A preliminary survey underwritten by Richland County has identified more than 450 cemeteries, most of them long-abandoned plots where family members were laid to rest together.
Next, Mike Trinkley of the nonprofit Chicora Foundation will embark on field work to refine the list by photographing the cemeteries, counting markers and developing a county map of the 463 cemeteries – equivalent to one cemetery for every 1.6-square miles of land.
Experts in Southern culture say the large number of burial sites scattered outside church yards here speaks to Southerners’ connections to their families and their land, a desire to stake an eternal claim to one’s home place.
“There’s a long tradition of annual gathering on Decoration Day to clean up graveyards, and a famous blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson has the title ‘See That My Grave is Swept Clean,’” said Bill Ferris, a history and folklore professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“People are fearsome that when they die, their graves will be neglected and overgrown and totally wiped out, which is often, sadly, the case.”
Trinkley said he hopes the survey will generate a community discussion on how to maintain Richland County’s forgotten cemeteries he considers sacred places and “outdoor museums.”
“An awful lot of people never made the federal census every 10 years, for whatever reason,” he said, “and sometimes these tombstones are the only place you find information about that individual – when they were born, when they died, who they married.”
‘Victims of neglect’
Just a few generations ago, Southerners were anchored in places that were largely rural for generations, said Ferris, with UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South. But when they moved away and lost ties to their small communities, some burial places were plowed under. Others were abandoned to nature.
Reconstruction, the New South, the Civil Rights era – “all involved movement of families from rural ancestral worlds where graveyards and rural churches were an important part of both black and white life,” he said.
“Sadly, cemeteries often become the victim of nature and neglect.”
Bernie Herman, also on faculty at UNC, said Native American and African-American burial grounds are particularly vulnerable to loss.
The gravesites of slaves often were marked with wood that has long since disintegrated or mounds of earth that disappeared over time.
But what may survive are plantings that are signs of a final resting place.
“There are certain forms of plants you will find in a little knot of trees in the middle of a field, at the edge of a woods, and there will be plants in there that are not native” – yucca plants, periwinkles or daffodils, he said.
Plantation owners and slaves were often buried in separate graveyards, also contributing to the large number of rural cemeteries in the South, said David Wharton, who teaches field work at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
Trinkley’s survey is funded by a $79,500 grant over two years from the Richland County Conservation Commission.
He also will confirm, or discount as duplicates, an additional 92 sites he’s come across in his work. Altogether, it should take about nine months to finish the project, he said.
‘Approached with respect’
Nancy Stone-Collum, Richland County’s conservation coordinator, said the cemeteries need to be documented for citizens, historians and genealogists.
“But it’s also a really big help for our planning department and for developers so they can know before they buy property, or certainly before they start any development activity, that there are gravestones on that property,” Stone-Collum said.
Trinkley said most neglected cemeteries are family plots.
“There are a huge number of cemeteries, and society has got to come to grips with how we’re going to deal with this,” he said.
John Hildreth, regional vice president for the National Trust for Historic Places in Charleston, said he wouldn’t argue that every burial site and every abandoned cemetery be preserved at all costs.
“But every one of them needs to be approached with respect,” he said. “They have to be evaluated for what remains. There is a dialogue that has to happen around that.”
Herman said Richland County’s project seems to be ahead of trends in land-use planning. “When those two things come together – an honor and respect for home place, and planning for the future – that’s really, really smart,” he said.
Ferris, his colleague at UNC, said technology and global positioning allows researchers to link information about cemeteries to genealogical records.
“We might find resources – either through government or corporations or individuals – who would say this is a task I’m going to take on,” he said.
“It could be an extension of our encyclopedia of Southern culture.”
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.