Disheveled Decay: Unitarian Church Cemetery

December 15, 2012 — I don’t know what they preach at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, but man is their graveyard a revelation. Located in the city’s historic district at 4 Archdale Street, this tiny cemetery is allowed to run wild over its deceased wards.

The large, Gothic church was built at the beginning of the Revolutionary War by a religious group called the Society of Dissenters. Today it’s Unitarian Universalist and not at all an abandoned property. They just happen to dig a shaggy cemetery.

A few thin pathways allow visitors to navigate this thicket of palm trees, magnolias, Spanish moss, and all kinds of other plants and trees thriving on a soil rich with death. I hear it’s even more striking in the spring, when all the wildflowers are blooming.

The place has a very secret garden feel. It’s hemmed in on all sides by buildings, except for where it connects to the adjacent St. John’s Lutheran Church cemetery, yet four steps into it I felt as if I were making an archaeological discovery on some distant continent.

And it’s in great contrast to the rest of historic Charleston, where every historic home shows off ridiculously manicured gardens in what I assume is some never-ending competition for the covers of the local guidebooks.

The graveyard also has some tenuous and probably false connection to Edgar Allan Poe. The story goes that his poem Annabel Lee was partially inspired by the legend of a woman of the same name who’s supposed to be buried there. In the story, she falls for a sailor, but has to meet him in secret in the cemetery to avoid her disapproving father. The girl dies while the sailor is away at sea, and when he returns he can’t find her grave there because her father left it unmarked out of spite for him. And then there’s probably ghosts somewhere in that story mix.

Poe did spend a year stationed at Fort Moultrie on nearby Sullivan’s Island in the late 1820s, so I guess that’s why he’s dragged into it. But all that’s unnecessary for the allure of this graveyard. It just has an extremely unique feel, and in a city with quite a few cool cemeteries, this one might’ve been my favorite.

At the very least, it made me adjust my definition of what makes a great cemetery.