Our hosts on Hilton Head said that they wanted to visit a cemetery that was on the National Register of Historic Sites. I was happy to join them. Surely cemeteries have been created to be visited, and I have walked around many always finding them of interest.
Different cemeteries have different charms. Well -aintained ones are often beautiful. Lush landscaping. Mature trees. Birds. Squirrels. The rundown cemetery has the fascination and the wonder of lost stories and forgotten lives. The South Carolina cemetery on Hilton Head is of the rundown and small variety.
Zion Cemetery is at the junction of two busy roads with an entrance easy to miss, which we did on our first attempt. The land has a canopy of lovely trees, but the ground is not lush—no grass. We walked on packed earth.
Zion is labeled a cemetery, but on a previous trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I was told that there was a distinction between a graveyard and a cemetery. A graveyard is part of the grounds of a church while a cemetery is separate from any church. Zion is not now part of a churchyard, but a chapel once stood there when the burials began. That Zion Chapel of Ease did not survive the Civil War, and the grounds today are owned by a local library and historical society. I guess what started out as a graveyard has now been transformed into a cemetery.
The small cemetery is dominated by the Baynard Mausoleum, a structure about ten by twelve feet and ten feet high. It needs repair, but carvings on it of upside down torches are clear. I have been told that these images represent a life cut short. Informative signage indicated that the mausoleum had been built by William E. Baynard a few years before his death in 1849, and that it no longer contained bodies.
Weathered headstones predating 1849 are dotted about the cemetery. A few of the headstones are so worn as to be indecipherable. I felt what I have felt in other cemeteries with stones almost impossible to read. I feel as if the scene is trying to impart some transcendental message, but I never catch it.
Most of the stones in Zion, however, could still be clearly read. A number marked the burial spots of people who fought in the Revolutionary War, including the only American killed in the War of Independence on Hilton Head. While I saw no orderly arrangement for many of the headstones, the central part was different. Remnants of a fence indicated a space meant to be separated from the rest of the cemetery. It contained maybe a dozen headstones. The names were unknown to me, but it was still striking because it indicated a family that had buried many children. Perhaps six children had died before they were four or five, and this reminded me of many other cemeteries.
I have visited places containing the graves of famous people, but I seldom seek out those burial spots. Instead I wander about looking at random inscriptions. 1880-1942. 1921-2010. Beloved. Mother. You Will Live in Our Hearts Forever. Somehow this gives me peace except for those like 2004-2008, 1909-1919. Those, like the children’s graves in Hilton Head, just make me feel sad for those who were left behind.
I don’t know if my interest in cemeteries existed before I worked in one. Until then my contact with the death industry had been scant. My grandfather, who lived in the upper flat of our two-story house, died when I was in high school. (He died on his seventieth birthday. His son, my father, lived until 80. Ergo, by my impeccable logic, I get until 90.) Surely there must have been a funeral, but I have no memory of it.
But also when in high school, Mr. Urban died. Although I had no contact with Mr. Urban, he had been an important educational figure in my town and had a school named after him. At his death, I held some position in student government and was among those tapped to be a representative at a funeral-home ceremony for him. Up until then, I had seen dead people primarily on TV and cowboy movies, and these “corpses” always seemed as if they were going to sit up in a moment. But as I entered the funeral home that day, there was not only a group of frightening adults (I did not know them, and I was shy; I tried to avoid talking even to parents of friends), but also an open casket with the remains, my lightning-quick mind concluded, of Mr. Urban. Adults tried to talk to me; I would have found this difficult no matter what, but I kept trying not to look over at the dead guy. And was that makeup?
My first real exposure to a cemetery came in the summer at the end of high school when I had a job in a local cemetery. There I did not look on the dead. Instead, I was the main lawn-watering guy. It was a hot, dry season. A portion of the cemetery did not have underground sprinklers, so hoses were used to water the grass there. Each morning I would do a round turning on spigots that had attached hoses. This took about 90 minutes, and then I made a second round. I turned off the spigot, walked to the end of the hose, moved the sprinkler to an unwatered patch, walked back to the spigot, turned it on, and then repeated this pattern at the next spigot until the end of the work day when I turned off the spigots. This might seem boring and lonely, but it was not to me. I had trouble talking with the adults who worked there, but I found the cemetery a place for peaceful contemplation. The work suited. (Except that the hoses were black and black stuff got imbedded in my fingers’ whorls. My hands looked dirty, and that bothered me because this was the summer when I was sure that I was going to unbutton a blouse, maybe unbutton many blouses. But, I feared, not if my hands looked grossly dirty. I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. Lava soap was my friend. So was Boraxo. They didn’t really work. We’ll leave the story of the blouses to another day.)
(Concluded on April 2.)