Southern Cemeteries

Over the past few weeks I’ve traveled through a good bit of our region. My purpose was to check things out for a magazine feature I’m writing. I’ve been up in the South Carolina and Georgia mountains, seen waterfalls, and I’ve traveled dry, backroad barrens. I’ve rafted the Chattooga and driven along Lakes Russell and Clark Hill. I climbed a mountain similar to Graves Mountain in Abbeville County, and I took a good look at Russell Dam. I’ve visited Pumpkintown and stood atop Caesar’s Head. I’ve seen a lot of our special corner of the South.

I’ve seen whitewater, ghost towns, stately courthouses, coves, forests, and fields aplenty. I’ve seen many an abandoned home, a forlorn sight too easily remembered. Just how does that happen? And I’ve seen many a closed business. We seem to be on the downside of some great upheaval.

Of all the places I’ve seen, one landmark stands out because of the sharp contrast it serves the eyes. On one hand, some of these landmarks possess a singular beauty despite their melancholy nature. On the other hand, their modern counterparts leave me cold and empty. I’m writing about a place to rest: cemeteries.

Thank God, I will be laid to rest in a traditional cemetery where granite headstones stand like sentries and not in some plain Jane cemetery reeking of too much planning. Compare a modern cemetery to a dignified church or private burial ground and you’ll find there is no comparison. It’s like comparing a paint-by-numbers landscape to one of Van Gogh’s swirling, colorful vistas.

Does anyone want to go to the commercial cemeteries laid out like a grid, all sprouting cheap plastic flowers, but no stately tombstones?

What a sad turn of events it was when businessmen decided to offer people ersatz graveyards with as much character as a dollar store sign. I understand space is short in some places and I understand our religions prefer the dead remain intact whereas Hindu and Buddhism’s followers practice cremation. Some things, though, should always be sacred, and traditional, stately cemeteries fall into this category. May my final ZIP code be numbers engraved in granite.

I find the new “memorial gardens” have as much allure as a trailer park with a picket fence around it. Give me a jumbled mess of stones any day.

You see, there’s something mesmerizing about an old graveyard. I can walk through one looking at the stones and reading inscriptions for hours. What elegance these old cemeteries possess. And I find old cemeteries have a calming effect as well. They serve up a healthy perspective. If you want a realistic taste of just how trivial the weighty matters you fret over are, visit an old cemetery.

I’ll take a place in an old graveyard any day over a mega-tee box devoid of mystique. Large, uniform cemeteries, for sure, can evoke beauty and grandeur, but corporations didn’t plan them. Take Arlington where the stately rows of crosses bring patriotism to the forefront. Or consider the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-mere, Normandy France, on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. It’s the cemetery Steven Spielberg featured in Saving Private Ryan. Grandeur comes to mind.

(Photo by mjp* / Creative Commons)

I’ve seen a lot of cemeteries and the ones that stand out in my memory are St. Bonaventure in Savannah, the tree-shaded Confederate Army plot in Columbia’s Elmwood Cemetery, and the small cemetery in Mt. Carmel, South Carolina. Sadly, Mt. Carmel seems dead itself, reminiscent of a Western ghost town, victim of the boll weevil. The place has a classic cemetery, however, where charm, emotions, and grand goodbyes live among the dead.

That cemetery teaches me something I can swear by: plastic flowers look better among granite markers than they do sprouting from mathematically spaced vases. A commercial graveyard looks like a plastic nursery for plastic flowers. I can’t speak for you but lay me down to rest where Georgia blue granite shines in the sun, where moonlight gleams along the stone’s polished face, where inscriptions reveal emotions. “We can’t have all things in life that please us, our baby girl has gone to Jesus.”


I have no desire to reside in a flat field of grass laid out for easy mowing and devoid of granite markers for the same reason. I find cemeteries such as these aren’t about the deceased as much as they are the lawnmower. They aren’t as much about dignity as they are corporate efficiencies. I know a lot of you out there in readerland despise corporations. Well, here’s a real reason to dislike some.

I’d rather lie in a place that harbors trees and vines than a perpetually cared for lot sprouting nothing but artificial flowers. I like the photo that accompanies this column. It seems more fitting as final destinations go. Two magnolias shade the grave and rusting wrought iron guards it. That’s where you want to be if you’re a Southerner.

The corporate-planned cemeteries, by the way, aren’t far removed from another monotonous, corporate institution: the cube farm where drones slave away wishing they were dead. Uniformity and blandness rule the day with their creative dynamo managers. An interesting aside. In cube farms, people with higher titles get more space. A secretary/administrative assistant gets 72 square feet whereas an account executive gets 144 square feet. I suppose bigger egos need more room to swell in. That scenario begs a question. If your loved one was a big shot, can you buy a bigger burial space or does the god Uniformity have to be obeyed? I suspect the god, Profit, trumps Uniformity.

Another observation. You’ve heard, no doubt, about the lower-than-dirt criminals who pilfer cemeteries’ brass vases and plaques. You’re probably thinking it can’t get any lower than that. Well it does. Whoever buys these brass items is lower than the thief, lower than a snake’s belly, lower than a gravedigger’s feet.

In my travels the last few weeks I’ve passed a dozen or so of what you could call modern cemeteries. All look alike and all earn the uncivil name, “skull orchard,” a term a friend uttered while giving me directions. “Take a left at the skull orchard.”

At the time I thought it was a bit disrespectful but maybe these modern monstrosities earn that ill-mannered moniker. They look uniform, like trees spaced just so. Two words are missing here, “quaint” and “character.” Gaze upon a modern cemetery and you get the idea every family thinks alike. No individuality. No beautiful stones, nothing that makes passersby take note. I’ll guarantee you another thing too. You won’t find any professional photographers stopping at modern cemeteries with the idea of photographing them for inclusion in an art book.

But some people like change anywhere, anytime. I was surprised to hear some folks say they like the new cemeteries over the old. I think that may be due to human nature’s way of preferring the old to the new. That too shall pass, as anyone who’s had a Coke in a glass bottle knows.

We all will need a place to rest. What’s your choice? I find more peace in knowing woods may invade my grave someday rather than being in some plastic-flowered wasteland no self-respecting honeybee would ever visit. I get even more peace knowing deer and rabbits will nibble plants above and the roar of a fume-spewing lawnmower will be confined to the corporate wasteland, not that I’ll know the difference though I am certain it will make a real difference to my daughters and their descendants.


Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].