Charleston is nicknamed “the Holy City” because (says the most popular version of the story) of its religious tolerance and its inordinate number of churches. Many of the churches are historic and attached to historic churches are historic cemeteries — happy me!
On the southeast corner of Broad and Meeting is St. Michael’s Church, the oldest church building in Charleston. Its cornerstone was laid in 1752 and the first service held in 1761. George Washington attended Sunday services there during his 1791 Charleston visit and my husband and I had an interesting tour there during our previous visit.
This time, there was no kindly church volunteer to take us through the building. Instead, the doors were open and Kathie and I were free to roam about on our own. There was a volunteer stationed inside, but she provided no information unless she was asked, so I gave Kathie my 5¢ tour: Tiffany stained glass windows, the pew where George Washington and Robert E. Lee sat. Then we went outside and took our time in the church cemetery.
On my last visit, the tour guide had taken us straight to John Rutledge’s grave and we hadn’t seen anything else. This time, we spotted this.
The inscription says:
In Memory of Mary Ann Luyten
Wife of Will Luyten
Died Sep 9th 1770 The 27th year of her Age
There was a story in a 1921 newspaper about how Mary Ann Luyten had been thrown from her horse three days before her wedding, and paralyzed. But Will, a cabinet maker, “insisted that they be married, though there was no possibility that his bride would ever be able to rise from her bed.” He built her a bed, where she laid for the entirety of their 9 year marriage. And when she died, the headboard was put above her grave.
It’s a sweet story but who knows if it’s true. What we do know is that her will specified that the headboard be used, and what it would say on it. It’s the first of it’s kind that I’ve ever seen, but bed headboards as grave markers were apparently a thing in colonial times. Kathie’s heard that it’s where the phrase “rest in peace” comes from.
Because they’re wooden and prone to deteriorate easily, not many still exist. This one is a copy. The original is safely kept at the Charleston Museum.
A couple of blocks away is St. Philip’s Church, which lays claim to being Charleston’s oldest congregation, though not the oldest building. The first St. Philip’s was built in 1680, at the corner of Broad and Meeting, where St. Michael’s now stands. A few fires and hurricanes later, the current St. Philip’s, on Church Street, opened for business in 1838.
St. Philip’s has two parts to its cemetery: one next to the church on the east side of Church Street, and one across the street on the west side of the street. I’ve been past St. Philip’s many times through the years and I’ve never seen the East Church Yard open — there’s always a sign on its elaborate iron gate that says that it’s closed for maintenance. I wonder if it is or if they’re just trying to discourage ghost hunters. The cemetery is apparently popular with ghost tours and the church isn’t having it.
It’s said — though I don’t know if it’s true — that only people born in Charleston are allowed to be buried in St. Philip’s East Church Yard. All others are relegated to the West Church Yard. So John C. Calhoun, the famous South Carolina statesman born in Abbeville, South Carolina, is buried in the west yard while his wife, Charleston-born Floride Bonneau Colhoun (a cousin from a side of the family that uses a slightly different name spelling), is buried on the east side.
There’s one more church I wanted to mention, though we didn’t do anything but walk by. The Circular Congregational Church is on the same block as St. Philip’s west cemetery, but faces Meeting. It was founded in 1681 and the graveyard is the city’s oldest, with monuments dating from 1695.
The current church building was finished in 1892 and looks very interesting from the outside. I wish we’d taken the time to look around but we were on a bicycling jersey hunt for Mr. History Tourist so regretfully, we hurried past. Definitely on the list for next time, though.