuk’s plans include 10,000 above-ground columbarium niches for cremated remains.
While Thurmond already has presold about 2,000 gravesites, another 4,200 are available for sale. In 1955, McKnight’s plot cost $300. Today, Sabuk is selling them for $3,995 to $25,000 for those along the oceanfront.