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For storied Keys graveyard, new life and owner

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.

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.

“Cemetery space is just like any real estate: it’s location, location, location,” Fells said.

Sabuk plans international online marketing of the cemetery as a destination final resting spot. “Look how beautiful it is here,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to come here?”

Thurmond still loves to stroll the grounds, where the only thing that interrupts the serenity is the sound of Navy jets overhead. She continuously stopped at graves to tell Sabuk stories of the people buried there.

At the entrance, there’s fire chief “Dickie” Wardlow, who died in a fiery 1996 crash on the Palmetto Expressway with his wife and good friend.

There’s the engineer of the famous St. Louis Gateway Arch, who arranged for his casket to be put on a bronze bed inside a crypt with yellow silk drapes. “His linens were Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy,” Thurmond said. “He did the same thing for his wife.”

Thurmond kept meticulous records of the gravesite sales and burial in a single ledger that is now 3 1/2 inches thick. Sabuk plans to digitize all the information, with an option for clients to add biographical information.

Thurmond and her brother tried to re-create the lives of people through her meticulous artwork on the headstones and markers. One small marker says “God’s Little Angel,” the name she gave to an unidentified newborn whose badly decomposed remains were discovered buried near a church in 1991.

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office excavated the body five years ago to see if new DNA methods could identify the child, but the remains were too decomposed.

Thurmond always wondered if it was a boy or girl. She knows who the mother was: “Every April, flowers or a rose show up on the grave.”