Digging deep into Charleston’s graveyards
While it’s customary in the North for towns to set aside plots of land for burial purposes, the founding Southerners followed English traditions– laying to rest residents who passed away in a private family cemetery or church graveyard.
As you walk through the Holy City, you’ll likely notice these burial grounds– some tucked away and others right up next to the sidewalk– each with their own… atmosphere. While some are whimsical + historic, others are overgrown + sullen. Buried here are noteworthy people such John C. Calhoun, a U.S. senator and Vice President; Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Charles Pinckney, a signer of the U.S. Constitution; Confederate soldiers; and families who attended the religious congregations.
The grave markings (or tombstones) that are left standing aren’t just an indication of who was laid to rest in that plot– but help historians understand the demographic and social history of the city since it was founded in 1670.
However, in the beginning, Charleston actually lacked a supply of stone to mark the graves, so wooden stele markers– also called grave rails– were used until the 1820s, when custom stones were shipped in from New England.
As a consequence of the wooden material, the grave markings sometimes disappeared– or were never marked at all– which means, there are hundreds of burials in church grounds that cannot be seen… at least not by the living.
Then in 1836, burials in the city were prohibited (due to obvious health concerns on the low-lying land). But while the burials may have ceased, the ghost stories + legends live on.
Time for a pop quiz: What’s the difference between a cemetery and a graveyard?
A graveyard is a burial plot that is associated with church property. A cemetery is a burial ground, which is not part of a church property. So– all graveyards are cemeteries, but not all cemeteries are graveyards.
Keep scrolling to learn more about the burial grounds + souls who are located right in our own backyard.
⚰ Circular Congregational Church Graveyard (~1695)
📍 150 Meeting St.
As one of the oldest graveyards in Charleston, there are more than 500 gravestones which remain visible on the grounds with more than 730 individual names inscribed. Additionally, church records show another 620 names who are likely to also be buried there (just missing a marker). One of the most prominent gravestone images– a skull 💀– which dates back to the 1600s.
👻 Known as one of the most haunted places in Charleston, many say they have seen Revolutionary War soldiers wandering the grounds.
⚰ Unitarian Church Graveyard (1772)
📍 4 Archdale St.
The church was first built in 1772 and was then rebuilt in 1854 after it was destroyed during the Revolutionary War. While most of the city’s burial sites undergo continuous upkeep, this graveyard’s overgrown brush + unkempt appearance is intentional– as the Unitarians believe in using the overgrown vegetation as a symbol of life after death.
👻 Legend has it that a 14-year-old girl named Annabel Lee fell in love with an 18-year-old man stationed at Fort Moultrie in the 1800s (perhaps Edgar Allan Poe). Her father didn’t approve and did everything in his power to keep the two apart. Still, the two would carry on their forbidden romance via secret meet-ups. However, their love did not endure, as the soldier was eventually transferred.
After his departure, Annabel died and was laid to rest an unmarked grave (so she couldn’t be found) in the Unitarian Church graveyard. Two days after Edgar Allan Poe died, “Annabel Lee” was published (coincidence?). It’s said that Annabel’s ghost can be seen wandering the paths, looking for her long-lost lover.
👻 Mary Bloomfield, who died in Mount Pleasant in 1907, is alleged to haunt the graveyards. Bloomfield was happily married… or so she thought… for when her beloved husband departed for a business trip to Boston, he never returned. She was so heartbroken, it’s said that her ghost has been seen wandering the paths looking for him.
👻 Legends (along with some local tour guides) say that accused serial killer, Lavinia Fisher haunts the Unitarian Church graveyard, which is where she was thought to have been buried. However, Fisher was actually buried in a potter’s field (now located under MUSC) after her execution.
⚰ Magnolia Cemetery (1850)
📍 70 Cunningham Ave.
The oldest public cemetery in Charleston was built in 1850 on the land of a former rice plantation for prominent residents and Confederate soldiers. Each summer, the cemetery hosts a Confederate Ghost Walk– with presentations by reenactors revealing what life was like for some of those who are buried in the cemetery.
👻 Within the cemetery lies a couple (whose names are not on their gravestone), who married very young and had seven children. The wife passed away on their 50th wedding anniversary– the husband, two years later to the day. It’s been said that the couple’s ghosts have been seen waltzing together under the oaks.
⚰ St. Philip’s Church Graveyard (~1680)
📍 142 Church St.
Established in 1680, St. Philip’s is the oldest religious congregation in the Holy City. The graveyard grounds are divided into two parts, with the western yard initially set aside for non-church members. However, church members ended up being buried there later on (as we all know, property is hard to come by downtown).
Prominent Charlestonians laid to rest include several colonial Governors, five Episcopal bishops, John C. Calhoun, Edward Rutledge, Charles Pinckney, Christopher Gadsden, Dubose Heyward, Maria Gracia Turnbull, and Col. William Rhett.
👻 In 1888, Gaston + Sue Howard, parishioners of the church, were expecting a baby. On June 10, the baby was stillborn. Sue died six days later.
99 years later, on June 10, 1987, local photographer Harry Reynolds was taking photos around the city. Upon having the film developed, he noticed that in one photo there appears to be the ghost of a woman kneeling by the aforementioned infant’s grave. That woman is suspected to be Sue Howard.
⚰ St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (~1750)
📍 71 Broad St.
St. Michael’s is the oldest church edifice in the city– dating back to the 1750s.
A prominent Charlestonian laid to rest here is John Rutledge.
⚰ Drayton Hall African American Burial Ground
📍 3380 Ashley River Rd., West Ashley
Drayton Hall celebrates the lives of the enslaved Africans who once lived, worked, + were laid to rest on the plantation grounds– although many of the graves are unmarked. Set deep in the woods, the burial ground is one of the oldest of such cemeteries in the country. The cemetery is open to visitors.
If I were to have won that $1.6 billion lotto, I may have dropped dead (out of complete shock) + would have needed to ask Mr. Calhoun to share some space in his plot.
But, I didn’t win and here I am back in your inbox at 6 a.m. with a smile on my face. 😬
Just out of curiosity… were you the lucky lotto winner? Let me know in the comments below.