When a St. Petersburg man was digging up his yard on 88th Avenue North over the weekend, he came across an old graveyard headstone then called police.
The stone’s markings say that Word War II veteran William Henry Matthews, 27, served in the United States Naval Reserve. He was born on November 22, 1924 and died on November 8, 1952.
St. Petersburg police conducted research to determine where the headstone should be located. A veteran’s affairs resource, along with a headstone application document found on Ancestory.com, helped to determine that Gulfport’s Lincoln Cemetery is a part of the story.
The cemetery is located about 11 miles from the private residence.
According to a Facebook post published by the police department on Monday, July 30, officers contacted Vanessa Gray, president of the Lincoln Cemetery Society, the non-profit that owns the facility.
The society’s genealogy researcher also checked the 1940 and 1950 Census to start building the veteran’s family tree, said Gray.
The headstone application confirmed that McRae Funeral Home of St. Petersburg handled his funeral arrangements, she said. The document includes the name “Lincoln Cemetery” but it is not evidence that he is buried there.
“It’s going to take some time to confirm with the funeral home 100 percent where he was buried because records from the 1950s are not electronic. This means it takes longer to do research, but I’m 98 percent sure that his headstone belongs in Lincoln,” said Gray. “And, if it doesn’t, we will find the appropriate spot where it belongs and in what cemetery. I’m very confident about that.”
In addition to consulting with law enforcement, the funeral home and conducting her own research, Gray hopes that family members of the veteran will see this news story and contact her to provide additional details. Gray can be reached at 727-280-6635. To find out more about the cemetery, visit lincolncemeterysociety.org.
“We have been trying to locate members of his family but unfortunately there are a lot of Matthews out there and finding the correct one is more difficult than what we expected,” said Gray.
The society’s documentation does show that the veteran’s mother, Ola Mae Matthews, is buried at Lincoln Cemetery, said Gray. The mother was born on February 15, 1890 and died on May 28, 1987.
The society has a hand-written ledger that lists some of the people buried in the cemetery, but many of the pages contain faded information that is hard to read, said Gray. In addition, sections are missing due to the paper being brittle from aging and storage conditions that existed before the group was in charge of the records. The veteran’s name is not in the book.
Lyudmila Sytsevich was interviewed by WTVT Channel 13 news and said that the headstone was found in her backyard while people were doing some landscaping.
“It is not ours. It belongs to somebody. And, we have to return everything that does not belong to us,” said Sytsevich.
Yolanda Fernandez, spokesperson for the St. Petersburg Police Department, told Channel 13 news, “We don’t know if it was stolen or how it came to be where it was. Our concern was primarily to make sure it got back to the cemetery and that his grave is marked again.”
On Monday, police brought the headstone to Lincoln Cemetery and Gray is determined to solve the mystery of where it belongs.
“That form is almost confirmation enough for me but it’s not 100 percent,” said Gray. “I always look for the facts. Right now, we do not have enough information so, hopefully, McRae Funeral Home will give us that piece of evidence that gives us that 100 percent, without a doubt.”
The police department’s Facebook post ended, “Rest in peace, Mr. Matthews.”