Tolomato Cemetery received its fun name from the Native American village upon which it was built. These Native Americans were a small group of the Guale tribe who had converted to Catholicism and lived in Tolomato village with Franciscan monks who had established a mission there.
The cemetery was originally started for the inhabitants who lived in the village, but it grew to include the graves of former slaves who had been lucky enough to escape to freedom in Spanish-run Florida, and who had chosen to convert to Catholicism.
Just outside the walls of the mostly Catholic St. Augustine, the cemetery grew in popularity. Minorcan refugees, Confederate soldiers and Catholic bishops are but a few who slumber beneath the outstretched branches of moss-weeping oaks. Some of the inhabitants are not slumbering, however. Perhaps they suffer from insomnia.
The first two tales I will share about two residents of Tolomato are not necessarily paranormal, but they are simply too distinctive to ignore.
During the Yellow Fever epidemic in the city, the wife of a prominent citizen succumbed to the illness. As was the rather rowdy custom of the time, her lifeless body was hoisted up into a chair and carried high on the shoulders of the pallbearers through the streets of the town, on the way to the cemetery. As they neared Tolomato, a low hanging, thorn covered branch brushed the pallid face of the deceased. Immediately a scarlet trickle snaked down her cheek. Startled funeral-goers realized that corpses don’t bleed! They lowered her down from her chair and saw signs of life in the fluttering of her lashes. The young woman had not been dead after all, merely in the stupor of a coma. She lived another six years before death truly claimed her. It is said that the second time around, her twice bereaved husband made sure that no thorn was able to prick her skin before she was safely ensconced in her casket.
The second non-paranormal tale is about a much loved church leader. One of the Bishops that served the faithful Catholics in St. Augustine passed away during a typically stifling summer. He was held in such high regard that his funeral was delayed until mourners from across the eastern United States and from as far away as Cuba could come to pay their respect. In order to keep the Bishop’s body from deteriorating, he was sealed in a metal lined, airtight casket fitted with a glass window, so that the grieving could still gaze upon his noble visage.
In those days, travel was slow. Two weeks passed before the Bishop’s staff decided that they had given the mourners enough time to assemble. Hundreds packed into the modest chapel in Tolomato Cemetery as the funeral mass was finally read for the Bishop.
During the High Mass, strange sounds started emanating from the clergyman’s coffin. The coffin itself seemed to vibrate. The audience gasped in fear and amazement. Suddenly with a thunderous CRACK!, the coffin split open at its seams and the body of the Bishop, swollen by gases caused by extensive decomposition aided by the hot Florida weather, burst into pieces, spraying the attendants with pulpy, gooey innards and soaking the whole chapel with the stench of rotting flesh. Surely this was a funeral that no one in the church could ever forget. No matter how hard they may have tried.
A more tragic tale to tell is about the young boy seen just inside the Tolomato gates, who appears only to children. Approached by this lonely little boy who wants only to play, how aggravating must it be for the young (living) tourists visiting the cemetery to ask their parents for permission to join their new friend, only to be told sharply and sternly by the adults that there is no one there and to stop telling stories? How sad the little ghost boy must be when he looks out between the iron bars of the cemetery gates to watch yet another potential playmate walk away.
Another popular local shade is that of an unfulfilled bride who passed away nearly three hundred years ago on her wedding day. She has been seen gliding gracefully through the darkened grounds, resplendent in her bridal gown. Typical of a bride, she is especially fond of being photographed.
If in your travels, you happen to visit the oldest European settlement in the U.S., take a stroll outside the city walls underneath the intertwined branches of the live oaks until you find this picturesque little cemetery. Spend some time here, learning the history buried beneath the soil, and getting to know the locals. They may even agree to pose for a photo with you!