An anthropologist might say that if you want to know how people live, you should look at how they treat the dead.
In Charlotte, looking at how we treat our dead will take you to places so green and tree-lined, you’d swear they are parks, to grassy fields that are resting places for people too poor to have tombstones. You can see soaring skyline views from hillsides pocked with granite markers, and you can see shadows of a time so racially divided, we even segregated the dead.
If you want to know this place, you need to know its cemeteries.
Mary Kratt, who has written books on Charlotte history, likes to say cemeteries are stories. We can “read” history in those tombstones – the children who all died in one hard winter, the war hero who went on to found a college, the vagrant under a stone marked “Unknown Boy.”
“If you care about history, you care about stories,” Kratt says. “For me, it’s an unraveling story of who we are and where we came from.”
Now, before we tell this story, we should acknowledge that we all react differently to cemeteries. What some people find lovely, others find sad, or ghoulish or disturbing. It’s sort of like how we all react differently to snakes.
Still, in a time that is increasingly defined by image instead of fact, cemeteries are places where we can be grounded.
“Cemeteries are real places,” Kratt says. “You can believe cemeteries. The subdivision that’s built on top of something else six years ago isn’t a real story.”
Periwinkle and pine boxes
A lot of people devote their time to keeping Charlotte’s cemeteries and their stories alive. There are Linda Dalton and Jim Williams, historians who helped to save Settler’s Cemetery. And Paul Buckley and Bill Hart, who collect the history of Elmwood and its elaborate markers. There’s Sandra Goldman, who calls her job as director of Hebrew Cemetery a mitzvah – a holy obligation.
And there is Jane Johnson. When it comes to Charlotte cemeteries, Johnson actually does know where the bodies are buried.
As a research librarian for the Carolina Room of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library, Johnson led the creation of a database of every known burial ground in Mecklenburg County, including any known records of who is buried there.
Johnson insists that it was just her duty to the taxpayers. But really, Johnson, 61, went above and beyond – and way back in the weeds – for this job.
She tromped through woods on her days off, combed records from churches and funeral homes, and even became an expert in burial forensics.
She learned to look for periwinkle, a ground cover used to keep down weeds around graves, and hilltop locations that were picked for drainage. She learned to spot the 6-foot-long indentations left when pine boxes disintegrate, and the football-sized stones that once marked the foot of graves.
“I like research, but I also like to help people,” says Johnson, who was a social worker before she became a librarian. “I felt this was a needed thing, but I had no idea how big it would get.”
For love and libraries
In history terms, North Carolina is a transitional state: When America was being settled, it was easy for people to come south from eastern cities, then head west over the mountains. That didn’t always happen fast, though, so people died along the way. Today, genealogy searches from all over the country lead people back here.
When Johnson was working at the Morrison Library 14 years ago, the librarians kept getting questions from people trying to find their Charlotte ancestors.
“People would come in and say, ‘I’m trying to find where my whoever is buried,’ and we’d look like deer in the headlights.”
The library had a few reference books, a booklet written by the Daughters of the American Revolution, church histories and Scouting projects that document grave markers. In the late 1990s, Johnson started putting it all together into a notebook.
“One notebook turned into two turned into three …” Finally, she went to the library’s Web masters and got them to create a database, with cemeteries listed alphabetically.
The list ranges from a single tombstone to the hundreds in Elmwood.
“I just figured, if the library didn’t do it, who would?”
“When you think about a town that’s over 200 years old – what do we have that’s 200 years old?” says Johnson.
“We don’t have paintings or buildings. We have tombstones.”
Sometimes, we don’t even have that. One of Johnson’s regular duties is getting burial grounds marked on maps, so developers will know before they bring in earthmovers. Many graves are so old, there’s no marker.
Stumbling on burial grounds can be a costly discovery. When 13 Revolutionary War-era graves were found near Fifth Street at Mercy Hospital’s expansion site in 2007, relocation cost an estimated $150,000.
There are burial grounds all around here. Before the 20th century, people were buried close to home, sometimes in the family’s backyard. Many were buried on their church grounds, but then the church moved and left the graves behind.
“As developers take down woods, we’ll find more,” says Johnson. “I know there’s more.”
Johnson does keep secrets. There’s an elaborate headstone that marks the resting place of a bishop of an African-American church. Johnson won’t say where it is because she is afraid it would be stolen.
She even knows which Charlotte middle school has a graveyard on the grounds: The land had been surveyed and building started before locals alerted officials that an unmarked family burial ground was right in the middle of what was going to become the circular drive.
The graves were moved to the side and surrounded by an unmarked fence.
“You would never know what’s behind that fence,” says Johnson. “It looks like a dog pen.”
Keep it alive
So if that anthropologist wanted to use our cemeteries to tell us how we live, what would we see?
There are church cemeteries that cover acres, like the multiple areas of Sugaw Creek Presbyterian. There are old cemeteries that have been abandoned by churches that moved on.
There are large, privately owned cemeteries, like Sharon Memorial Gardens on Sharon Amity Road and Forest Lawn on Freedom Drive, and the six city-run cemeteries, including Oaklawn and Evergreen.
There are also lots of stories – and history that stretches back so far, we can’t even confirm the stories.
“So much about Charlotte history is really legend and can’t be proven,” says history buff Paul Buckley.
Maybe that’s why you should take the time to visit these places:
To keep the cemeteries, and the stories, alive.
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