Sunday, August 23, 2009

Charleston cemeteries







The last time I was in Charleston there was a lot of heat and a lot of kids.
At times like this escape is in order. I hastily made my excuses and headed into the labyrinth of old streets with my camera looking for the nearest cemetery.




Although I live in Virginia it doesn't feel a lot like the real old Antebellum south. There are too many wide highways and gleaming new buildings up here. Virginia has progresss and that doesn't always look pretty.

Antebellum is one of those curious pleasant-sounding words that describe something unpleasant.

To me the word conjures up sleepy images of plantations, festooned with Spanish moss and hammocks swaying under the Magnolia trees, rather than the days of strife and bloodshed that led up to the Civil War in a south scarred by the monstrous system of slavery.

The specter of the war still limps around some of these quiet streets and you can find a few old timers who still curse the Yankees.

But the good news for the visitor who has passed through hundreds of miles of hideous strip malls and Piggly Wiggly stores to get here, is that General Sherman didn't.

Charleston is a living museum and its churchyards are some of the most atmospheric places in America.

I've always had a fascination with cemeteries, be it the blackened necropolises of Glasgow where ghasty stone angels hold court against a sky of leaden clouds, or the quirky ivy-choked Cornish churchyards where gulls wheel high above the crashing turquoise sea.

When I was in Cairo years ago I wanted to visit the Cities of the Dead where the vast tombs have been converted into homes and given minaret towers. I was overruled by a partner at the time who had heard stories about tourists being stoned by the local kids.

At least I got to visit the grandest cemetery of them all, the Pyramids of Giza where some rather powerful people were buried under oversized headstones.

I have photographed seas of plain white crosses that stand like mournful sentinels over the empty fields of Flanders, celtic crosses beside monasteries in Ireland and tombs like small houses in Cuba.

If there was a world cemetery tour and I had the time, I would sign up for it.

Some people may find my fascination with such places morbid but I am always moved by cemeteries because they are a small window into the vastness of time and the transience of life.

They make you wonder who the people under the slabs were, what kinds of lives they led and, mostly importantly where they are now.

If I had the answer to that question I could become very rich. I might even be invited onto the Oprah show.

Cemeteries can be mourful and romantic. In Charleston they have a ghost tour where they recall how the ghost of Annabel Lee appears at the Unitarian Cemetery. Apparently Lee used to meet her young sailor lover here before her father found out about it and locked her away. The tale of doomed love inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write the poem Annabel Lee.

A day after hearing this tale I visited the Unitarian Cemetery to photograph it for a travel feature, but a downpour meant I only managed one uninspiring and hurried shot.

But there was no rain on the day I visited the chuchyard of St Philip's and the recent memory of fountains, hyperactive kids and extended family, led me to spend some time here, although I missed the grave of former Vice President and all round reactionary guy John C. Calhoun.

All of which gives me another reason to go back there.

7 comments:

  1. Lovely pictures, I would like to get to Charleston sometime.

    Have you ever been north? The Granery Cemetery in Boston has the graves of Ben Franklin, John Hancock, Mother Goose and many more...fascinating. We have a Revolutionary War graveyard in our town...but then maybe there are still hard feelings you being a Brit and all..... just kidding.

    Looking forward to more of your pictures.
    xx

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  2. I love cemeteries. So many wonderful ones here. The street in Islington is Richmond St.

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  3. Ghost tours have never appealed but the idea of a world tour of cemeteries is inspired.

    Sorry to go off at a tangent but there is something I'd like to ask you about.

    Yesterday, I was talking with an eleven year old boy about a study I'd heard of which shows that reading stories as children is a better indicator of prospective upward mobility than what kind of schools we attend. He was pleased when I told him the example given had been curling up on the sofa with a book of 'Just William'. (He likes William books.) But his face clouded when he pointed out that boys like him run out of books at his age. He likes the Alex Rider ones read to him but finds them heavy going if he tries to read them to himself. He likes the humour of 'Hiccup Horrendous Haddock' but there aren't many about him; and he likes what 'Horrid Henry' gets up to but the Horrid Henry books are too short for him now.

    Any recommendations for a boy who now wants to read longer books but needs ones with not too dense a style. A boy who will probably get into books with longer paragraphs eventually but needs something to keep him reading in the meantime?

    (And he's read the 'Captain Underpants' series several times over.)

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  4. Hi there - well I'm not an expert yet. I've been a journalist for as long as I can remember but I will be teaching high school English from September. This is a list recently compiled by the British Department for Education.
    http://www.sla.org.uk/boys-into-books-11-14.pdf

    It is 11-14, though so some could be too advanced. I'm a big fan of Treasure Island as an adventure story and The Hobbit is a good introduction to Lord of the Rings. Also I love The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Hope this helps.

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  5. Hello David. Thanks for the suggestions. Too advanced again though! There's a big jump between Horrid Henry and Lord of the Rings.

    I'm thinking there may well be a real gap in books available for boys in this age group. Girls are much better provided for.

    Part of the problem, perhaps, is that authors aren't prepared to be silly enough - sort of Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe for younger children might be a good idea - with fewer contemporary cultural references and fewer words but with line drawings. Or more advanced Astrosaurs kind of thing.

    (And good enough to compete with the computer . . . !)

    Really nice of you to have responded. I appreciate it.

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  6. Hi,nice pictures - you remind me I have lots of graveyard pictures of Suffolk UK from 2005 I'll have to put on-line

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  7. Lovely photos of Charleston cematry. Having been visited recently by a Canadian friend big on photographing graves for ancestral sites I have taken more interest in cemerties and would love to go to visit Highgate cemarty London which was featured recently on a TV program.
    I found your post through Esther of Esther's boring garden blog.

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