In June, my son and I went to North Carolina to see my daughter and her beau. It was our first vacation in many years and we had a wonderful time. We toured several attractions in the beautiful state, but my favorite stop, by far, was The Old Burying Ground, in Beaufort, NC.
We came across the cemetery by accident, and when we found it, we had only about twenty minutes to explore before the property would be closed for the night. I knew I’d want to share as many pictures as possible here at the blog, so I hurried through the gates, a madwoman on a mission.
Just a couple of yards into the graveyard, though, I had to slow down and breathe. The peaceful, timeless atmosphere under the ancient oak and magnolia trees would not allow me to feel rushed. As I stood in the cool dappled shade, taking in the historic beauty of the place, all the tension in me melted.
Below, you’ll find more information about The Old Burying Ground and some of the graves I saw in the cemetery, but before we get to that, I invite you get a sense of what it felt like to actually wander through this sacred place by watching this video:
(For best picture, click on “watch on YouTube”, then full-screen.)
Have you ever seen such a gorgeous graveyard? I wish I could have done it justice, but I hope I captured the feel – at least a little – for you.
On to the details.
THE OLD BURYING GROUND
Address: 400 Block of Ann Street, Beaufort NC, 28516
The Old Burying Ground originally came into use in the area surrounding a building used for sessions of the Court and for reading the service of the Angelican Church in St. John’s Parish. The earliest graves were marked by shells, brick, or wooden planks. Large swaths of the cemetery appear to be sparsely occupied, but an archaeological survey in 1992 confirmed there are many burials in such open areas.
In 1731, the cemetery which had come into existence around a courthouse-cum-church was deeded to the town of Beaufort.
Currently, the entrance of the cemetery is flanked by two churches: a red brick First Baptist and a white clapboard United Methodist. The graves lie nestled between the two buildings until the property opens up a bit at the back. This makes it look and feel like a real churchyard, as you will see in some of the photographs that show the gravestones snugged right up next to the churches.
Beaufort itself is one of the oldest towns in North Carolina. In the early 1700s, when the notorious pirate Blackbeard was going about his business along the coast, it was known as Fish Town. In 1722 it became an official seaport. During the Revolutionary War, it was the third largest port in the state, according to the Beaufort NC homepage.
In 1997, the wreckage of what is presumed to be Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was discovered two miles from Beaufort Inlet, approximately 20 feet below the surface of the water.
This town has seen a lot of living, and a lot of dying.
Captain Otway Burns (1775 – 1850)
In the War of 1812, Captain Burns was considered a great naval hero. He received “Letters of Marque and Reprisal” from the United States, which allowed him to plunder British ships. (The letters made him a sort of legal pirate, otherwise know as a privateer.)
His monument features a cannon removed from his ship, Snapdragon.
Nancy Manney French (1821 – 1886)
In the video, I mark this grave with the caption: “A sad love story.” Here’s the tale, drawn from the guide pamphlet that was available just inside the gates of the graveyard:
Nancy fell in love with her tutor, a man named Charles French. Nancy’s father disapproved of the relationship. Charles left Beaufort with the intent of finding his fortune and earning the right to ask for Nancy’s hand in marriage. In the ensuing years, both Nancy and Charles tried to maintain their romance through letter writing, but the postmaster in town – who was a friend of Nancy’s father – intercepted all the letters. Years later, upon his deathbed and stricken by guilt, the postmaster confessed what he’d done to Nancy. Later still, Charles returned to Beaufort. He was an old man, but he’d never been able to forget his love. He found that Nancy was dying of consumption. The two married anyway. Nancy died just a few weeks later.
The Rum Keg Girl (1700s)
An English family had settled in Fish Town, but a daughter, who had been only an infant upon arriving in the colonies, wanted to see her homeland. The girl’s mother did not want the child to travel, but the father convinced her it would be all right, and promised to bring her home no matter what. The girl reportedly enjoyed her visit to England but she died on the return trip. Traditionally, she would have been buried at sea, but the father chose instead to purchase a barrel of rum from the captain, so that her body would be preserved and she could be buried in the town graveyard.
As you can see, visitors to the burial ground have been touched by the story. Of all the graves in the cemetery, this was the only one displaying grave goods on the day I was there.
Some light research into the possibility that this cemetery is haunted revealed that some guests have reported seeing a young girl playing among the stones, then disappearing suddenly. Sometimes, some of the trinkets from her grave are found in other parts of the cemetery when the gates are opened for the day.
Vienna Dill (1863 – 1865)
This very young child died of yellow fever and was buried in a glass-topped casket. Later, curiosity reportedly led vandals to dig up the grave to see the corpse. According to legend, the girl’s body appeared intact and life-like. The vandals supposedly then opened the coffin, only to have the body disintegrate.
One thing I wanted to draw your attention to is the massive vines that stretch over the area above her monument. If you look very closely, you can see how the thick vines are wound around what looks like a fallen tree trunk.
The graves and the headstones were fascinating and touching, but they are not the only reason this graveyard is so beautiful. Many of the trees, vines, flowers and ferns are breathtaking to a Minnesotan like me.
I was particularly taken by the Resurrection Fern that grew on many of the nearly horizontal branches of the oaks. Apparently this plant causes no harm to its hosts. I’ve read that very dry conditions will cause the ferns to dry up and appear dead, but that providing water will revive them nearly instantly.
I’ve probably rhapsodized enough about this distant-in-time-and-space place that somehow felt like home to me. I’ll leave you will a sincere wish that you find such a place yourself.
PS: I thought it might be a good idea to give you an extra resource, which I found useful when I was looking at these photographs.
Click the following link to see a guide to some of the grave markers you’re likely to see in southern graveyards. Regionality matters. In Minnesota, for example, I’ve never seen a “table tomb” like the one pictured below.
MORE OF MY FAVORITE SHOTS
For me, time spent in a cemetery is peaceful and conducive to introspection at any time of the year. My favorite season to visit a graveyard, though, is autumn.
In the northern hemisphere, at some point in September or October, a well-treed cemetery will become one of the loveliest possible places to view the colors of fall’s changing leaves. The park-like nature of the grounds make it likely that these brilliant reds and golds will be displayed above, against an azure sky, and underfoot, against an emerald lawn. A graveyard in the fall tends to be a quiet place, with few other people around to intrude on one’s thoughts. As a bonus, autumn’s cooler temperatures reduce the number of mosquitoes that often seem to love old, shaded cemeteries as much as I do.
Besides all that, the season of All Hallows Eve, Samhain, and Dia de los Muertos just feels like an entirely appropriate time to spend an afternoon with the dead.
** ADOPTING THE GRAVES OF FRANCES & LITTLE ONE **
In another of my Halloween articles, I provide a printable checklist of things to do in the weeks leading up to October 31st. One of my favorite suggestions in the booklet is to adopt a grave and tend it through the season.
This is something I’ve been doing casually for a long time, but when I decided to elaborate on the activity for this Halloween-themed post, I set out for the graveyard so I could get some photographs. At the time, I was just thinking about gently sweeping away debris and leaving a flower.
As usual, there were all sorts of touching and appealing candidates for grave adoption, but the moment I saw this little stone I was caught by the heart. It sits at the foot of a larger marker which is engraved with Frances’ full name, life dates, and a dedication from her husband. She was 31 when she was buried in 1904.
Based only on the foot stone, I assume she and her little one died in childbirth.
** THE OLD CHURCHYARD OF ST. JOHN IN THE WILDERNESS **
The grave(s) lie in what is now a graveyard, but was once a churchyard.
Until recently, I didn’t know there was a difference, but there is – even if the distinctions are subtle:
- churchyard: the yard or ground adjoining a church, often used as a graveyard
- graveyard: a burial ground, often associated with smaller rural churches, as distinct from a larger urban or public cemetery
- cemetery: an area set apart for or containing graves, tombs, or funeral urns, especially one that is not a churchyard
- In modern usage, the words cemetery and graveyard are interchangeable.
In this case, the resting place of Frances and Little One was once the site of the first church built in White Bear Lake, Minnesota – St. John In the Wilderness Episcopal. (So named because it was located thirteen miles north of St. Paul, the state capital. According to church records, the first interment was in 1861. At that time, the area really was wilderness.)
Though this burial ground was once a churchyard, it became a graveyard in 1874, when the church building itself (see below) was picked up and transported over the ice of White Bear Lake, so it would be more conveniently located for parishioners. A graveyard that continued to serve the church was left behind. (No churchyard exists at the site where the church was moved to.)
The graveyard of St. John in the Wilderness is only 152 years old… which is nothing compared to those that can be found on the East Coast … which is nothing compared to the churchyards of Europe.
** A CHURCHYARD IN NORFOLK **
In the introduction to his fascinating book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson relates the following conversation (which I have abridged):
“Have you ever noticed,” Brian asked as we stepped into the churchyard, “how country churches nearly always seem to be sinking into the ground?”
I allowed … that I had no idea.
“Well it isn’t because the church is sinking.” … “It’s because the churchyard has risen. How many people do you suppose are buried here?”
I glanced appraisingly at the gravestones and said, “I don’t know. Eighty? A hundred?”
“I think that’s probably a bit of an underestimate,” Brian replied with an air of kindly equanimity. “Think about it. A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adult deaths per century, plus a few thousand more poor souls that didn’t make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been there and you can see that what you have here in not eighty or a hundred burials, but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty-thousand.”
In the book, Brian Ayers – retired county archaeologist of Norfolk, in the East of England – goes on to explain how centuries of burials causes the land to rise over time. I encourage you to read it – it’s full of fabulous stuff like that. (Of course. It is, after all, by Bill Bryson.)
** AMERICAN CHURCHYARDS **
Here in in the state of Minnesota, I haven’t yet found a churchyard that matches the image that Bryson creates in my head. A bit of web searching, however, turned up this photograph from Old Pine Churchyard in Pennsylvania.
In the summer of 2014, I did get the opportunity to visit an American churchyard, in Beaufort, North Carolina. It was beautiful and I made a video tour to share with you.
For more information about the cemetery, visit
** A NEW REASON TO VISIT THE DEAD **
The Minnesota churchyard / graveyard of Frances and Little One is not nearly so crowded. There is space between each monument, and I can believe that most of the 621 recorded burials there are accurately represented by tombstones.
Which is a good thing.
You see, while I was getting this post ready today, I ended up finding a new hobby, and a new reason to spend time in cemeteries.
When you go to this site, a world of interesting graveyard-related information and activities opens up. At Find A Grave, you can:
- ” Find the graves of ancestors, create virtual memorials, add ‘virtual flowers’ and a note to a loved one’s grave, etc.”
- Search for the graves of famous people by name or location (check your state for possible pilgrimage destinations)
- See photographs of interesting and unusual memorials
- Read interesting epitaphs
** DISCOVERING MY DAD **
As I explored Find A Grave, curiosity made me enter my dad’s name into the search box. I discovered that a distant cousin on my mother’s side has located and virtually adopted my dad’s grave. (My father died when I was 9, and is buried hundreds of miles away from me. I am not in contact with anyone from his side of the family. Until today I wouldn’t have known how to even find the site.) My cousin also started a online memorial which I can now add to. This discovery brought tears to my eyes.
I sent a note of thanks to my cousin, and left virtual flowers on Dad’s memorial page.
** PAYING IT FORWARD **
Then I really dug into the site.
If you go through a quick, free registration, you can also:
- Add burial information
- Volunteer to fulfill requests for photographs of grave sites
- (once you are registered you click “Contributor Tools” then look for options in Photo Volunteer)
** FINDING JOSEPH MARCOTTE **
In the space of one day, I was able to:
- register at Find A Grave
- find and claim a request for a grave site photo that I thought I could fulfill within 14 days
- locate the grave, photograph it & leave flowers (This grave was not at St. John in the Wilderness, but it was still an easy drive.)
- return home and click “fulfill the request”
- see the deceased’s existing online memorial (Which I could have done before I left to find his grave, but I didn’t know that.)
- read some posted information about him (He died in 1902 and was the oldest man in White Bear Lake at his death.)
- upload 3 photos to fulfill the request (with my notes about the grave site)
- leave virtual flowers for him
- AND receive a gracious thank you note from the person who placed the request
Update: The requestor of the grave photo has given me permission to share the link to Joseph Marcotte’s memorial to show how Find A Grave works.
If you click on any of the pictures credited to Renae Rude, you can see what notes I added. In this case, I was lucky – the tombstone was almost completely illegible, so I fulfilled the request with what I THOUGHT was likely Joseph’s grave. Because she had seen it years ago, she was able to confirm we’d found the right one.
I don’t suppose locating and photographing lost graves will always be that easy and fast, but it was a perfect introduction to my new reason to spend inordinate amounts of time prowling graveyards.
** THE PART WHERE I CIRCLE BACK TO FRANCES & LITTLE ONE **
Of course I checked Find A Grave for additional information about Frances and Little One. There isn’t much. Someone uploaded a photograph of the main stone and transcribed the inscription. Whoever did it doesn’t appear to be a family member, but rather a person who was cataloging the whole graveyard. I added my photo of the small foot stone to the listing.
I googled Frances’ name, to see if I could find an obituary, but nothing popped up. My next stop will have to be the microfiche at the local historical society. I’d like to find more information about her, so that I can add it to her online grave site listing.
** MORE CEMETERY INFORMATION **
There is a wealth of information available at The Association for Gravestone Studies. I encourage you to explore the site thoroughly when you have time.
If you’re feeling inspired to get up and out the door NOW, I’ve cherry-picked some important and/or fun info for you:
1) It is NOT okay to do gravestone rubbing willie-nillie. If this is something you’d like to try, start by reading the guidelines here:
2) The symbols carved on tombstones, and the design of the headstones themselves, often have cultural meaning. (Though we can never be CERTAIN of why any survivor wanted a grave to appear a certain way.) For printable (PDF) guides to some common symbolism, click on either or both of the following links, which are provided by The Association for Graveyard Studies.
BONUS: My favorite graveyard song. (I also think of it as sort of my theme song.)
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