For 31 years, Beverly Donald has been superintendent of Charleston’s historic Magnolia Cemetery. She heads a small staff that maintains and preserves one of America’s premier “rural” and “Victorian” cemeteries.
These terms pertain to a movement in the mid-1800s that took cemeteries out of cities and into the countryside, where they were laid out to be parks for people to play and picnic, as well as to bury loved ones.
Victorian is the style of the elaborate, symbol-filled statuary and monuments that many well-to-do families erected during this era.
Donald also runs the cemetery’s burial business. Far from a museum, Magnolia Cemetery off Meeting Street in Charleston’s Neck Area still has funerals regularly.
When Donald came to Magnolia Cemetery in 1982, it was not nearly in the well-manicured condition visitors see today. The old house that holds her office was in disrepair, as was the gatehouse at the entrance, she says. Much of the cemetery grounds was overgrown and weed-infested.
The improvements she began making took a major setback during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. But with hard work, the storm damage was removed and repaired.
Today, to help keep the graveyard looking its best, Donald says she relies on a strong staff, attentive board of directors, and an array of supporters around Charleston, the state and country who help the cemetery financially and in other ways.
Q. What has kept you here all these years (as cemetery superintendent)?
A. Well, I like Magnolia Cemetery; it is more than a job to me. My family is buried here and I plan to be buried at Magnolia, also. It’s a fun place to work. A lot of people can’t really say that about their jobs. I feel I have a very diverse job that allows me the opportunity to go outside and have personal contact with the people.
I have responsibilities that keep me in the office a good part of the time but I still enjoy those tasks that take me outside. Researching the various family roots is a favorite part of my responsibilities. It’s an exciting job that offers good benefits.
Q. Did you ever think you would have such a lengthy career here?
A. Never. I never imagined working at a cemetery! I was talked into coming into this job by the chairman. I finally came to Magnolia just to have lunch and meet everyone. I was clocked in that very day and I’ve been here 30-plus years.
Q. Would you say the cemetery has changed much over the years?
A. Yes, in many ways. As far as the land itself, the industrial encroachments have taken their toll. The wildlife is not what it was when I first came here. When I first came here, it was very common to see bald eagles. They had a nest they came back to every year. The deer don’t frequent us as much. The fox, you don’t see them like you used to. However, the repairs to the flood gates have made our lagoons healthier.
The office and gatehouse have been restored and (parts) of them are in need of repairs again. The landscape has definitely changed for the better. We’ve added additional burial spaces by clearing some areas that were wooded. Some of these additions were a direct result of the Hurricane Hugo cleanup. Which was not a bad thing, for this cleared land increased the longevity of the cemetery.
Before my tenure, all the office business, interment records, lot owner files and payroll were all performed by hand. We have since become completely computerized.
Q. Do you feel protective of the cemetery because it is such a beautiful place and it has so much history? Do you feel you are a steward of Charleston history in a way?
A. I actually feel I am more of a curator than a superintendent because of the treasures we have here.
The landscape architecture itself, by Edward C. Jones (who designed the cemetery in 1849-50), is probably our greatest treasure. The sculptures and monuments are irreplaceable.
During Hurricane Hugo in 1989, much of the wrought-iron work was lost beyond repair. We worked hard to get a FEMA grant (to repair damaged monuments) and they really did a good job for us, putting stones back up, removing and replacing trees that were lost, which are themselves historic.
Q. You’ve called the cemetery a hidden treasure?
A. Definitely, it still is the best-kept secret in Charleston.
Q. This isn’t a place the city necessarily promotes, or that the CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) promotes, is it?
A. Magnolia is not owned by the city. The city has a greater interest in historic buildings and parks in the downtown area because there’s more of a concentration of tourists. For-profit tours are not allowed at Magnolia.
Q. And you’re not a money maker, generating tax revenue for anyone.
A. Magnolia is a not-for-profit trust on the National Register of Historic Places. Magnolia is tax-exempt under the provisions of a 501(c)(13) status, and registered with the South Carolina Department of Charitable Funds Act. Everything goes back into the endowment to maintain the cemetery. Magnolia operates off the dividends and interest of the trust funds.
Q. Is it fair to categorize this as a Confederate cemetery?
A. Well, it has the largest concentrated Confederate burial ground in the area, but I don’t consider it a Confederate cemetery because 33,000 people are buried here over 160-plus years, made up of every profession.
During the era of the Confederacy, all men of a certain age that were buried here were enlisted in some branch of the Confederate military. So in that aspect, it’s heavily Confederate populated.
Q. If, and when, you retire some day, what advice would you give the new superintendent?
A. When I began here, I did not realize that Charleston was such a close-knit community. I quickly learned that most people buried here have some type of family ties. This is extremely important when preparing for a funeral. There may be three or four people with the same name, making it very easy to open the wrong grave space for an interment.
Recognition and exposure are of utmost importance for maintaining competitiveness with the cemetery community.
Magnolia should always maintain a good rapport with the right entities. The new superintendent would need to have a good working relationship with all of the historic foundations, like the Preservation Society, the Historic Charleston Foundation and South Carolina Department of History and Archives.
Q. I know you walk the grounds daily, or almost daily, for exercise and to keep an eye on things. Do you have any favorite parts of the cemetery, or a favorite monument or two that you think are particularly beautiful or that you think are the best, or most interesting to you?
A. The Elbert Jones monument. I can’t imagine what that monument would cost to build today. It’s just so architecturally perfect, it’s such a beautiful thing. And my eye caught the monument for the doctors who served in the Confederacy with the wheat on it, I really like those monuments. That’s over in the Gibbes Circle. And I guess the Gibbes Circle is one of my favorite places. I have my places that I like to go. I really like the Lowndes lot in the back that overlooks the marsh.
Q. Would you encourage people to visit the cemetery, who haven’t been here before, whether local people or tourists?
A. It’s interesting you mention that because this used to be a place of picnics, you had to check your picnic baskets at the gate. The trolley car came to the head of Cunnington Avenue. Visitors and lot owners would spend Saturdays picnicking and cleaning their lots. Now, you don’t see as much of that, though it is starting to pick up more.
Since the Hunley crew was buried here (in 2004), that’s brought a lot of people into the cemetery. I would venture to say we have close to 10,000 people a year.
I’m counting the tours. We allow military tours, we allow schools and colleges for educational purposes. We don’t allow commercial tours. I feel anyone would enjoy the diverse resources we have to offer, ranging from wildlife, the Confederate element, other local history and the architecture.
Q. During your three decades here, what are a few of the achievements you are most proud of?
A. One is the process of restoring the cemetery: cleaning it up, setting office procedures into place that did not exist. Getting everything computerized was so significant. Also, we’re self-sufficient now, we maintain all of our own equipment.
I was proud of myself and our staff during the monumental task of Hurricane Hugo cleanup.
It’s not all due to me, but it happened during my tenure. I have a very good board. The board is very interested in the cemetery and really helps me.
Q. So you feel confident the cemetery will be in good hands for decades and decades to come?
A. I don’t think it will ever divert back to the disrepair it was at before I came here. And I’m not saying it was in total disrepair, but it was close. It had started changing for the better when I came here under the current board.
Patrick Harwood is a member of the Department of Communication Faculty at the College of Charleston.