I’ve been reading recently about the prevalence of finding a likeness on a tombstone ever since I saw this grave last month. It’s quite rare to see a death mask on a tombstone, and the rumor is that the tiny face on this unusual marker is in fact a death mask, or a likeness taken after death.
Today there are various ways of including the person’s face on their tombstone- ceramic portraits are still popular, and now I’m starting to see more and more laser etching actually on the headstone, creating what is basically a black and white portrait of the person. While these are extraordinarily detailed and large, they don’t thrill me the same way that ceramics do. I think they’re beautiful in an old-fashioned sort of way, and they can be quite varied. One friend of mine actually saw one that had a couple captured while sleeping on the couch, both wearing horrible Christmas sweaters.
However, a death mask is in a completely different class. I’ve seen pictures of headstones in Alabama created by artist/inventor Isaac Nettles. While they’re still called death masks, Mr. Nettles created these likenesses while the person was alive, and then incorporated the masks into headstones. They’re arresting, to say the least. The Mt. Nebo Cemetery is on my list of places to visit just to see these.
I’d heard about the baby grave in Magnolia Cemetery before we went to Charleston, and it was high on my list of headstones to find when we got there. But as it turns out so many times when we’re on these visits, we found it by chance. We were driving through just to get an idea of the massive cemetery layout when Shawn stopped the car and said, “Look at that!”
We were parked right by it.
Rosalie Raymond White’s (d. 1882) headstone is actually a detailed bassinet, and her likeness is peering out of it with a green patina to her little face. I touched it but was unable to determine what the face was made of, but it had eyes that seemed to follow me uncannily as I walked around the plot. The bassinet was actually a planter and had flowers blooming in it that someone had kept up with, and small toys left by admirers littered the space. The plot itself was fascinating, and also sad. All of the stones were extremely detailed, including one for a child called Rosebud that was a sleeping baby ensconced in a kind of shell or shrine. Her marker does not have any dates and I assumed that she was stillborn (though I prefer the term born sleeping). The sad part was that out of all of Rosalie and Blake White’s six children, four died before they’d even survived a year. This plot backs up to the water that wanders through the cemetery, some parts back up to a pond and much of the property (including the beautiful mausoleum row) faces the marsh and unfortunately has the smell of the marsh, especially around the receiving tomb built in 1850. (Go inside it, it’s amazing and seats 4.)
Magnolia Cemetery was opened in 1850 and is sprawling. We went three times, once to get a peek before they closed, then the same night for the Confederate Ghost Walk, and then the next day to see the mausoleums, which are outstanding and varied. Many of them were open, so you can wander inside and check out the architecture. I went in all of them that were open. Shawn did not, but to his credit he did go in the receiving vault which had cobwebs hanging like stalactites and smelled funny. The property is still an active cemetery serving the Charleston community and also has a gorgeous new mausoleum space on the premises. The Ghost Walk started from there so we got to spend some time walking around it under the full moon.
The walk itself was really amazing, it was an hour and a half long moonlight tour with costumed reenactments of the highlights of Charleston history. It was 18 bucks and I would have done it again the next night if it was taking place again, but it’s only once a year so GO! I was having a great time until we got to the last stop. In the middle of the speech made by the uniformed actor the woman next to me took two steps back from the group and fainted, dropping to her knees as her husband tried to catch her fall.
That stirred things up a bit, as I’m sure you can imagine. Thankfully, she was okay and was sitting quietly on the steps of a family plot when we left, drinking water and surrounded by women in hoopskirts.