"If you are walking in Charleston, you are walking on someone's grave."--Sue Bennett, Charleston tour guide

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Charleston Author Touts Rich History in Local Graveyards

"Fascinating, they are of value to everybody," said the special guest speaker to the students in my "Beyond the Grave: What Old Cemeteries Tell and Teach the Living" on Sept. 19.

Ruth Miller, writer, author, tour guide, teacher, is one of the foremost experts on Charleston's rich collection of old church graveyards. She has co-authored seven short books about Holy City burial sites, including the prominent, tourist-attracting ones at Circular Congregational, Unitarian, St. Michael's, St. Philip's churches, among others.

I was very pleased to give Ruth Miller a copy of
my "In the Arms of Angels" Magnolia Cemetery
book (photo by Megan Wright) 
Charleston has many best, first and oldest distinctions when it comes to graveyards, Miller told the 20 freshmen in my First Year Experience class. They include:

  • "Best collection of 18th century cemeteries than anywhere in the United States," Miller said.
  • Even older are Charleston's two 17th century graveyards at Circular Congregational and St. Michael's churches.
  • Up until the 1960s, Charleston had the oldest Quaker cemetery south of Philadelphia, Miller said. But except for a small plaque, it vanished under a parking garage near King and Queen streets.
  • Charleston has some of the oldest Jewish graveyards in the country.
  • Charleston has the most diversified collection of headstones and other grave markers.
Miller said this last distinction is due to the Charleston area not having a high quality stone source that could be used for grave markers. 

That issue and how Charleston, in the 18th century, had no stone cutters, led people of means in what had become the richest city in the colonial America to order grave stones (granite, marble and other types) from elsewhere. "They would order them from New England, from Boston and Newport," Miller said. 

This give Charleston another distinction of having the work of so many of the best stone carvers in the young nation back then still around today at the old church graveyards in the Historic District. 

Miller also spoke of the religious freedom allowed by Charleston's early leaders. "Any seven persons constituted a faith," she said. Thus, Charleston would have vibrant and varied churches including Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Jews, Huguenots, Catholics, Presbyterians and Anglicans (now Episcopals). 

Meeting Street, she said, got its name from having meeting houses for some of these groups. 

"Old graveyards are full of history," Miller emphasized. "They give a world view and values are reflected in the architecture." 

A magna cum laud graduate of Duke University, Miller is very active in Charleston organizations such as the South Carolina Historical Society, Preservation Society, Friends of the Old Exchange, Avery Institute for African American History and the Charleston Library Society. 

She has been a Charleston tour guide for more than 30 years. She said a number of years ago, she was giving a tour to a group of visiting morticians. They asked her to show them several of the city's old church graveyards. She said she ended up learning so many new things from the morticians, that it spurred her interest in learning more about old graveyards and cemeteries. 

It helped turn her into somewhat of a taphophile, or lover of graveyards, cemeteries and their rich and interesting carvings and symbols. 

Miller is also an active member in the Association for Gravestone Studies

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