Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.— Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite authors. She was born and raised in Georgia, but I think she would have found plenty of freakish things in the cemeteries of Charleston. I know I did.
In the South, we revel in the unique and bizarre. Eccentricities are embraced, not shunned. You can see that in the Charleston style of what is called funerary art, which is basically anything having to do with burials or funerals.
One of the first headstones that caught my attention during my cemetery hopping adventures was this stunner in St. Philip’s Episcopal Church’s Western Cemetery. A grinning skeleton reclines against a winged hourglass, symbolizing death’s power over time.
Why would anyone want a skeleton on their headstone?
Skull and skeleton imagery is a holdover from the colonists’ English past. Puritan preachers warned of the dangers of sin in a worldly society. The result could be eternal damnation. These macabre images were to serve as a lesson to the living to be mindful of where they might end up if they didn’t mend their ways.
To Charlestonians, this was not unusual. At this time, there was an inherent awareness of the fragility of life. Considering the number of epidemics (mostly yellow fever) that wiped out many lives in the fledgling city, death was an everyday event.
Another example was childbirth. Today, giving birth is a fairly risk-free event women go through with few complications. But in the 1700s and 1800s, it could easily mean death for both mother and child.
Buried in the Circular Congregational Church Burial Grounds, Jean Legare was one of countless women who died in childbirth. It is unknown if her baby survived. The poem at the bottom reads:
In Faith she Died, in Death she Lies
But Faith foresees that Death shall Rise.
When Jesus calls her hope assumes
And Boasts her joys among the Tombs.
For Christians, the skull has been a death symbol since Medieval times. When you add wings to it (as seen on Jean’s grave pictured above), it becomes a vivid symbol of the resurrection of the spirit.
Such intricately carved slate headstones were not purchased by the average Charleston resident. They were sought after by the wealthy who had the funds to show the world their status. Back in 1727, the cost for such a finely crafted piece of work might cost about $27. Adjust that for inflation and you’re looking at $30,000 today.
Some wealthy Charlestonians were so intent on impressing the living after they died that they ordered their headstones from a handful of known carvers from New England. Their handiwork can be seen in many Charleston cemeteries. Few were marked but some bear the name of these craftsmen, such as Boston’s Henry Emmes. Some carvers even traveled to Charleston to set up their own shops.
With the onset of the 1800s, funerary art began to take on a less macabre tone. This is due to, in part, to the Great Awakening taking place in New England. Salvation was the order of the day and not the Puritans’ Predestination. Angels and cherubs began to replace skulls and hourglasses. Some of the cherubs bore the facial features of the deceased.
Some headstones featured likenesses of the person themselves, as can be seen in the grave of Frances Prue. She shares it with the son she lost in infancy, Thomas. He is depicted as a cherub, his head having wings.
The fact that these headstones were being carved in New England but appearing so frequently in Charleston has raised a few questions for historians. Were these headstones a product of New England that a few Southerners sought for themselves? Years ago, I saw one of those winged skull headstones in a Boston cemetery so I knew the wealthy residents of New England favored them.
Evidence indicates that the high level of education and artistic sophistication of Charleston’s elite created a lucrative market for New England carvers. It was a unique group that most Southerners could not afford to belong to, but those that could provided a good living for those carvers willing to meet the demand.
With the onset of the Victorian era, headstones began to be made of different types of stone as opposed to slate. Carvings became less religious and more artistic in nature as religious tolerance took on more prominence. Images of urns, weeping willows, flowers and other motifs began to appear on headstones and monuments.
To finish up, I want to feature a tomb that is quite rare in American cemeteries. Magnolia Cemetery, on the outskirts of Charleston, is home to an Egyptian Revival-style pyramid tomb. It’s quite striking.
Actor Nicholas Cage actually commissioned his own pyramid-style tomb to be built in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery #1 recently. It’s not very visually appealing, in my opinion, compared to the Smith/Whaley tomb at Magnolia. Cage does have a reputation for being rather eccentric, so it’s not entirely surprising.
I think he’d feel right at home in Charleston.