Unitarian Churchyard in Charleston, South Carolina

It was a Sunday when we went to see this church and cemetery, and the whole world was bright. The sun was bright, the colors were bright, and as we walked down the old streets to the church, people in bright clothes were walking along to go to services. It was a beautiful day. We passed an incredible pink house on the way with peeling paint and a crooked porch that I stopped to photograph. Shawn thought it was a fixer-upper. I thought I’d move right in if I could. I grew up in a pink house and they still appeal to me.

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The Unitarian church is a pale yellow color and construction started in 1772 and was nearly completed in 1776, just in time for the war to start. It is rumored that horses and men were stabled in the church together. (Wouldn’t surprise me.) It was repaired after the war and then had a peaceful existence until 1886 when an earthquake did massive damage to the tower and buttresses. It was repaired again and finally became a national historic landmark in the 1970’s, and rightly so.

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Because of the services we didn’t get to go inside, but we did get to go through the incredibly small and intimate cemetery on the side of the building, which feels more like a secret garden than a burial place. People were outside sitting on the benches in the sunlight, talking and drinking coffee among the tombstones. A woman dusted off a crypt in a particularly overgrown part of the cemetery and sat down on it ( I cringed) and then she lowered her head and appeared to be praying for quite some time. I passed her three times and on the fourth pass I didn’t see her and wondered if I’d imagined her being there. Eventually, everyone went into the church and Shawn and I had the place to ourselves. We were walking down the paths when the bells started ringing, loud and long in the clear morning, and afterward everything seemed to be very quiet. It was just us and the tiny yellow butterflies; everyone else was inside.

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Part of what makes this cemetery so special is that it’s not a cultivated garden space; it’s wild. But unlike some of the other cemeteries I’ve been to that are well and truly overgrown, this one has clear paths through the trees and bushes, and it’s full of color. There are flowering vines everywhere, and they’re taking over. It’s breathtaking in a rambling, riotous way, rather than being interesting in a weedy, uncared for way. There’s nothing sad about this place.

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One grave  for Ephraim Seabrook Mikell stood out to me because it was in the slow process of being engulfed by a tree trunk. The headstone read “Died after a short illness…A favorite with all who knew him”. He died in 1896, his wife Rebecca was nearby along with their child, Julia, who died the same year she was born. The Seabrook family had a long history in South Carolina, but I wasn’t able to find out much about Mr. Mikell.

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There is also a famous grave among the 600 interred here, and that is the grave of poet Caroline Howard Gilman who was the daughter of Samuel Howard, a shipwright who played a part in the Boston Tea Party. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember seeing her grave even though I was probably right next to it.

I can’t say that I had a favorite grave in this cemetery because the whole thing was my favorite…all of it. It’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen, so please go visit if you’re in the area.

And if you see a woman sitting on a crypt praying, go poke her on the arm and let me know if she was real or not.

 

 

 

Charnel Cemetery in Deland, Florida.

The word charnel means “associated with death” and a charnel house means “a repository for bones”, and that was exactly the feeling I had in this cemetery, as if all of these people had been dropped off, were anonymous, and unable to tell their story. This cemetery is also known as the Potter’s Field, where they once buried the poor or unknown in Deland. This cemetery has 450 burials and faces the back of the hospital. It does not have a sign from the road for you to find it, you have to look for the hospital as a landmark. The road to the cemetery appears unused.

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It’s the saddest cemetery I’ve ever been to.

Jane Burr wrote an article on this cemetery for the Roots and Branches Genealogical Society of West Volusia County Summer 2015 newsletter. In it she mentions that the land for the hospital was at one time the Volusia County Home, or welfare home. The cemetery may have been part of it, but it’s not known for sure. Some of the graves are marked with headstones and some simply have numbers, most of which have worn off. Some have dates and others don’t. Some have names, and one heartbreaking one simply said Twin A and Twin B, with only a last name.

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The graves run in order, starting at the back from the 1960’s and culminate in the front of the property in the late 1990’s. The most recent grave I found was from 1998. There were other puzzles here though- in the far right corner I saw 2 small graves of children that were with the 1960’s row, but were dated 1995. They had been visited and had small mementos on the graves. At the front there were several graves that were right up against the chain link fence and were facing the other graves, and they were from the 90’s also. I couldn’t figure out why they were in a different direction. If you know, please leave a comment or go to the contact form.

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When I pulled up I passed the entrance and went instead to the mostly empty hospital parking lot. I parked at the end facing the cemetery and noticed that there were weeds and debris, so I got out, opened the back of the Durango, and pulled off my sandals and pulled on my high rubber boots. I locked the door and started walking down the slope to the cemetery road. Three women stood under a tree in the parking lot, smoking and watching me. They stayed the whole time I was there.

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Stepping into the knee high weeds of the cemetery was like having a heavy blanket thrown over me. It felt sad. It looked unloved. Someone had mowed the grass over the summer and had left the clippings to dry on top of the stones, stuck across the names in a thick mat. I brushed off several of them until I got a splinter and stopped, and even then I just used my other hand instead if I really wanted to see a name. A huge tree and large branch were down in one corner of the cemetery and had broken the fence, and as a result about 20 of the graves were obscured. The hurricane had just happened and no one had been out here yet, which was totally understandable since Volusia county had been smacked by Matthew. There was no number on the gate to call, but I was almost certain that someone would be here to maintain the place. The city owns it.

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I know that during construction of the hospital a skull was found and construction was stopped while they investigated. And then, as is usually the case, it resumed. Investigators found another 13 graves outside of the site that were left alone, and said that the ones on site were dated 1900-1950. There are few records for the people who lived at the county home, but the news article from 2015 indicates that the conditions were terrible.

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A depressing story, all the way around. When I walked back up the hill to the Durango the women stubbed out their cigarettes and left. I put on some loud music to try to clear the heavy feeling and drove to Starbucks, the home of all things cheerful and tasty. It worked for awhile until I got home and tried to pull the splinter out of my finger, and I thought that I’ll probably never forget what that place felt like.

I wish the city would rename the cemetery.

 

Cemeteries and Hurricanes

We survived Hurricane Matthew- it wobbled off to the side of us and we only got some wind and a lot of rain, and then a few days off from work. An hour after the curfew was lifted Shawn and I drove a couple of miles down the road to one of my favorite cemeteries to check on it. Lake Hill has an older section with some beautiful headstones and I was concerned about their proximity to the trees, one big tree in particular. When we got there a caretaker was already on the property in his golf cart, which was full of branches he’d been picking up. He was riding out another squall while parked beneath the very tree that I’d been concerned about. We pulled up and asked him how the cemetery fared, and he said that it hadn’t been too bad, and that they had pruned the tree before hurricane season started.

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Greenwood, Orlando.

Next door to Lake Hill is the Jewish cemetery, Ohev Shalom, which is a nice size and has about 1200 interments. This cemetery is designed more like a park and is very beautiful, and has a small chapel on the property toward the back where outdoor (and indoor too, I think) services can be held. Lake Hill looked like it had survived a windy day, but Ohev Shalom looked like it had survived a hurricane. We walked through and pulled branches away from graves if we were able to do it without damage. The blooms in the trees had been blown around and part of the main drive looked like it had yellow carpeting. Overall it was very messy, but no trees were down and nothing was broken.

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Ohev Shalom, Orlo Vista.

Restless after a couple of days at home we decided to drive toward the beach on Sunday- basically we forgot that the coast had taken the beating that was also meant for us in Orlando. We saw downed power lines, poles for the power lines literally snapped like a pencil, huge trees down, power company trucks everywhere. People were still doing cleanup at their homes; we live in a condo and didn’t have to do anything. I felt so bad for them. Some of the homes we saw had screened enclosures for their pools and patios and these had been ripped to shreds. Volusia county had sustained a lot of damage, and some of the roads were still covered with debris.

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Greenwood, Orlando.

We went to the Ormond Tomb, which we had discovered on a blog somewhere and wanted to see. It’s the resting place of Scottsman and plantation owner James Ormond, who died in 1829. He’s in the middle of a park- with a charming view of the swing sets and slides. It looks like a place to have a nice picnic until you realize there’s a guy buried there.  The top of his tomb has a single inscription- “An Honest Man”. The stone slab is not original, the grave was vandalized and the stone was replaced with the one there now. The tomb itself looks like it was made of coquina, though one source says it’s concrete, but it’s so old it’s hard to say. To get to it, we had to climb over a huge pine tree that had fallen over, but we did this without a problem. There are no other known graves in the park and James is all by his lonesome there, and there is no information on how he actually died.

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James Ormond, an honest man….

After that we went to find Groover Creek Cemetery (Ormond), which is in the back of a subdivision and lies on a small plot between two houses. I had already given up on finding it when Shawn pointed and said that he saw a fence. I was mad, and in a lot of pain that day from a back injury but not in the mood to sit in the house anymore, so I was saying that we should just get out of there when I looked over and shazam! There was the sign!

1894 is the earliest marked burial, but my favorite ones were handmade stones from 1901 that had script writing on them. Many of the headstones were broken, but had been propped right where they fell, which was a good thing. I hope they’re able to get them repaired at some point. It is mentioned that it was originally for Civil War soldiers, and that there should be around 30 burials there. There are not that many headstones though. This cemetery has been taken up by the Eagle Scouts and has been maintained and is nicely fenced off, however, there was a tree down and numerous large branches on the day that we visited. It did not appear that any of the stones were damaged in the hurricane though and I feel sure that this cemetery will be cleaned up soon. That neighborhood had a lot of wind damage and had signs up for a boil water alert.

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Groover Creek in Ormond.

Over the weekend we also did a drive through of Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando to see how they had fared. It’s one of my favorite local cemeteries and it had numerous huge trees down or broken. Hard to say how much damage was done, but I know that clean-up there will be a major- and probably very expensive effort.

For more information on hurricanes and how they affect cemeteries you can visit Chicora Foundation-and also see some pretty distressing pictures. They say one thing in their disaster plan for cemeteries that I absolutely love and that is work with a professional conservator. Basically, do not glue stuff back together yourself. For historic cemeteries, this can make all the difference in truly preserving the historical value of the place for future generations, genealogists… and people like me.

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Charnel Cemetery, Deland. (Featured in a future post)

This weekend we’re off to Charleston to celebrate Shawn’s birthday, and while there we plan to tackle a list of 7 cemeteries. At least that’s the plan, and we’re very excited about it. I might even get to wear a sweater!

The Little Huntley Church and Cemetery

I saw this church while we were on our way to Boone, and I looked at Shawn and said, “I’m sorry, but you have to stop.” The sun was going down and we didn’t have much time, but I really wanted to see it.

So he stopped. We walked around for almost 30 minutes, took pictures, and looked in the windows. Country churches have always had my heart. I think it’s the idea of people gathering in a place where it was most likely their only chance to interact with their community once a week, because the rest of their lives were devoted to hard work on their farms, or taken up with other businesses. But I also think that you can feel devotion in these places. Devotion to God. To gathering together. To building a place by hand for this to happen.

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In my wanderings I’ve seen many small country churches, but this one stood out because it was quite primitive, with no steeple and a simple graveyard in the back of the sandy lot. I was so excited when I got out of the car I didn’t know what to look at first- the church or the graves.

I’m sure you know which one I headed for first.

Four small graves toward the front were marked with stones and had small pebbles covering them. They were child sized, and all quite close together. Toward the back we began to see taller gravestones that had beautiful elaborate text, all with the same scroll pattern at the top. Many of the dates could not be read, sadly, but it was still wonderful to see them, especially since they were most likely created by the same hand.

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I walked back up the lot to the church and stood at the front door. The white paint had turned a creamy peach color with the setting sun hitting it and it was just beautiful. I could hear the wood popping and creaking as I stood there on the new ramp they had built to cover the old stone steps leading into the church. But then I noticed a large crack between the two doors, which were closed with a simple padlock. I leaned forward, put my eye to the crack, and looked inside. The pews looked original, and they were dark with age. The church also didn’t appear to have electricity since there were gas lanterns hanging on the walls to provide light. It wasn’t a huge space, but the simplicity of the design and the white walls made the place seem calm and peaceful. Everything stood out on its own; you could see the separate elements.

But the smell! The smell of sunshine on old wood! It was incredible- strong and aromatic. It reminded me of being a kid and climbing up the hay bales to the top of the tobacco barn that my grandfather had on his property. I would lay on top of the bales and breathe in the scent of the wood and the hay, and I would listen to the creaks and moans of the old building, and splatters of rain on the tin roof. The smell of this tiny church took me right back there. The church faced a busy road and I know anyone driving by would see a woman pressed against the front doors, her face wedged as far into the crack between the doors as possible, but I didn’t care. I stood there until Shawn came up and asked to peek.

While he looked I walked over to look into the wavy glass windows to see inside a little better. I was on my tiptoes, and I noticed that in the pulpit there was an ornate upright piano and a painting of a bearded man hanging on the wall. My guess was that he was Joseph Huntley, the builder, because it sure wasn’t the Lord.

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The church was built in 1902 and Joseph Huntley was buried out back, I had been standing next to his grave when I took some of the photos. If I have the right Huntley, he didn’t get to enjoy his church very long. He died in 1903, a year after the church was completed.

I did read that the church is no longer in use on one website, and that it has services once a year in June on another website (Find A Grave).

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Earlier this year Caroline and I were driving back from Richmond on a cloudy afternoon and I was looking out the car window, watching the scenery whiz past. There were some woods, and then suddenly a vast cornfield with a very old, weathered church at the back of it. The crops came right up against the church, which had a small steeple. Most of the windows seemed to be gone. The white paint had peeled off with years of storms, snow, and sun, but to me it was absolutely perfect. We thought about turning around to try to stop and get photos, but it would have been difficult since it was literally right off the highway.

Most people have what I call a Million Dollar Dream. Its the one that starts with- If money were no object… and it goes from there. I never wanted a huge house or a Maserati, I’m happy with my education, and I think I have enough jewelry. My splurge would be on an old building- historic, really. Research. Restoration. Maybe a chunk of land. Advertising. Then I’d turn it into a memorial center for funerals and give the proceeds to…somebody.

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Earlier this year one of my friends was hospitalized, and we had no idea what was wrong for a few days. It was terrifying. One night after visiting the hospital I knew I couldn’t make it to my car before I started crying. I knew where the hospital chapel was though, and I went for it. Even though it had lamps, there were still fluorescent lights buzzing away overhead and the chapel was full of industrial chairs turned in all different directions. I sat for awhile, thinking about how I might have felt better braving the stares of others and heading to my car anyway. Modern spaces are a fact of life, but not necessarily a comfort, and I understand that facilities do their best with their funding and their corporate regulations. But still…

I think that if you go though something traumatic, it just might help ease the pain somewhat if you sit in a place that hundreds have sat in before you, and you can feel the weight of all those years, and prayers, and ancestors surrounding you. I’ve never once felt like that in a modern church, no matter how much I love the pastor or how many people attend, but I know that some other people do.

But…not me. If being in an old space comforts me in some way, it might comfort others as well when they need it most.