Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What's in a name?

So what's in the name of a cemetery? There's the stereotypical - "Eternal Rest Gardens", the location, "Green Street Cemetery", the honorarium "Cherry Hill", named after Mr. Cherry who donated the land, and the community "Black Bottom". There are many ways in which cemeteries get their names. One way that's fascinating to me is the sort of organic growth in which adjacent cemeteries come to be known by one name. It's a process I'm watching happen right now with Black Bottom.

Black Bottom Cemetery is technically composed only of the land owned by Church Women United, Inc. in Belhaven, NC. The ladies of this organization have worked to acquire the deed to the property (donated by the Latham family) and to convince the city to take over maintenance of this historic African American cemetery. They chose the name "Black Bottom" because the cemetery is/was the cemetery for the Black Bottom community. Straightforward enough, at least so far. Now the story begins though...

There are 2 or 3 cemeteries adjacent to each other. I don't know what name, if any, they had beyond "colored cemetery", "black cemetery", "[racial epithet] cemetery", "the cemetery", and other similar titles. The oldest part of the cemetery is that which is now owned by Church Women United. There are one or possibly two adjacent cemeteries, one is directly in front of the Church Women United property, and the other is next to this property. My search through the tax records of the city has not turned up an owner for one of the properties, which is an interesting anomaly I've seen in this area, as cemeteries are not taxed so the tax records often seem to be incomplete. As far as I can tell, there are 3 distinct plots of land, all of which have burials. I've lumped the plots into "Church Women United" and those which are included in media reports in the map below:

These three plots have, in media reports and press releases from the city, all been lumped together under the name Black Bottom. This isn't a bad thing, all three certainly are in need of maintenance, but it's been an interesting phenomenon to follow. Little Eva's grave is technically not in Black Bottom, for example (at least, not in the part owned by Church Women United). This process is something that I suspect has frustrated many a genealogist though. For example, in Greenville, the Methodist Burying ground of the mid 19th century became part of the Cherry Hill (aka Cherryhill) cemetery of today!

A final thought on this subject, cemetery names do often have meanings, and discovering those meanings can tell us something about the history and purpose of the cemetery, even if its something as prosaic as the good old standby of "Eternal Rest".

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Cemetery Space Updates

Cemetery Space now has its own domain! You can find it at - the old address still works too. I decided to go ahead and add a real domain name because it’s a little easier to remember (I hope) and it lets me have dedicated email addresses and other useful features. Now I need to come up with a logo!

In further news, this blog is now part of The Association of Graveyard Rabbits (aka GYR), an association of bloggers with a common interest in cemeteries. Joining the GYR has given me the impetus to refine this blog and focus more on the academic side of cemetery studies from a more anthropological/archaeological standpoint. What do I mean by that? Well, there hasn't been a lot of genealogical information in the blog, and there will be very little in the future. Genealogy is a topic that's well covered by other bloggers who are far more proficient in the various skills it requires than I am! I'm going to focus on things like cemetery layouts (they're not all the same), history and architecture, markers and their meaning, and similar topics. I will also be posting more regularly – I'm aiming for once a week, with at least one feature a month about a significant topic. This month's will be a discussion of the Upland South Folk Cemetery Complex, so keep an eye out!

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Black Bottom Cemetery Update

The grave of Little Eva (Eva Narcissus Boyd), who sang "Locomotion", has had a new marker installed. The grave was marked by a funeral home stake, then the city installed a wooden cross, and now the final stone marker has been unveiled. It's part of the restoration and clean up at Black Bottom. In further news, the vaults with the most damage, which had humans remains visible, will soon be stabilized and the human remains have been either removed (temporarily) or re-buried within the original crypt.
I've been told conflicting stories as to whether or not she is buried in Black Bottom Cemetery.  I'll provide more details later in another post.  
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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Cherryhill Cemetery

Cherryhill Cemetery is one of the community cemeteries in Greenville, NC.  It is one of the older cemeteries, and encompasses two lots that were originally the location of churches.  Elizabeth Ross has a brief history, a map, and transcriptions of the standing graves online.  I'm focussing on the African American section of the cemetery, which was established in 1872 as a "colored" area.  


Above are the main gates into the cemetery.  The cemetery retains its gravel and grass path and is well maintained, although a few markers show signs of vandalism.  There are lots of missing heads and hands from the statues near the front.  The African American area of the cemetery is to the right, past a hedge and chain-link fence which separates it from the rest of the cemetery.  You enter a gap in the hedge see a sloping area of ground with several markers in a variety of styles and sizes.  

African American Section

The first time I entered this area of the graveyard, I knew it as the African American section, even without knowing the history.  The types of markers and the location of this area, along with the fact that its the only area separated with a hedge, let me know right away.  In particular, this area has several concrete vault markers which are distinctive and, as far as I have been able to find out, only associated with African American graves.  These crypts are often painted a metallic silver, although by now the paint has faded and worn off many of them.  Cherry Hill has a cluster of these, with a few others scattered about. 

This area has suffered more damage than some other areas.  Many of the markers are damaged, some have fallen, and there is evidence of vehicles driving through the center of the area.


Despite the damage, this is one of the most beautiful areas of the cemetery.  The street is mostly hidden by the hedges, and the sloping boundary at the rear of the cemetery provides an unimpeded view of the sunset's colors.  There are several stately old trees standing guard, including a magnificent magnolia shading a few graves beneath it's spreading canopy.  The segregated design of these old community cemeteries has a certain poignance as, in death as in life, skin color trumped all.


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Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister

Stories in Stone:  A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography is a slender volume, designed to be easily pocketable on outings to cemeteries.   Written by photographer Douglas Keister, it provides a useful compendium of information including a brief overview of architectural types present in cemeteries, a list of social organizations ranging from the well known Masons to the less well known, and an explanation of the symbolism in the decorative carvings on stones.  The volume is lavishly illustrated with beautiful color photographs, and the text is well written.  In addition, the book is divided into logical sections and well indexed, so quickly finding a particular entry is not a problem.  
It is available in both a hardback binding and a plasticized paper binding.  The paper binding seems slightly more rugged, and would be preferable if you plan to make this an "always with you" part of your cemetery explorations.  The hardcover
is handsomely bound and an excellent choice for your home reference library.  Either binding should serve cemetery students well. Amazon is even offering a kindle edition for your on-the-go reading pleasure (but I'd still recommend the hardback so you can see the full-color photography).  

My one criticism of this book and others like it is that it sometimes overemphasizes the symbolism.  Stories in Stone does a better job than most of not falling into the "every stroke of the carver's chisel is symbolic" trap but it is a point worth making, regardless.  Sometimes a flower is just a flower, chosen by the family because it was a favorite of the deceased or because they like the way it looks - still symbolic, but a very personalized symbolism which cannot be discerned solely from appearance.  

Still, Stories in Stone is one of the better reference works I've seen.  Certainly worth checking out. 
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