Magnolia Cemetery: Exploring Charleston’s ‘City of the Dead’

The oak-shaded avenues of Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery carry you through decades of history amid an oasis of Lowcountry landscap
The oak-shaded avenues of Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery carry you through decades of history amid an oasis of Lowcountry landscap

The author Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “There is a certain frame of mind to which a cemetery is, if not an antidote, at least an alleviation. If you are in a fit of the blues, go nowhere else.”

There is truth in these words and for whatever reason a visit to a local cemetery may draw you, here in the Lowcountry you will be promised two things: an enjoyable experience in the nature and the company of fascinating people – even if they are not able to speak to you.

History’s heroes and heroines as well as the ordinary citizens who make life in the Lowcountry so interesting are buried there and from the most elaborate tomb to the most humble marker, the story of their lives and the drama that is South Carolina will unfold before you.

One such garden of memories is Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery.

A visit to this grassy, live oak-sheltered expanse on the banks of the Cooper River just outside of the “Holy City” promises an afternoon of shaded walks and a trip through time. It is an encounter with the lives of Carolinians both famous and infamous, ordinary and extraordinary. And all just a few hours away from home in Beaufort County.

The City of Charleston was founded in 1670 and soon became a bustling center of commerce along the southern coast. As the town grew, its churchyards and graveyards filled and soon the peninsular city, surrounded by water and marsh, needed a new place for the eternal rest of its citizens.

In 1850, land on nearly 100 acres of a former rice plantation on the Cooper River was set aside for a public burying ground. Here, just outside the gates of the city, an antebellum cemetery began to grow.

In the decades that followed, the land became a museum of sorts — elaborate funerary sculpture and stonework sprouted from the land and along the winding sandy lanes.

Tombs and mausoleums were constructed for the city and state’s leading citizens as the wealthy seemed to be working to outdo each other in death as in life for who could display the most ornate and beautiful resting place. Weeping angels, snippets of poems and scripture, and even marble busts carved in startling likeness of loved ones betrayed the loss and love of family and friends left behind.

Others were more humble. Simple headstones and markers abounded and crossed social boundaries.

The humble grave of Elizabeth Allston Pringle, South Carolina’s “woman rice planter” and author of memoirs of plantation life that were extensively published in Northern newspapers is graced by a simple stone.

This is contrasted by William Borroughs Smith, a wealthy banker and merchant whose family erected a neo-Egyptian tomb that resembles an ancient pyramid. This nearly 20-foot tall structure dominates the landscape in its section of the cemetery.

There are Civil War soldiers and generals, a Revolutionary War hero, governors, politicians and even the crew of the CSS Hunley, the first submarine to sink another warship — though the sailors all perished in the attempt.

Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery has been expanded over the years as epidemic, war and the eventual path of daily life progressed outside its margins.

When you visit, you will find a rambling garden of stones and live oaks that are edged by a lace of marsh and unhurriedly accessed by a network of paths.

My family and I recently visited Magnolia Cemetery and were fascinated by the contrasts and beauty of the place, When you visit, you too will discover the many threads that make up the tapestry of history and social culture of the Lowcountry and enjoy a natural setting that makes the pace of life slow a bit just by being there.

Whether you are searching for a family connection, visiting a loved one or seeking a passage through time to experience history, you will not be disappointed by a visit to the “City of the Dead” for the “Holy City” of Charleston.

Getting there

Magnolia Cemetery is located at 70 Cunnington Ave. in Charleston.

For comprehensive information on the cemetery, its inhabitants and history as well as possible tours, check out http://www.magnoliacemetery.net/.

The cemetery is managed by the Magnolia Cemetery Trust and work is continually done to maintain, restore and preserve the grounds for posterity.

To get there, take U.S. 17 north to Charleston. In West Ashley, take I-526 around to I-26E and take the ramp to Charleston. On I-26 take Exit 219B toward Morrison Dr./E Bay St. Turn left onto Mt. Pleasant Street and then a left onto Meeting Street at a quarter mile, turn right onto Algonquin Road and you will see Magnolia Cemetery. A two-hour drive will bring you to this quiet place in the Lowcountry for a fascinating day trip or several hours of exploring.