Historic Magnolia Cemetery rests on the banks of the Cooper River in northern peninsular Charleston. Established in 1850, the storied burial site occupies 92 acres of a former rice plantation, Magnolia Umbra. The former plantation home, which dates to 1805, now serves as the superintendent’s office (pictured below).
The site’s design follows a mid-nineteenth century trend towards rural cemeteries. A yellow fever outbreak gripped Charleston in the 1850s, creating an even greater need for public cemeteries such as this one.
Over the past 170 years, Magnolia Cemetery has evolved into a museum of sorts. It was laid out by noted architect Edward C. Jones, who also designed the United States Custom House on East Bay Street, among other popular buildings throughout Charleston and South Carolina.
The funerary art seen at Magnolia Cemetery is considered among the most beautiful in the United States. Mausoleums, memorials, headstones, and statuary adorn the landscape and tell stories of the deceased while reflecting on spirituality.
A special section of Magnolia, located near the old plantation house, is reserved for Confederate soldiers killed during the Civil War. Of particular note, Magnolia holds the remains of the third and final crew of the H.L. Hunley. On the night of February 17, 1864, the Hunley made history by becoming the first submarine to successfully attack and sink an enemy ship, the USS Housatonic. Everyone aboard both ships perished.
The crew’s remains were recovered, along with the Hunley itself, on August 8, 2000. The remains were laid to rest in Magnolia Cemetery on April 17, 2004, following a service at the Battery and a procession to the grave sites. The crew was comprised of Lieutenant George E. Dixon (Commander), Frank Collins, Joseph F. Ridgaway, James A. Wicks, Arnold Becker, Corporal C. F. Carlsen, C. Lumpkin, and Augustus Miller.
The grounds also serve as the final resting place of many prominent South Carolinians, including several former governors.
The receiving tomb at Magnolia Cemetery, shown below, housed the newly deceased while his or her grave was prepared. The masonry vault – which features thick, windowless walls – was designed to keep bodies cool during a time when modern embalming techniques had not yet been adopted. Most bodies were stored for only a few days, but some bodies were preserved here for longer periods.
Records show that at least one person, William Burroughs Smith, remained in the receiving tomb for 30 months. The vault can store as many as four bodies at once, and it was not uncommon for the departed to be kept inside for a year or more. The families of the deceased were charged $25 per month for rent.
In 2011, the receiving tomb at Magnolia was listed as one of the Preservation Society of Charleston’s first Seven to Save. The list, which the organization uses to coalesce “intellectual and financial resources” to help save local landmarks, is updated each time a landmark is restored.
The tomb won a $118,000 grant and has since been stabilized, but the entire cemetery was added to the Preservation Society’s list in 2014.
The Charleston Cemeteries Historic District is located on land formerly belonging to the Magnolia-Umbra plantation adjacent to Magnolia Cemetery. Considered an outstanding example of the Rural Cemetery Movement of the mid-nineteenth century, the District comprises a uniquely diverse collection of 22 contributing cemeteries of different religions as well as African–American mutual-aid burial societies. The societies were founded to provide insurance against the financial cost of burying loved ones and to provide care for widows and orphans.
As the Preservation Society further notes, “A large number of people care about and have a deep connection with these historic cemeteries, but their caretakers are overwhelmed by the maintenance and preservation tasks associated with them.”
Many infants are interred in the hallowed grounds of Magnolia. In the days before vaccinations and emergency medical treatments, children often did not make it to adulthood. Visitors looking at their graves today will find trinkets, flowers, and other mementos. Even today, they are looked after and loved.
Affectionally known as “Grandfather Oak” by the staff of the cemetery, this live oak tree located near the office of the property is said to be over 800 years old. Standing over 60 feet tall, with a circumference of 25 feet and, a bough spread of 117 feet, this is without a doubt one of the grandest relics on the premises.
The grave of Rosalie Raymond White is perhaps one of the most well known graves in the cemetery. Rosalie was born in Charleston on January 27, 1882 and died seven months later on September 5. She was the daughter of Blake and Rosalie White, of their three daughters named Rose, two died in infancy.
The grave is fashioned after a cradle, or bassinet, and adorned with a death mask. A death mask is a cast of a person’s face following death, usually made by placing plaster directly on the face of the corpse. These molds were used for the creation of portraits and keepsakes to remember loved ones before photographs were commonplace. The death mask was common from the Middle Ages until the 19th century.
The stately gates at Magnolia Cemetery close just as the sun begins to set in the evening. The neighboring chapel of Bethany Cemetery can be seen as you exit the gates onto Cunnington Avenue.
Learn more about famous people buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
More Pictures of Magnolia Cemetery
Magnolia Cemetery is listed in the National Register:
Magnolia Cemetery, a large public cemetery, covers approximately 92 acres and contains the graves of numerous prominent South Carolinians. Established in 1850, Magnolia is extensively landscaped with winding drives and paths interspersed with small ponds and a lake, and contains excellent examples of late 19th century cemetery architecture and sculpture. The original design included a chapel, formal garden, keeper’s house, and receiving room. Of the original cemetery structures, the Receiving Tomb remains, plus a ca. 1805 structure (now the superintendent’s office), three 1890s structures, five mausoleums, and many impressive examples of cemetery art and architecture. Also remaining are excellent examples of iron work, of the late 19th century and remnants of the original landscape patterns. Magnolia enjoyed prominence during the mid and late 19th century, a time when it was also a popular spot for picnicking during the Victorian era. The cemetery is an excellent reflection of the arts, tastes, and social mores of the 19th century.
Magnolia Cemetery Sources