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written by
Christina Rae Butler

Hallowed Ground

photographs by
Hailey Wist

Volume: 33

Charleston exudes Southern Gothic ambience, with its historic architecture and narrow cobblestone streets, but nothing brings visitors back in time like a visit to a cemetery, with hand-carved stones seemingly frozen in time below moss-laden live oaks.

The Lowcountry boasts eerie yet beautiful graveyards and cemeteries in the city and country alike, with inscriptions that allow the visitors of today to connect with residents of the past.

The oldest tombstones in the city lie in the graveyards of Charleston’s colonial churches. Headstones there are wildly varied depending on the religious denominations and the personal preferences (and budget!) of the interred. Permanent markers were actually a luxury item in early Charleston. There is no stone native to the Lowcountry coast, so gravestones were imported from the North and even from England. Many burials had wooden markers that have been lost to time, and “potter’s fields” (burial sites for the poor who could not afford a plot) may have had no markers at all.  

By contrast, taphophiles (cemetery enthusiasts) and tombstone tourists will find beautiful blue slate or sandstone tablets in the early historic churchyards, with carefully lettered epitaphs and intricate winged death’s head motifs. Early markers included upright tablets, box tombs, mausoleums, statuary, and tiered monuments with inscriptions. Carving styles changed over time, and eventually the morbid skulls and crossbones fell out of favor and were replaced by portraits of the deceased and more uplifting iconography. Cemetery expert Susan McGahee explains, “In the early eighteenth century, skull-and-crossbones and hourglass motifs emphasized the inevitability of death and the briefness of life. The stones were intended to remind the living of the uncertain fate of the soul. The Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept the country between 1726 and 1756, emphasized a joyful resurrection for those who repented.” 

In the antebellum era, Grecian motifs like urns and maidens in draped gowns became popular, and polished marble replaced the slate and limestone imported from the United Kingdom. By the mid-nineteenth century, long-lasting granite became the most common mortuary stone.  

A Tour of Must-see Burial Cemeteries

The city’s early churchyards provide the final resting place for the who’s who of elite Charlestonians, including Founding Fathers, wealthy plantation owners, bankers and merchants, and gentleman architects. Start at the Circular Congregational Church, which boasts the oldest recorded burial in the city. Notice the eerie aboveground box tombs, but don’t be fooled; the “occupant” is still buried belowground, the standard six feet. Passing through a rear gate, enter the western churchyard of St. Philip’s Episcopal, the oldest congregation in the city. Church Street divided the St. Philip’s property in half, essentially creating two separate burial yards. Legend states that the western yard was set aside for non-church members, which is where one of the most famous people interred at St. Philip’s is located. John C. Calhoun was born in Abbeville, South Carolina, and rose to political prominence as an ardent States Rights Southern politician, who served as both a U.S. senator and vice president. When he died in 1850, he was carried to St. Philip’s in the largest funeral procession in the city’s history. St. Philip’s is also the resting place of Declaration of Independence signer Edward Rutledge, and of Colonel William Rhett, who is best known as the “scourge of the pirates” for his heroic capture of Stede Bonnet and his pirate crew in 1718. As criminals, Bonnet and his men did not receive a final resting place in a prestigious Charleston graveyard. They were instead buried on the shore between high and low tide line, in what is today White Point Garden.

Walk south on Church Street to the only active French Huguenot Church in the United States. Here lies a “his and hers” pair of skull and crossbones markers for John Neufville (d. 1749) and his wife Elizabeth (d.1754). Gabriel Manigault, a wealthy planter and renowned amateur architect who designed the current Charleston City Hall, is buried in a family vault at the Huguenot Church. 

Head west via Tradd Street to First Scots Presbyterian Church, founded in 1731 and boasting the fifth oldest church building in the city (1814). South one block on Meeting Street is St. Michael’s Church, the oldest in the city, dating to 1751 and with an even earlier graveyard. John Rutledge, a signer of the U.S. Constitution and a governor of South Carolina, is buried here, along with fellow signer and Continental Army Colonel Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. The most unusual marker in the yard is Mary Ann Luyten’s 1770 carved cypress headboard “bedstead tomb.”  

Two blocks away on Archdale Street are two vastly different churchyards: St. John’s Lutheran Church and Unitarian Church of Charleston. St. John’s holds orderly stones along a neatly trimmed lawn, typical of most early burial yards, while the Unitarian Church has an overgrown-but-lovely aesthetic, where nature takes over and symbolizes life after death. Legend states that the true-life inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” is buried at the Unitarian Church. Her father forbade her to marry a sailor she fell in love with, and after her early death by yellow fever, he chose not to mark her stone so the young man could never come and give Annabel a final goodbye. Ghost tour guides claim that she still haunts the yard, waiting for her young sailor. 

Charleston’s historic urban graveyards, while evocative and beautiful today, are actually quite overcrowded. Cross referencing church and burial records for Circular Congregational Church, for example, shows that there are about four times as many burials as surviving headstones in their dense historic graveyard. The circa 1769 public burial ground at Magazine, Queen, and Franklin Streets (site of the Old City Jail today, allegedly the city’s most haunted building) quickly became full, and the city sought new potters’ fields.  

Churches, developers, and burial societies purchased tracts on the outskirts of growing cities as they ran out of room for interments at their original grounds. These new cemeteries were large, well-planned, picturesque landscapes where visitors not only paid their respects to their deceased loved ones but also might stroll and enjoy the scenery, or even bring a picnic lunch for a day of respite from the crowded city. Following the success of Mount Auburn in Boston and Green-Wood Cemetery in New York, eight Charleston stockholders purchased Magnolia Umbra Plantation on the marshes of the Cooper River in 1849 to create nonsectarian Magnolia Cemetery.  

Lost Burial Grounds

As cities grew, it was all too common for earlier burial grounds to be forgotten or redeveloped, especially those that did not have a church on-site. Building on top of graves—especially without reinterring the remains—might sound like the makings of a horror movie, but it happened often throughout the centuries in historic Charleston. Historian Nic Butler noted that “up until World War II, it was not uncommon for churches and city officials to say, ‘this burial ground is full, so we’re going to build on top of it.’ The idea that burial grounds will remain forever free of development was limited to the elite. Some churches put up walls around burial grounds, but others with more modest pocketbooks sold or abandoned burial grounds and moved somewhere else.”  

Almost any lot in Charleston is likely to yield something of archeological intrigue. When the Gaillard Center on George Street was remodeled in 2013, workers rediscovered a burial ground that held thirty-six African and native-born African-American persons. The site turned out to be one of the oldest cemeteries for the enslaved in the city, with interments dating to the late eighteenth century. In early May 2019, the remains were repatriated close to where they were found, in a formal ceremony led by the City of Charleston and the Gullah Society, which works to document and preserve African-American burial sites. A commemorative marker will soon be placed to honor these unnamed early residents. 

Preserving for the Future

Stone is not impervious to time. Historic graves require stewardship as they age and are impacted by threats ranging from acid rain to overzealous visitors who climb on the fragile monuments to get photographs or gravestone rubbings. Luckily there are stone carvers, conservation experts, genealogists, and church volunteers working diligently in the Charleston area to document, clean, and repair historic monuments with methods ranging from simple stain removal to resetting stones to complex epoxy repairs and even carving replacement pieces.  Thanks to tourists’ interests in historic cemeteries (especially around Halloween when the haunted graveyard walks sell out well in advance), some churches have found a creative and entertaining way to generate revenue to aid with repairs.

Time and decay take their toll on both the eventual occupants of the graveyards and on the gravestones themselves, but human fascination with death—and with the ambience of a spooky historic cemetery—will ensure that the Lowcountry’s burial grounds are monitored, maintained, and loved for centuries to come.  — C.B.

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