Before we get started, you may notice a slight change in the title of this week’s post. Two weeks ago, I referred to my subject as the French Huguenot Church Cemetery and that was technically incorrect.
Cemetery vs. Churchyard vs. Graveyard
This issue was in the back of my mind when I was writing that initial post but I dropped into default mode and stuck with “cemetery.” Truth be told, in this case, the term “churchyard” is more appropriate. I looked up Frank Karpiel’s reference in his book and he refers to it as a “churchyard” so I am going to bow to his superior knowledge. The definition of churchyard is a patch of land adjoining or surrounding a church, some of which can be used for burials. Some call that patch a “graveyard”.
Today, the words are often used interchangeably and I’m sure if someone went through my blog, they’d find mistakes in how I refer to some of them. The word “cemetery” didn’t come into play until the last few centuries and usually refers to a large burial ground not associated with a church. It comes from the Greek κοιμητήριον, meaning “sleeping place”.
“Tutor of the Orphans”
One particular gravestone that Frank pointed out to me was that of Philip Anthony Besselleu (sometimes spelled Bessellieu) (1747-1795), who was a teacher to about 600 students at the free school operated by St. Philip’s Episcopal Church just down the street. He also worked at the Charleston Orphan House. In 1791, President George Washington came to Charleston and while there, he visited the Orphan House. He spent some time with the children and had breakfast with the staff. Besselleu and his wife, Susannah, also had several children of their own.
The detailed soul effigy at the top of his stone was carved by Thomas Walker, a Scotsman with an abundance of talent. The face looks quite sweet. His work, and that of his four sons (David, James, Robert, and William), can be seen on markers throughout South Carolina until around the Civil War.
Thomas Walker’s son-in-law was John White. John’s son, John Jr., and his grandson William did their fair share of beautiful carving work, some of their creations turning up throughout the Southeast. I was picking through a cemetery in Greenville, Ala. in January this year and was thrilled to come across one of John’s monuments.
What is a Soul Effigy?
The soul effigy itself, or winged cherub, was the motif that began replacing the skull and crossbones (which I featured in Part I) so often seen in the 1600s into the 1700s. These ‘winged effigies’ might look like angels, but they often were artist depictions of either cherubs or, possibly, the human soul. Some believe they might have even resembled the deceased themselves at times.
You can see another example across the churchyard from an earlier time than Philip Besselleau’s. Barbary Bocquett’s stone is unique even by Charleston standards since the face of the effigy is decidedly more chubby than usual and the wings drape straight down. The chin is also quite large in contrast to the tiny dot eyes. It is thought that the carver could be John Zuricher of New York, whose similar looking work can be found in the graveyards of Long Island.
I learned that Barbary’s home, which was a few blocks away from the church on Broad Street, was used as a French school to teach Huguenot children in the 1750s. She died on May 19, 1755 at the age of 35. Barbary’s footstone with her initials “B.B.” has also somehow survived. That’s a miracle in itself.
“His Unfeigned Grief”
Not much is known about Thomas Tunno beyond the fact he was a wealthy Charleston merchant who was active in the shipping trade. He married Harriet Ward in late April or early May 1800 (records give conflicting dates). I believe she had a heft dowry of her own. She was about 25 at the time. Barbary died on Feb. 21, 1802 at age 27. Her inscription reads:
The disconsolate Husband caused this Monument to be erected as an evidence of his unfeigned Grief. And a just tribute of respect to her virtues.
It’s difficult to make out in the picture, but at the top of the marker is a female figure leaning against a pedestal supporting an urn. This was a very common motif that came into use around early 1800s.
If you look in the bottom left corner, you can see the name “G. Rennie, Charleston”. George Rennie was another Scotsman who found his way to Charleston and was a popular carver until his death in 1810. He is buried not far away in the First Scots Presbyterian Church’s churchyard.
From the Old to the New
One thing you’ll notice in the churchyard is that scattered among the older markers are new ones from the last few decades. This isn’t always the case in burial grounds I’ve visited. The French Huguenot Church membership is still quite active and it look like there’s still some space among the crowded stones to be buried.
When you first catch sight of this slate stone, you might think it was old. But it was done in 2008 for Opal Jenrette Robinson. She died at the age of 93. Made of slate, it looks as if it might have been carved by George Rennie or Thomas Walker.
Instead of a soul effigy or a winged skull, Opal’s marker features a cherub leaning on its elbow. It’s a more modern take but still respectful of the old style. It even keeps some of the original language of those old markers, starting with “Here Lies Buried the Body of…” Especially touching are the final words, “She gave us Kay.”
There are, hard as it is to believe, a handful of carvers out there trying to keep this old art form going today. Some of them live in Charleston and I’m guessing Opal’s family commissioned this stone in her memory.
Not far away is a similar slate marker for Opal’s daughter, Kay, who died in 2006 at the age of 67. The cherub at the top is slightly different. At the bottom are the words, “An angel flying too close to the ground.”
On the other side of the churchyard is the stone of Millicent Whitfield Bradsher, who tragically died in a car accident on Feb. 16, 1998. The marker is rounded at the top and has a footstone, making it look older in style. But the fresh blue mosaic tile in front of it is definitely not. I think it fits in well at the churchyard and is complimentary of the styles around it.
The beauty of these modern markers is that they are evidence of the continuing life of the church itself, which has not died. People still attend services, pray and sing hymns as they did hundreds of years ago with the church was first started. Unlike many churches, the French Huguenot Church of Charleston has not faded away. It is still going strong today.
Having been born of a religious movement that some sought to stamp out, that’s quite impressive.
I’ll be back with more stories from Charleston, S.C’s churchyards and cemeteries.