This past week I was in Savannah, Georgia to research a new middle-grade (or should I say “grave”) novel. This is my first co-writing adventure, and my writing partner, Susan Montanari, and I had lots of fun learning about Colonial burial practices.
Our story, loosely based on a Savannah ghost legend, takes place in the early 1800′s. Savannah’s oldest existing cemetery, Colonial Cemetery, dates back to the mid-1700′s. One of its most interesting architectural features is its burial vaults, which are unique to Savannah and its sister city, Charleston.
Although these brick vaults appear to be ground level, these are the "rooftops."
The small arch at the bottom of this vault is actually the top of the entrance. A set of steps (now covered over) lead down into the vault’s interior, which is about 8 feet tall.
Inside the vault were shelves on three sides, designed to hold wooden coffins or draped shrouds.
Overcrowding was never a problem. In the center of the vault was a large stone urn or urns, where the bones of decomposed bodies could be deposited to make more room on the shelves.
"Tabletops" were another popular option. Some held 3 or 4 coffins underneath.
The Colonial Cemetery was closed in around 1850. Residents were asked to move their family members to Laurel Grove Cemetery and many did.
During the Civil War, hundreds of Union soldiers were billeted in the closed cemetery. At that time, it was surrounded by a 7 foot brick wall. The soldiers set up tents and, as you can imagine, wrecked havoc on the place.
Bored out of their minds, the soldiers pranked the cemetery's dead. They used their bayonet tips to "alter" dates and ages on many of the cemetery stones, including this one.
I think Josiah Muir, a husband and father, was older than 11 at his death. His wife, Mary, must have made medical history when she gave birth at 5.
By the late 1800′s, the park had become dilapidated and rundown. Concerned citizens created a committee to clean it up. The brick wall was removed on three sides and replaced with wrought iron. Plantings were installed and many of the grave markers and vaults removed.
Colonial Cemetery today.
Although only 600 markers are visible in Colonial Cemetery today, it’s estimated that 8,000 souls are buried in its soil.