Death walks with me today, an unexpected visitor in the softness of early spring blossoms. I look down at the grave marker for Rachel Mary Barber, born May 14, 1857.
To know her was to love her.
What a nice sentiment, I think, wondering how many could say the same of me. I notice that she was a year older than I when she died, and think of all the items on my to-do list yet undone. The rest of the inscription reads:
Bury me in that churchyard old, Where flowers give out their sweets: And the Sabbath bell so oft hath tolled, for pastor and flock to meet ... 'Tis Done.
I'm at the start of the Gateway Walk, a lovely, three-block walk that starts on Archdale Street in downtown Charleston where the two steeples of St. John's Lutheran and the Unitarian Church strike an elegant pose. Mrs. Barber's resting place is near the front of the cemetery at the Unitarian Church, a serene space with lush overgrowth and moss-draped oaks that could be a scene from "The Secret Garden."
It's a perfect mood-setter for what's to come.
The brainchild of Clelia Peronneau McGowan in 1930, the concept of the walkway came from a visit she took to Paris where she found a garden walk in the midst of that busy city to be a refreshing respite. The then-president of the Garden Club of Charleston came back and proposed to fellow members that they attempt the same concept in Charleston, where visitors could depart from the sidewalk perspective and enter a refuge of back alleyways and churchyards.
Gateway Walk opened April 10, 1930, as part of a celebration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of Charleston on its peninsular site. It has undergone restorations at various periods and is an ongoing mission of the garden club.
Barbara Heddinger, who handles public relations for the club, says the project takes much time and effort, but members think the treasure it preserves is worth it.
"It's enchanting and most people don't even know about it. I enjoy being able to really look at the old tombstones and stuff."
The walk is a delightful mix of greenery, graves, gates and ghosts. Various plaques line the walk, most inset into the ground so walkers can find their way. My favorite one posted high reads:
Through hand wrought gatesalluring paths lead on to pleasant places,where ghosts of long forgotten thingshave left elusive traces.
Leaving some of those traces in the Unitarian Church's cemetery, I follow the walk down an alleyway and cross King Street, bearing to the right of the Charleston Library Society. Another alleyway leads to a back patio area of the Gibbes Museum of Art. Here, there are tables to enjoy a rest or snack, while taking in a shady play of light or contemplating an interesting sculpture of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld in Greek mythology. I struggle to recall what I can remember of her story — of how her beauty led to her being stolen by Hades and how she eventually won her release, but still had to return to the underworld for one-third of the year.
It's an appropriate sculpture for today's walk, this symbol of the budding and dying of nature, of our dark and light sides.
The walk continues past the Gibbes Museum, where those with more time can go in to enjoy some visual delights. I pause on Meeting Street before crossing to enjoy the view of the Circular Congregational Church with its intriguing Romanesque style. The church combines two powerful forms: the circle, reminiscent of the former church that stood at this site and symbolic of eternity and wholeness, and the Greek cross, seen best in the interior plan, and symbolic of death and resurrection.
Crossing Meeting Street, I enter the graveyard. It's one of Charleston's most famous and oldest burying grounds and a hot spot for funerary art. Here, there are eerie slate markers from the 1600s bearing the stark skull-and-crossbones design, the ancient symbol of death. These are intermixed with later styles, including the "death's head," where angel wings appear instead of crossbones, reflecting changing fads and society's perceptions of the afterlife.
The bells peal at neighboring St. Philip's Church. I glance up to see the cross at the steeple's top glinting in the sun. Sandwiched between the graveyards of two famous churches, amid epitaphs and skulls and crosses, I feel watched. I turn to see four cats lounging like satiated lions, perfect guardians of this place. They make it clear that I'm the visitor here.
I know that every time I do this walk, I'll see something new. Today, I'm drawn to a box tomb with Old English script. I strain to make out the words, discovering that it's the resting place for three boys. I pause. Having three boys, this feels too personal. Attracted and repelled, I read on. Somehow it seems a small way to honor their lives.
These are the sons of Richard and Mary Savage. John, age 10, William, 3 and Richard, 6, died within days of each other in 1784. The tomb reads:
Twoud grieve you tender Reader to relate,The hasty strides of unrelenting fate.
I wonder how Mary Savage survived such a blow. I make a vow to spend some quality time with my boys tonight — time of undivided attention — time that understands unrelenting fate.
Today, the gate to the west cemetery of St. Philip's is locked, so I go to Cumberland Street and make my way along the sidewalk. It gives me a chance to see one of the loveliest streetscapes in Charleston since St. Philip's, in true English style, juts out into the middle of the street. At another set of beautiful gates, I chuckle at the church's sign. "The only ghost at St. Philip's is the Holy Ghost. Join us for worship."
Another notable graveyard, this one houses Charles Pinckney, signer of the U.S. Constitution and governor of South Carolina, and Edward Rutledge, signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of South Carolina. It's not the famous tombs that draw my eye, today, though. It's the grave of Elizabeth D. Prevost, who died at 19 years, nine months and 11 days.
I like it that they counted the days.
Just ahead on the path is a flowering white dogwood that catches the late afternoon light, seeming to glow from inside out. Other visitors stop, too, captivated by the beauty. I pause to remember those friends I've lost. A quote comes to mind: "The thing people fear most isn't dying, it's being forgotten."
It brings back a memory of my older brother, who died at 33. He will be forever young in my mind. I take a moment to honor him under this dogwood tree. He'd like it — this tree and the remembering. Before he died, he stopped me as I was slipping out of his hospital room. I thought he was sleeping. He said he had a favor to ask.
I said, "Sure, anything."
"Don't forget me when I'm gone."
I was speechless. As if he had to ask.
Today I'm walking with death, but I realize it's also a walk with life. Amid these memorials of death, life feels more intense. I imagine what joy Persephone had in her ascents into spring. Not one to really meditate on Greek mythology, I realize that is a gift of this Gateway Walk. It's a walk of contemplation, of exploration and, ironically, of joy.
I crouch by a grave to enjoy a spring breeze that's tossing about a wild array of white flowers whose drooping bells leap in the breeze like ballerinas. A lazy contentment steals over me as if I were one of the cats at Circular. Surrounded by death, I find the space to treasure life. This walk is a gateway from the hustling city streets, where I can faintly hear the noises of traffic, to the inner courtyards where solace comes in bird songs mixed with church bells.
I listen to the lesson of this walk.
Maybe my to-do list isn't that important after all. In the end, it's not so much about how long we've been here, or even what we've accomplished, but rather the question of how awake we were while we were going about living.
Phoebe Willis, a Charleston tour guide, says she enjoys doing the Gateway Walk with families.
There's history, architecture, funerary art and horticultural delights.
She recommends making it a game of observation if you're doing the walk with children.
To help you slow down and see the sights, check out this scavenger hunt for children or the young at heart.
It can be fun to take a camera and/or sketch pad to draw gate designs or tombstone shapes and inscriptions. (Be aware that no tombstone rubbings are allowed.) See if you can spot:
-- A sundial. -- Gilman monument: A large tower monument.-- An urn draped in a pall with ivy leaves, symbolic of life everlasting.-- A finely carved lamb, a typical Victorian symbol for a child's innocence.-- Rooster weather vane.-- Concrete tree trunk with ivy: marker for Oskar Aichel.-- Horse-hitching posts.-- Axes on gates.-- Obelisk.-- Skull and crossbones.-- Confederate gravesite.-- Sculpture of Persephone.-- At least three different gate designs.-- Three different types of flowers.-- Cats or other animals.-- John C. Calhoun monument.-- Floral wreath.-- Crowns.-- Angel wings.-- Sounds of bells.
Gateway Walk Tips
-- To print out a map, go to stjohnscharleston.org/visitors.html and click on Gateway Walk.
-- You can start at St. Philip's Church on Church Street or at the churches on Archdale Street. My preference is starting at Archdale, particularly if you want to take a break midway in the Market Street area for an ice cream or a little shopping.
-- If the gate of St. John's Lutheran Church is locked, enter through the Unitarian Church. Check to see if the back gate between the Unitarian and Lutheran cemeteries is open. The Lutheran cemetery is definitely worth exploring.
-- The Gibbes Museum of Art on Meeting Street makes for a fun stop for those who have time. It's open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
-- If the gate between Circular Congregational Church and the west cemetery of St. Philip's Church is locked, exit onto Cumberland Street and continue to St. Philip's Church, where you'll have access to the two cemeteries from Church Street.
-- If you have children, you may want to stop at the Powder Magazine, a National Historic Landmark on Cumberland Street. The building, completed in 1713, is one of the two surviving fortified structures of its kind in what were the 13 original Colonies. It is open Wednesday- Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
-- Check out the library books "Touring the Tombstones" about St. John's Lutheran and Unitarian churches for interesting stories behind some of the tombstones. You can stop by the St. Philip's Church office (to the right of the church) for a guide to famous graves in its churchyard.
-- Circular Congregational Church has some interesting insights into funerary art at circularchurch.org. Click on graveyard in the "about" section.