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Quaker Cemetery and rural garden cemeteries

Posted: October 17, 2013 3:37 p.m.
Updated: October 18, 2013 5:00 a.m.

A group of Irish Quakers were the earliest group of colonists to settle Camden, arriving here via the Wateree River in 1751. In 1759, Quaker Samuel Wyly gave the Friends, as the Quakers were called, 4 acres of land in the southwest corner of the town limits to be used as a burying ground. The burying ground tract is noted on the 1832 plat by tract “D.” The small section denoted “C” was exclusively reserved for the Quakers, who from the beginning, it seems, planned to allow others to be buried outside that plot of land. The Quaker Meeting House stood in or near tract C. The town council eventually had governance over the growing cemetery. In 1795 and 1799, the town of Camden purchased two adjacent tracts from John Kershaw and Thomas Adams to enlarge the cemetery. These tracts are denoted tracts “A” and “B” in the plan. In 1832, William Wyly Lang conveyed the tracts denoted “E” for the cemetery. Again, in 1856 or 1857, the town purchased land from Henry W. DeSaussure on the north and northwest of the cemetery to further expand the area. In 1899, the area grew to include the old Presbyterian Burying Ground to the east of the cemetery.

In the 1860s, Quaker Cemetery would see a radical change. Between 1830 and 1855, Americans witnessed the advent of a new concept for burial of the dead. Prior to 1830, the usual location of burial centered around church graveyards and family cemeteries. Since Camden had its own town burying ground since the 1750s, our downtown churches did not develop graveyards surrounding the church buildings. As Americans moved into the Progressive Era, a new concept arose. The movement began in Boston with the creation of Mount Auburn Cemetery, created 4 miles out of Boston’s city limits and laid out as a rural garden setting, with winding roads which matched the contour of the land and beautiful, restful vistas. Proposed in 1825 by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, a physician and botanist, Mount Auburn opened in 1831. Mount Auburn was thus described, “It stands near a fine sweep of the Charles River. It presents every variety of surface … with trees and shrubs in proliferation upon the slopes of soft hills…” The movement swept the country. Camden was no exception, and when the town council hired the Scottish landscape architect James Crammond to design a rural garden cemetery at Quaker Cemetery in 1863, it demonstrated its own progressivism and awareness of modern trends. The modern garden cemetery was like a park, a place of refuge and reflection -- a place to stroll the paths, share a picnic, and commune with one’s ancestors and long departed friends.

We only know generally how the cemetery was laid out in its early years. The earliest cemetery plots, the Quaker graves, appear to have been located in “crazy quilt” fashion, randomly laid and of odd shape. There are 12 marked Quaker graves, denoted with simple brick mounds. It appears that Crammond imposed a plan with a combination of curving hillside lanes and straight thoroughfares upon the cemetery property as it was in 1863. Then burial plots were organized within the vacant land; certainly he took into account the Quaker graves and any existing burial plots when making his plan. The result is a pleasing rural garden cemetery design using the existing old burial grounds. The norm for cemetery designers of the day was to begin the landscape plan with vacant countryside. How much more challenging must have Crammond’s task have been? The plain living Quakers interred in this hallowed ground truly might have quaked if they could have known what an elegant and fashionable resting place would surround their simple, unidentified graves. Robert Kennedy, recorder for Town Council wrote of Crammond’s labors, “… the work is being vigorously prosecuted under the intelligent and active direction of Mr. Crammond … It is a labor of loving hands adorning and beautifying that city of the dead in which all are interested by the fondest and strongest tie.”

The Quaker Cemetery renovations come as evidence that life did not stop for the South during the Civil War. Flower gardens were planted and cemeteries were modernized. Interestingly, James Crammond was also hired during this period to design and implement the formal gardens at William Shannon’s “Pine Flat,” later known as the Hobkirk Inn. He also planned gardens for the Kennedy brothers, Anthony and Robert. We suspect that he worked on the already established gardens at Holly Hedge and others in Camden. But the war did take its toll on every day activity in 1865, when generals Sherman and Potter came into our midst and burned and pillaged the town. As Camden focused on rebuilding after the war, the Quaker Cemetery apparently languished.

Upkeep of the cemetery and surrounding fence was not a regular priority and in 1874 the cemetery was apparently in poor condition. A group of concerned citizens formed the Camden Cemetery Association and, in 1874, petitioned town council to convey the cemetery to them, in return for being responsible for its upkeep and proper management. They assumed management that year. In the 1970s, the association changed its name to the Quaker Cemetery Association, under which it operates today.

Today, Quaker Cemetery is a place of serenity and peace. It is a place for reflection. Camdenites have cared for and tended this sacred ground since the 1750s making it, as far as I have been able to ascertain, the oldest public cemetery in South Carolina.

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