A walk through the gate of the Longbranch Cemetery reveals a place that invites reflection. Past and present intermingle. Some stones are covered with moss while others reflect sunlight from polished granite surfaces. There are family plots with scores of members, many of whom were early Key Peninsula settlers, while others are solitary, commemorating both long lives and those cut short.
The cemetery was founded April 16, 1905 on the original acre donated by Nicoline Olsen near the present-day corner of KP Highway and 46th Street SW. The first recorded burial was two years later. A second acre to the west was added in the 1940s, providing space for just over 1,000 5-by-10 foot plots.
The Longbranch Cemetery Association has kept it operating for 117 years. The Longbranch Community Church lies across the road just south of the cemetery; however, aside from being neighbors, the two are completely unrelated.
Ten years ago, the association purchased three acres along the northern boundary and is preparing to expand.
“We only have five plots available now in the original cemetery,” said LCA Board President Donna Daily. “The cemetery is a place of remembrance, a place with history. We want to serve the community long into the future so that we can still be a community resource.”
“I like the cemetery because it has a country feel. It isn’t a big business, and it is operated in the same way,” said LCA Secretary Carolyn Dahl. “You can walk around and you see people you have known. It’s like home.”
Before the association can finalize a plot map for the new addition, it must build a road to comply with county code requirements for emergency access. Instead of a turn-around, board members envision installing two road culverts to create a one-way horseshoe-shaped through road with room to drive a hearse up the hill, around and down.
“Fire isn’t probably going to be a problem,” Daily said. “But think about the people attending a funeral or visiting the cemetery. There is a lot of white hair, and if there is an emergency, we’ll need access for an emergency vehicle.”
A five-member board keeps the cemetery records, makes sure the place is maintained, and organizes an annual clean-up and potluck on the Saturday before Memorial Day. Each spring Daily and Dahl send a letter to about 70 people, filling them in on news about the cemetery and inviting them to the clean-up, potluck and annual meeting. About 40 or 50 people come to trim bushes and trees, remove blackberries, and pay their respects. Those who can’t come usually send a donation.
“It is pretty neat, like a reunion,” said Pam Murray. She grew up in Longbranch, remembers picking wild strawberries in the cemetery as a child, and is a regular participant in the clean-up. “We see descendants come to take care of the graves of family. I take care of my folks and Pearl Huff, my second-grade teacher,” she said.
Marge Radonich, who died in 2015, asked Murray to help update the plot map decades ago. Radonich kept the records and told her there was a single 100-year-old copy written in pen on linen, and she was afraid something might happen to it every time she took it out.
Murray drafted a new version on Mylar to use as a blueprint, and the LCA now has paper copies in triplicate. Murray also updated the website and plans to incorporate a searchable database so people can see where gravesites are located. She would love to work with volunteers to include pictures of gravestones and inscriptions, she said.
Daily and Dahl also gave credit for the association’s success to its longtime board secretary Betty Watkinson, who has stepped back from those duties but remains on the board. “She and her husband Norman did everything,” Daily said. Watkinson recruited her to the board in 1995 and she became president the following year. “Betty was a great mentor.”
“When we lost our granddaughter in 2015, we spent a lot of time at the cemetery,” Dahl said. “Betty twisted my arm pretty hard to join the board. She knew everybody and who they were related to. She is amazing. The cemetery was like her baby.”
In addition to keeping the books, the board Treasurer Sam Akin marks the plot when a burial is scheduled and keeps the new parcel from getting overgrown. He also drafted the plot map for the new parcel.
Akin moved to Longbranch in 1976. “I was brought here by divorce, bought a house to fix and sell, and it became my home. I’m still working on it,” he said. “The cemetery is an important thing for the community. I won’t quit until I’m done.”
Correction: The original version of this article cited inaccurate dates. The Longbranch Cemetery Association has been operating for 117 years, not 60 as originally reported. We regret the error.
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