Death Among the Palmettos: Southern Burial Practicies and Society, 1775-1850

Anne Marie Martin, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


Using burial as a way to view social and political anxieties in the Antebellum South, “Death Among the Palmettos: Southern Burial Practices and Society, 1775 - 1850” argues that the treatment of the dead was based squarely in the social concerns and situation surrounding the living. Specifically examining Charleston, South Carolina, the ways people used burial to make statements about themselves and their class standing both established their status in an ever-shifting society while simultaneously regulating it in ways that became exclusionary to others. Considering Charleston as a microcosm of statewide and national tensions over class, economics, and slavery, I argue that the concerns over these uncertainties played out in Charleston’s churchyards and cemeteries as well as in the city’s daily life.

When Magnolia Cemetery opened on the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina in 1850, it seemed to address many of the problems that had plagued the city for years. Due to disease, epidemics, and natural disasters, over its nearly two hundred year history, Charleston gained a deserved reputation as an especially deadly place. While religious intuitions throughout the city maintained their own cemeteries, these were restricted on the basis of both class and race. Charlestonians who were poor or non-white found themselves relegated to public city lots. Following the Revolution, these groups will debate the roll of race and class in cemetery construction, and fight for space for independent cemetery construction. For the city’s post-Revolutionary government, burial laws will offer a new way to establish authority. Throughout the nineteenth century, city residents saw changes with the introduction of new religious groups, evolving ideas about the cause of disease, and an increase in migrants from different parts of Europe. These developments, combined with the concerns upper class Charlestonians had over their waning influence in both state and national politics, led to uncertainty and a resistance to change on the part of Charleston’s elites.