Walking Among the Dead – Charleston’s Urban Graveyard and Rural Cemeteries
And then, graves: flat stones, slate, brick barrel shaped vault, raised platforms. Shapes, dates, stone pavers - the old, the young, the ones who barely spend a few days amongst us before leaving. The ornate, the discrete, the still standing, the toppled over. A quietly riotous mix telling the stories of so many families, high and low. From Circular Congregational, through a gate, and into neighboring St. Philips’ cemetery, with burial stones from the early 18th century. Just as in The Secret Garden, the world changed: here was an orderly setting, trim, structured, with vegetation discrete and under control. Just as each home, each denomination, each neighborhood has its own vibe and personality, so it is with Charleston’s areas of final repose.
Two congregations, with communicating cemeteries: little did I know that I was walking along a “Boulevard of Cemeteries,” created by the vagaries of urban growth and church locations. Far from being macabre, this string of quiet havens connects and reinforces the sense of history that permeates this city, while firmly anchored in the present, as demonstrated by recent burial stones. Indeed, we did not walk through the second scheduled portion of St. Philips cemetery in order to respect an ongoing funeral taking place as we stopped across the street.
Then it was on to a completely different creature: the Magnolia Cemetery, a mid-19th century example of planned rural cemetery. We meandered through family plots, impressive mausoleums, Grecian temples, pyramids, columns, and tumulus. There were the confederate soldiers in the Soldiers’ Ground, and the doomed crews of the Huntley submarine. And the heart wrenching stone cradle of the White plot, one of five small gravestones, with French quotes that translated in simple terms the anguish of a mother who lost five of eight children in childhood.
All of this within a beautiful setting, where existing grand oaks, magnolias, pines and cedars were integrated into the architect’s design, along with island, lakes and bridges. In this bucolic setting, the handsome, but suffering Receiving Tomb was a sobering reminder of the purpose of this place… and an opportunity to comment on the strange assembly of the slate roof.
Our guides, Frances Ford, Katherine Pemberton and Ashley Robbins generously shared information, anecdotes, history and so much more, enthusiastically – and skillfully - herding our meandering group. And they kept up their light banter all the way back, sharing their time, their city, and their love for these unique resources.
I could not have hoped for a better end to my conference. So much so, that here I am, with my first blog ever. I know my quickly jotted down words are too few to do it justice – hopefully the few snapshots attached will shed more light. And next time you are in Charleston, seek out the “Boulevard of Cemeteries.”