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Stones of history: A final rest – and a starting point

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

One of the best places to discover an area’s history, learn about the culture of those who lived there, and take in some art all at the same time, is one many people might not expect.

It’s among the dead, in historic cemeteries and graveyards where the lives and deaths of the people buried there are written in symbols, poems and epitaphs.

“I think cemeteries are sort of overlooked as far as a source of history, but you can find out so much about a community there,” said Patti Burns, head of adult services at the Georgetown County Library and a cemetery aficionado. “You can learn who lived there, who founded the city, were the people poor or wealthy.”

Cemeteries where the wealthy were buried are often home to fine sculpture and monuments while the poor may not even have markers.

Birth and death dates lend information about everything from infant mortality rates to an idea of how many people were killed in particular wars and epidemics of the time.

Sometimes the stories of the dead are preserved in detail for all to see in stone.

“Some gravestones we have in Georgetown County have no real information on them, but others tell you exactly who they were, what they did, where their mother was born. It was an art form at one time,” Burns said.

Burns has a passion for tracking down history in cemeteries and has spent years surveying and researching graves in the county. Over the last four years, she has added nearly 19,000 graves to findagrave.com, a worldwide database of graves that is often used in genealogical research. Her work includes uploading photos of grave sites and obituaries she has tracked down in the library’s archives.

Lee Brockington, a Pawleys Island area historian, has also made a study of cemeteries and will teach a course on Southern cemeteries at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in February. Registration opens next month.

Georgetown County has more than its fair share of intriguing historic cemeteries, she said, from the Jewish cemetery in Georgetown – the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the state – to the grave sites of the wealthy families who lived on Pawleys Island area plantations and the grounds they assigned for the remains of their slaves.

“One of the things I always found interesting in studying colonial history was that most landowners were buried on their own property, hence the family cemeteries and plantation cemeteries,” Brockington said. “It wasn’t until later you started to see more graves in churchyards. One might assume the earliest to be buried there were the ones who didn’t own land or weren’t confident they were going to stay on the land for the rest of their life and pass it on to descendents.”

On the Waccamaw Neck, the earliest cemeteries are on former plantations which have now been turned into gated residential communities and golf courses. A cemetery at Heritage Plantation sits in the middle of that golf course.

Some of the earliest members of the Alston family who lived in the area are buried at Turkey Hill cemetery at The Reserve while a cemetery at True Blue is the final resting place for early members of the Pawley family.

Permission from the owners of developments is needed to visit burial grounds there. However, Brockington’s class in February will include a field trip to many of the private Waccamaw Neck cemeteries.

Cemeteries for planters and their families were usually “on good high ground,” Brockington said, whereas slaves were buried on land prone to flooding. The land wasn’t considered valuable then, but land along the water sells for a premium these days.

“There are cases throughout the Carolina Lowcountry where cemeteries have been bulldozed in the middle of the night, ignored and dug up or had developments built so close to them that descendents and residents can’t help but wonder if their house was simply built over an unmarked grave,” Brockington.

Many of the cemeteries used to bury slaves continued to be used by their descendents for decades after emancipation. A black cemetery at Hobcaw was used until about 1950, said Brockington, who works as an interpreter there. An old slave cemetery at Brookgreen Gardens is still in use.

Now a wildlife refuge and home to research facilities, Hobcaw has five cemeteries, including two where former slaves and their descendants who lived at Hobcaw are buried. Also buried on the grounds are former white employees of the Baruch family, who purchased Hobcaw in the early 1900s. But none of the Baruch graves are there.

Belle Baruch, who dearly loved Hobcaw and is responsible for its preservation, wanted to be buried there, but she didn’t put it in writing and her father had her buried in the family plot outside New York City.

“That’s a good lesson for people,” Brockington said.

Brookgreen Gardens, which is comprised of four former rice plantations, has several cemeteries, including the Alston family cemetery at The Oaks. It’s the final resting place of Joseph Alston, who was governor of South Carolina during the War of 1812 and married the daughter of Aaron Burr, Theodosia.

Theodosia disappeared at sea, so she is not buried at Brookgreen, but their son and other prominent Alston family members are.

The cemetery at the Oaks, as well as old cemeteries for slaves and their descendants at the former Springfield Plantation and the Laurel Hill tract make up a Silent Cities tour Brookgreen offers every winter, starting in January.

“A couple, like Laurel Hill, are in out of the way places and are often overgrown during the summer and other times of the year,” said Robin Salmon, Brookgreen’s vice president for collections and curator of sculpture. During the winter, the plants die back making the cemeteries more accessible to visitors and allowing groups to tour without fear of running into snakes or being bothered by swarming mosquitoes.

Tours of Hobcaw’s cemeteries are also offered each winter.

At Brookgreen, the cemetery tours are annually a popular attraction.

“People are always fascinated with cemeteries and death and dying,” Salmon said. “The tours include information about burial customs and about some of the people buried there. As human beings we like to know about the past.”

In the slave cemeteries, the deceased would have been laid in a plain wooden casket loaded onto an ox-drawn cart, which would lead a long procession of mourners. Loved ones would have followed behind on foot, carrying torches to light the way. Slaves couldn’t take the day off to bury their dead, so they had to do it at night, according to Brookgreen tour information.

Mourners would have sung slow, dirge-like songs on the way to the burial site, but on the way back, it would have been a celebration with clapping and stomping, along the lines of the New Orleans jazz funerals seen today.

One of the customs of slave families was to put broken items that belonged to the deceased on the grave. The items were broken so they wouldn’t be able to capture the person’s soul and so trespassers wouldn’t want to steal them.

While many of the graves in the black cemeteries are unmarked except for scattered seashells and remains of broken possessions, the graves of planters and their loved ones are marked with large, rectangular marble markers placed horizontally over the length of the graves. The tomb-like markers were a tradition settlers brought over from England, Scotland and France. Elaborate engravings on the stones were intended as a sign of wealth.

Slave owners typically didn’t put markers on the graves of their slaves but there are a few different examples of that behavior on the Brookgreen property. One stone was put up for “Frank,” a slave owned by Francis M. Weston. The masters put their own names on the stones as well. According to his marker, Frank was killed by lightning in 1848 and the engraving shows an image of a well-dressed man lying on a bed and being hit with a bolt of lightning.

Symbols are a common way of telling stories in cemeteries, but most aren’t as obvious as the imagery on Frank’s marker.

“A broken flower symbolizes somebody was cut down in their prime. It’s the same idea with a tree that’s cut off,” Brockington said. The number of limbs on a tree can indicate how many children the deceased had.

Bats are a symbol of the underworld, birds of the soul or a child’s death, gourds of deliverance from grief, peacocks of eternal life and cherubim are guardians.

Even the positioning of a grave can say something about its occupant. In Christian and Jewish cemeteries, graves face east. It’s done exactingly in the Jewish cemetery in Georgetown, with all the graves at an angle. But Christian cemeteries in the same area are lined up with the streets and the cemetery walls in a more generally eastern-facing direction.

“If everybody is facing east and all of a sudden you see a grave that’s going north to south, in many cemeteries it’s an indication that person died as a result of suicide or that they were a criminal. The community set them apart,” Brockington said.

Of course, it could also just mean the cemetery was running out of room and that was the only way to fit in another grave, she added.

For those interested in taking a self-guided tour through a cemetery, there are some rules of etiquette that should be observed, according to Brockington.

“Just because they are cemeteries doesn’t mean that everybody is automatically invited and we do need to respect that,” she said. “We have to be careful about gaining access to cemeteries on private property.”

Even when visiting cemeteries that are generally open to the public, Brockington said she usually calls ahead if she’s planning to visit or at least stops by the office first to let someone know she’s there, especially if she intends to stay for a while or take pictures. She doesn’t want to intrude if there’s a funeral going on.

“It’s important to always remember it is holy ground and in most cases it is indeed private property, whether it’s owned by the church or an individual,” Brockington said. “It has long been considered good etiquette to walk around graves and don’t stand on them or cross them.”

Additionally, people shouldn’t jog in cemeteries or walk dogs there, she said.

While photos have mostly eliminated the need to make rubbings of gravestones, some people do still prefer that method. However, she recommends only professionals attempt rubbings as some gravestones in the area were compromised by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. An untrained person can do real damage to those stones while attempting a rubbing.

Among local cemeteries worth seeing are the Jewish cemetery and Elmwood cemetery in Georgetown, along with the graveyard at Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church, according to Brockington.

“Prince George is beautiful and it’s well kept, but it’s also known for the biggest mosquitoes on the planet,” Burns said.

On Waccamaw Neck, Brockington said some of the most interesting cemeteries open to the public are the ones at Belin United Methodist Church in Murrells Inlet and All Saints Church in Pawleys Island.

Just don’t expect to find the final resting place of Alice Flagg, one of the area’s most famous ghosts, at All Saints. While there is a marker with that name, research has proven the Alice of legend was buried on the grounds of the Hermitage where she lived, and later reinterred at Cedar Hill cemetery, now Belin church cemetery.

However, the location is unmarked and unknown to anyone alive today, Brockington said.

“Research says the Alice at All Saints was yet another family member who lived later and was named for the Alice of the legend,” Brockington said. “Perhaps the most confounding thing of all is that no one at all is buried under that stone according to all of All Saints’ records.”

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