A Local’s Guide to Explore Charleston’s Cemeteries
Charleston’s cemeteries are worth seeing year-round, but autumn is one of the best times to visit. Mild temperatures have finally replaced the oppressive summer humidity, and the fall foliage provides the perfect backdrop to the Holy City’s beautiful cemeteries.
The stunning architecture, gorgeous gardens, and rich history of Charleston’s cemeteries attract locals and visitors alike. While there are countless cemeteries in the Holy City that are begging to be explored, we’ve rounded up a few that simply can’t be missed.
Here is your local’s guide to Charleston’s most unforgettable cemeteries:
Sprawling with live oaks draped in Spanish moss, Magnolia Cemetery is a place of ancient, Southern beauty. Located north of downtown Charleston, the cemetery is a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Founded in 1849 and opened in 1850, Magnolia Cemetery is the oldest public cemetery in Charleston and is home to many prominent Southern families and politicians, including Thomas Bennett, Langdon Cheves, William Aiken, Jr., and Robert Barnwell Rhett.
The burial grounds are also the final resting place of many Confederate soldiers and five generals, as well as the entire crew of the H.L. Hunley, the famous Civil War submarine that sunk after its attack upon the Union warship known as the U.S.S. Housatonic. If you are one of the many visitors who is fascinated by the Hunley crew, then consider touring the Hunley on the old Charleston Navy Base in North Charleston.
Today, Magnolia Cemetery is one of the best examples of Victorian architecture and features an array of historic monuments on her grounds.
Insider Tip: If you’re visiting Charleston in mid-October, the annual Confederate Ghost Walk at Magnolia Cemetery is a must-see event. This 1.5-hour tour is presented by over 200 actors who will reenact historic scenarios in candlelight. You can get your tickets here.
Coming Street Cemetery
Founded in 1762 by Sephardi Jews, Coming Street Cemetery is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the South and the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the United States. Located downtown in the Cannonborough and Elliottborough neighborhood, the cemetery is owned by the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) Congregation and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Coming Street Cemetery is the final resting place of many famous Jewish Charlestonians, including Dr. Columbus DaVega, who designed and built a floating infirmary ship during the Civil War, and Moses D. Cohen, Beth Elohim’s first religious leader. You’ll also find the tombstones of those who fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Seminole Wars, and the Civil War.
Insider Tip: Don’t think that you can stop by the cemetery at any time. The Coming Street cemetery can be toured by appointment only, so be sure to call them before you drop by.
From the outside, anyone can admire the beautiful wrought-iron fence that surrounds the cemetery. However, nothing beats being able to look closely at the lovely tombstones that reflect the rich history of Charleston’s Jewish community.
St. Philip’s West Cemetery
One of the most photographed churches in Charleston, St. Philip’s Church is a magnificent sight to see with its white stucco brick and Roman porticoes, but their historic cemetery located just across the street is not to be missed.
Located on Church Street in the French Quarter, the St. Philip’s West Cemetery is surrounded by some of the oldest and most detailed wrought-iron railings in the city. Step inside, and you will see many beautiful and famous tombstones, including those of John C. Calhoun, Charles Pinckney, and Rawlins Lowndes.
Volunteers of St. Philip’s Church will gladly tell you all about the fascinating history of the church and of the notable figures buried at the West Cemetery. One thing they won’t tell you about? The haunting tale of Sue Howard.
Gaston Hardy and his pregnant wife, Sue Howard, were parishioners at St. Philip’s Church in 1888. Sue Howard gave birth to a stillborn and tragically died from labor complications days later.
But it’s the eerie photograph that was snapped on the 99th anniversary of Sue Howard’s death that has made the graveyard one of the most haunted places in Charleston. Take a ghost tour and tour guides will show you the photo, which is believed to show a ghostly figure crying over the grave of her stillborn.
Insider Tip: Despite the spooky tale of Sue Howard, the cemetery is otherwise peaceful and quiet. If you want to explore both the church and the cemetery, be sure to go on a weekend (the church is closed during the weekdays).
Circular Congregation Church Cemetery
Located on Meeting Street, the Circular Church graveyard is the oldest burial ground in Charleston and contains over five hundred gravestones, some of which date back to as early as 1695. For those who are deeply interested in gravestone art, this cemetery is a must-see on your visit to Charleston.
The oldest gravestones are made from slate stones which were carved and shipped from New England. Many upper-class families in Charleston enjoyed having their portraits painted, and gravestone portraits would become a trend in the Holy City during the 18th century.
In addition to graveyard portraits, the Circular Church Cemetery is full of colonial-era tombstones that feature carvings of unique symbols based on biblical passages. Although some parts of the cemetery were destroyed by a British cannonball in 1780, the church has managed to restore much of the area and preserve one of Charleston’s most unique graveyards.
Insider Tip: If you wish to read the epithets and admire the artwork at the Circular Church Cemetery, plan to spend at least an hour here. Afterward, you can walk a few blocks over to Pearlz Oyster Bar for some delicious fried oysters or sautéed sea scallops.
Unitarian Church Cemetery
Located on Archdale Street, the Unitarian Church Cemetery is a unique area to visit. At first glance, the overgrown plants and wildflowers can be mistaken for a neglected churchyard. However, the sidewalks are clear and the untamed nature is intentional.
This deliberate overgrowth creates a wild beauty that lures visitors in and makes them feel as though they’ve been transported back in time. Of course, the Unitarian Church cemetery is also said to be haunted, and this natural growth lends itself well to the ghost stories that tour companies like to tell.
In fact, many believe that the Unitarian Church Cemetery is the subject of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “Annabelle Lee,” which told the tale of a woman who would meet her lover in the Unitarian Church Cemetery each night. This cemetery is another popular stop on many ghost walking tours and worth a visit, whether you are there for the ghost stories or for its beautiful and historic headstones.
Insider Tip: Don’t be fooled by the ghostly tales of the cemetery. During the day, the old trees and Spanish moss make the graveyard a place of timeless beauty that makes it perfect for an afternoon stroll.
Also, keep your eyes out for a stucco-brick memorial dedicated to the slaves who helped build the Unitarian Church. Built in 2013, the memorial uses some of the original brick from the church to honor the enslaved.
There is no shortage of historic cemeteries marking the final resting place of Charleston’s prominent white families. But what about African-Americans?
Finding the burial grounds of African-American slaves has proven difficult. Only a handful of 18th and 19th-century maps and slats show slave cemeteries in South Carolina. One of the most well-studied slave cemeteries was discovered just outside of Charleston when a motel was being constructed.
Making things increasingly difficult is the fact that many slaves were often buried without grave markers in slave cemeteries. Even after Emancipation, many former slaves continued to bury their family members in these cemeteries.
Dating back to 1790, Drayton Hall has one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in the nation that is still in use. It is called “A Sacred Place” and open to public visitation.
After the Civil War, African-Americans began constructing their own cemeteries. Graveyards were segregated for many years, and it was not uncommon for city officials to build on top of burial grounds.
Today, black burial grounds are still at risk, but many organizations have been established to help protect and preserve this treasured part of Charleston’s history. One successful attempt to preserve an African-American cemetery is the restoration of a cemetery on Sullivan’s Island. The island has a rich African-American history that was in danger of being lost, but members of the community worked hard to protect the graveyard and establish boundaries around the site.
Charleston Gravestone Art
Charleston is home to many beautifully carved tombstones and monuments, some of which are massive and imposing, and others that are small yet historically significant.
Charleston’s gravestone art gives us a unique glimpse into her past, from early times as a young colony to the Revolutionary War and beyond. From the intricately carved symbols and portraits to the epithets written on tombstones, there is much that we can learn about the cultural, religious, artistic, and social backgrounds of those who lie beneath these stones.
You don’t need to be an artist or history buff to enjoy Charleston’s gravestone art. However, it does help to have some context before you explore the city’s most iconic cemeteries.
18th Century Gravestone Art
The 18th century was the peak of Charleston’s tombstone making. Prior to then, most tombstones were made of field stones or wooden slabs, most of which have crumbled and decayed.
These early tombstones provide key insight into those who founded Charleston. Made from slate or sandstone, many of the monuments from this time bore symbols of the crossbones, skulls, hourglasses, and epithets in Latin which emphasized the brevity of life.
Wealthier Charlestonian families purchased tombstones from New England carvers to distinguish themselves from the middle-class. Some even purchased tombstones from England and had them imported to the States.
19th Century Gravestone Art
By the 18th century, tombstone messages changed to reflect the attitudes of Charlestonians during the Great Awakening. Rather than focus on the certainty of death, tombstone motifs began using angels with wings to emphasize the salvation of Christ.
The darker slate stone was replaced by lighter-colored marble markers, and softer symbols such as rosebuds, willows, and urns would be commonplace. Skeletal heads also began taking on fleshier facial features, particularly the eyes, nose, and lips.
This is around the time when portraitures became a popular trend in Charleston, where natural representations of the deceased were carved on tombstones. To see a few stunning portraitures, be sure to stop by the Circular Church Cemetery.
20th Century Gravestone Art
During the 20th century, granite was replacing marble, and gravestones were much less elaborate. By the mid-20th century, most graves were being mass-produced and individual stone monuments were no longer created. Bronze markers that were embedded in the ground became a common practice.
Recommendations for Further Reading
Interested in learning more about Charleston’s graveyard art? You won’t find a better source of information than David Mould and Missy Loewe’s Historic Gravestone Art of Charleston, South Carolina.
The book covers all of Charleston’s most iconic churches and delves into the symbols and motifs in detail. It is a must-read if you plan to explore the many historic cemeteries around Charleston.
No visit to Charleston is complete without exploring some of her hauntingly beautiful cemeteries. With their beautifully carved tombstones, rich history, and Southern Gothic ambiance, Charleston’s cemeteries have attracted historians, authors, nature enthusiasts, and more from across the world to experience their ancient charm for themselves.