Friday, May 9, 2014

Colonial Park Cemetery

What do you like to tour on vacation? There are always historical sites, new restaurants, or unique spots that you can’t ever find anywhere else. However, one of the things the girls and I like to tour through are the ancient cemeteries. It always fascinates me what you can learn about an area just by strolling through the local graveyards. Did a plague hit at one point? Some major catastrophe? How many people were of the same name? History is quite often revealed through the tombstones.

It’s also a fun place to scare the unsuspecting. When our oldest was about four, we took a family trip to St. Augustine and walked around the historic district. In order to get to a shop my mother wanted to get to we had to pass through a cemetery. Of course, we had to slow down and look around. Nathan, my father and myself stuck together while the rest wandered around browsing the dates and names on the tombstones. At one point we came upon a grave with a flat slab of stone over it, but time and the weather had done its damage and the lid to the concrete coffin had been pushed up and to the side. A small hole had been created that allowed you to see down into the darkness of the grave. Nathan, my four-year-old, was staring intently down into the hole and I couldn’t help myself. I leaned down and whispered, “Look. One got out.”

His eyes went wide and he clung to his grandfather’s hand with all of his might. “Can we go get a soda now?”

Of course, my dad chuckled and said sure. Char slugged me in the shoulder and called me a bully. However, it did not stop our cemetery wandering, not even Nathan.

On our recent trip to Savannah, we walked through the Colonial Park Cemetery and saw the weather- worn tombstones and family vaults that polka dotted the ground. Some of the carvings had been faded and worn down by the elements, but still there were names to be found and plaques had been put up to help those with the graveyard bent to find facts that would make the trip worthwhile. The tombstones varied from the normal ones that stood at the head of the gravesite to flat on the ground slabs and even large vaults that piled the family members on top of each other like sardines in a can. As I stared at the vaults I wondered if the family had been that close in life, because they were now stuck to each other in death.

Does this mean he never finished his prison term?

The cemetery was established for the Christ Church Parish around 1750 but about forty years later in 1789 it was opened up to all denominations. I suppose after death there should be no discrimination. The Yellow Fever epidemic of 1820 saw 700 people buried there and many who had died due to dueling deaths, which ranged from 1740 to 1877, also found their final resting place there. However, it was closed in 1853 before the Civil War began and no confederate soldiers can be found there. Union soldiers ransacked and looted the graveyard during the Union occupation of Savannah and it is rumored they even changed some of the dates on the headstones.

Of course, as with most cemeteries, Colonial Park has its share of ghost stories. One of the most popular is that of Rene Asche Rondolier. Rene was an orphan, severely disfigured, who seemed to always be at the cemetery. When the bodies of two girls had been found in the cemetery, Rene was the obvious villain since he practically lived in the cemetery. Citizens grabbed him, dragged him out to the swamps where they lynched him and left him for dead. However, afterward, bodies continued to show up in the cemetery. People now accused Rene’s ghost.

The Circle of Life
We toured and wandered, snapping pictures and reading tombstones, until we made it out the other side and could safely continue our journey.

However, just on the other side of the metal gate that surrounded the Colonial Park Cemetery was, to me, the oddest site–a playground. I just stared. Wasn’t it odd to have a children’s playground outside of a cemetery? It just seemed to be a tad on the morbid side to me, but others said it was a great display of the circle of life. It is rumored that the playground resides on what was once the dueling grounds of Savannah when dueling was legal. I imagine that a playground is a much better use of the land than a killing field for men who couldn’t solve their problems with one another other than killing someone. Still, it seems off to me.

We said goodbye to those buried in Colonial Park Cemetery as we continued our trek to our next tourist destination–St. John’s Cathedral. It made sense to me, visiting a church after a graveyard. Usually it is the other way around. Of course, nowadays it seems as if they are one and the same, but that’s another post for another time.

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