The mid- to late 1800s marked a Golden Age for stonecutters and monument craftsmen whose offices graced prominent spots along Meeting, East Bay and King streets in downtown Charleston.
The White brothers, Emile Viett, John and William Bresnihan and others led the artistic pack around the Holy City.
However, some residents considered the more ornate garden cemeteries such as Magnolia Cemetery to be elitist shows of social one-upmanship as families built bigger, more elaborate monuments to their loved ones. Most people couldn't afford them anyway.
In time, a modern movement arose, that of "memorial park" cemeteries known for their vast lawns punctuated by bouquets of flowers and smaller, more uniform markers, ones more suitable to most people's budgets.
"At today's efficient cemeteries, there is no room (or allowance - most have very strict burial rules) for the 'poignant poetry' of artistic headstones, monuments and inscriptions, like those at Magnolia Cemetery," writes College of Charleston professor Patrick Harwood in his new book "In the Arms of Angels: Magnolia Cemetery - Charleston's Treasure of History, Mystery and Artistry."
Some memorial park cemeteries, he laments, go little beyond "beloved husband/father/wife/mother" in offering eternal words about a person's life, persona and contributions.
However, even in the bygone years of large and finely crafted monuments, most were reserved for the wealthy. Then, as now, few can afford such grandeur.
"While the economy is recovering and families are beginning to have more financial flexibility, they are still very cautious when making major purchases. If they can spend less, but still get something very tasteful and befitting their loved one, a family may choose that option," says Jessica Koth, spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
And if any movement is changing the monument business most, it is the huge rise in cremations.
Today, about 43 percent of people are cremated. Compare that to 2000 when only one in four people were cremated. In 1970, fewer than 5 percent of people were cremated.
And the vast majority of people cremated today will not be memorialized in a cemetery at all, says Don Calhoun, past president of the Monument Builders of North America and board member of the Funeral and Memorial Information Council, both industry groups.
Among those who have embraced the change are the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey. In a winding row atop a bluff with views of the abbey's lush gardens and the Cooper River, their new columbarium offers families whose loved ones have been cremated a space of remembrance. As at garden cemeteries like Magnolia, this is a place where people can stroll, gather and remember loved ones amid the Lowcountry's natural beauty.
Dedicated in June 2012, the simple stone wall includes single and double columbariums, such as for a husband and wife. Of 84 single niches, 60 percent already are sold. Of 360 double niches, 46 percent are sold.
"The reception to this project has been wonderful. We have at least twice as much interest as I expected in four years," says Jim Rozier, the columbarium's manager.
Today, Rozier adds, 96 percent of people who call for information end up purchasing a niche.
"I have been in sales for more than 50 years, and I have never seen anything like this success and have never made so many people happy," Rozier says.
And it's likely to continue. The Cremation Association of North America projects that the U.S. cremation rate will reach about 51 percent in 2025.
Cremations also mean more choice for families. They can store loved ones' ashes in urns, bury them with any type of marker, store them in mausoleums or scatter them across a special place.
The trend has led Magnolia, a full-service cemetery, to add a chapel mausoleum and cremation garden as well. With cemetery permission, families even can scatter ashes into its lagoon, says Beverly Donald, the cemetery's superintendent.
But instead of remaining forever in Magnolia, the tidal-fed lagoon's waters carry the ashes into the Cooper River - and to the great beyond.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563.
A dramatic, artful expression of faith is on the monument of Jacob and Ann Elizabeth Birt at Magnolia Cemetery.×
Beverly Donald’s favorite monument is this one, with its tall, slender spire and angels, to Elbert P. Jones in Magnolia Cemetery.×
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