Individuals of all classes rest in the peace of the Bruton Parish graveyard. Church guide Anne Conkling describes one of America’s oldest cemeteries.
Podcast (audio): Download (3.8MB)
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter, and today my guest is Anne Conkling, who is a church guide at Bruton Parish Church. Anne, thank you for being with us today.
Anne Conkling: My pleasure.
Harmony: This is the time of year when we start to think about graveyards and churchyards and things like that, and you actually can tell us a good bit about what is probably one of America's oldest churchyards, which is Bruton Parish Church.
Anne: The church is one of the oldest buildings in continuous use, and it is an active congregation today with close to 600 families who belong there. The building itself is 1715, but the churchyard goes all the way back to the 1630s.
Harmony: And now burials were not happening only in the churchyard, right?
Anne: No, the norm is to be buried on land you owned, so Mr. Washington is at Mt. Vernon, Mr. Henry is at Red Hill, Mr. Jefferson is at Monticello. The most important people of your life were buried in the floor of the church. In England of course, that was royalty, nobility and clergy. Here in the colonies, we seem to think doctors, lawyers, judges, priests and politicians are the very best sort, so that's the quality who gets buried inside the church.
Outside the church are a lot of people who clearly had no place else to be buried. They didn't own big farms. They were townsfolk. Now they could have been buried back at the end of their lot, back near the necessaries and the fruit trees. They could have been buried wherever they died, because they didn't know how to keep a body, they weren't embalming yet, so they would get the body washed and dressed and into the ground pretty quickly.
Harmony: You mentioned that notable people were buried in the church floor. How does that work?
Anne: Well the vestry would have known who were the most notable of the town, and they would have probably decided that when someone like Henry Hacker or Mrs. Prentis or Governor Fauquier â€“ Governor Fauquier is probably one of our best examples â€“ he died while he was in residence at the Governor's Palace, they didn't ship him back to England to bury him at home, they buried him here. So they buried him in the north aisle of the church right beside the Governor's pew from which he had often presided. He is marked with a very nice stone, probably marked a little bit later -- most of the marking was done much later. But you simply dig up the floor and bury them in the church.
Harmony: Was it like a stone floor, or wooden floor?
Anne: In the early years it would have been a dirt floor, and then they would have put pieces of flagstone like a garden path. Remember we're in the tidewater, where all of our land is sand or red clay. We don’t have hard stone. You have to go all the way to the Charlottesville area before there's hard stone. Because they couldn't trade inter-colonially, all the stone comes from England. So the stone for gravestone, the stone for the floor, the stone for steps, all of that comes across as ballast. So the gravestones that are in the yard came as ballast. Very few gravestones were in the floor of the church.
Harmony: Moving to the outdoors, the Bruton Parish Churchyard itself, it has a unique look, and I think that's born of the headstones and the burial practices of the era in which it was created. Can you talk about what that churchyard looks like?
Anne: It really depends on what year you're looking at it. If you're looking at it when Williamsburg becomes the capital city in 1699, it probably was pretty sparse. By the time that church is built in 1715, it probably has a few markers. Now they may have been wooden crosses all lined up. That yard has not been done archaeologically, but you can kind of imagine in your mind's eye that they would have had crosses for the poor, and the very wealthy could have imported a great gravestone.
You know, many of the gentlemen of the time ordered everything from England. Many of them ordered stones that were shipped across with nothing left to be cut but the date. That way they control what's said about them on the stones, it's like writing your own obituary, but it also means if you think you're wealthy enough and important enough to afford a great table tomb rather than a flat ledger stone, you're going to order the biggest table tomb you can afford. So if you're looking at the graveyard by Mr. Jefferson's time at the College, and I believe he arrived in 1760, there would have been some stones.
If you're looking at the yard during the Battle of Williamsburg, May of 1862, the church, like many other big buildings was a hospital after the Battle of Williamsburg. The description of our churchyard at that point, point to people waiting to be tended to, piles of amputated limbs, the blood coming from the table tombs which could have been operating tables. It was a very grotesque, and very pitiful part of what comes along with any war.
If you fast-forward to 1907, city council decides that at that point, animals can't roam free in Williamsburg anymore. For hundreds of years, animals went wherever they pleased, and I'm sure you've heard the quote that Duke of Gloucester Street was 7/8 mile long, 99 feet wide, and three feet deep. It was very difficult to travel on Duke of Gloucester Street.
So the churchyard has an excellent, beautiful brick wall. Part of the reason is to keep the animals out of the churchyard. Not everybody was satisfied with the brick wall doing its job, so a lot of families in the 1800s and 1900s put up what looked like chicken wire stretched from posts around the plots of their family. So the churchyard was full of these funny little things to keep people off their graves. Well in 1907 when city council said animals can't run free anymore, all those little fences could go. So the churchyard by 1907 is getting more organized and getting cleaned up.
Our guests love to read gravestones. Some of them are hard to read between the use of the old English, the long "s" and the acid rain that we've all suffered from, many of the gravestones are very hard to read.
Harmony: Tell me more about those gravestones. You've mentioned two things that I'd like to hear more about: table tombs and the markings that we see on gravestones in Bruton Parish that are not common now.
Anne: A table tomb looks like a big stone box. If you were to lift up the top, which sometimes happens, it looks like a big stone bathtub. Now the body is down in the ground. Most graves at Bruton are four and a half feet underground, some of them are six. Most of them are not. The bodies are in the ground, the table tombs are not. We have the finest collection of table tombs in North America. It speaks of our everlasting ties to England. We are always tied to England. The table tombs speak to the luxury, to the status, to the majesty of these enormous families who had so much land and so much money.
Some of the markings that are fascinating, there is one large tomb for Robert Ray, he was a tobacco factor visiting from Scotland who was here buying tobacco, and he died while he was here, and his family was distraught, so they sent that lovely stone to mark his grave, so that people would always remember him. On one end is a skull and crossbones. Doesn’t mean he was a pirate, doesn't mean he died of poison, it means everybody has to die. On the other end is a little angel, which is the promise of resurrection. At the top is a family coat of arms, because the Ray family was well-connected. So if you couldn't read a word, which many people couldn't, you could look in that stone in the churchyard and get a great sense of comfort and also a little bit of Christian education.
Further down towards the west end of the church is a big table tomb for Governor Nott. Governor Nott's tomb on the side has the stage of life. It's a beautiful set of drapes. Little cherubs hold up the curtains at each side, and in the center is the skull in the center of the stage. Which says the same thing: death is in the center, but the promise of resurrection is always there.
And of course all the Confederate ones just say "CSA, May5, 1862." Because we don’t know their names. We have a few places where we know their name, rank, regiment and state. But most of them just say CSA.
There are coats of arms on many of them. On the Milington stone, John Millington was an educator, professor, teacher. He was like a walking university on his own. His is draped with an academic robe and some other signs of education. That's a very unusual stone, it's over by the wall by the Wythe house.
Harmony: You mentioned some of the bodies at Bruton are four and a half feet deep, some are six. Has everyone buried there even had a coffin?
Anne: No. Many folks were laid in the ground. It depends on what you could afford, it depends on how well-born you were. It depends on how much family you leave behind, how much money they have. If you are very, very, very important, you're going to have better luck than if you're not. Many folks were laid out with arms crossed, wrapped in a winding shroud, pinned all the way up with pins and just laid in the ground. The cabinetmaker automatically made coffins or caskets, and some people had simple oak, and some had pine and some people had walnut. Some people, like governor Fauquier, Lord Botetourt is going to have a couple of coffins, sometimes a nest of three coffins and then the outer one is sealed.
Harmony: If you're too poor to afford a coffin, how does that work?
Anne: There were some coffins which could be recycled, reused. So you could be carried to the spot in a coffin and then laid in the ground. And then it could be recycled. You'd have to be very poor to rate that kind of care.
Harmony: Do you find that the bodies are oriented in any particular direction?
Anne: Well the tradition is if you're buried with your feet headed to the west and your head to the east, you are clergy. You are buried so that you will, at the moment of resurrection, you will face your people. If you are buried with your feet to the east and your head to the west, you are a layperson or just a normal person. You will rise to meet Jesus. So that you will rise to meet eachother.
In the church building, it's pretty clear who's buried which way. In the yard they appear to be not quite so organized. We can see that some of them are definitely east-west oriented, but some of them are kind of at an angle. That has partly to do with, I think, the 1683 church looking at the plat that Michel drew of it in 1702 or ‘03, it seems to be kind of at an angle to the current churchyard. So I think some of the graves are kind of at an angle, too.
Harmony: What does the Bruton Parish Churchyard tell us about the life of the people in this town?
Anne: It tells us the visual piece of it is so wonderful. In England, the very wealthy were buried with the very wealthy. The middlin' were buried with the middlin' the poor were buried in the stews if they were buried at all. Everybody who had land was buried at the country churchyard closest to their land.
In our churchyard, everybody's buried together. It's a very democratic graveyard. John Blair, who signed the Constitution, is buried just a few feet from the Greenhows, who owned the store, who are buried just a few feet from Martha Custis' babies, right across the way from Sir Thomas Ludwell, who was secretary of state under Governor Berkley, who's right across from the Tyler-Semple burials which include Mammy Sarah. They were all people of faith. For each of them, the church was the center. They were buried where their hearts were.
Harmony: Thanks so much for being with us today.
Anne: You’re most welcome.