The City Magazine Since 1975

City of the Silent: Scenic Magnolia Cemetery followed the park-like rural cemetery movement of the 19th century

City of the Silent: Scenic Magnolia Cemetery followed the park-like rural cemetery movement of the 19th century
November 2023

It was dedicated in November 1850

The scenic lagoon and ornate architecture of structures make Magnolia Cementery a destination for visitors.

For impressive addresses in Charleston, there’s South of Broad as well as other desirable neighborhoods. But what’s the best final address? Among the most prestigious sites is Magnolia Cemetery, where you can rest for eternity in distinguished company. 

Following the example of the rural cemetery movement that began at Pére Lachaise in Paris in 1804, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1843 and others in New York and Richmond, Virginia, a group of Charleston gentlemen developed Magnolia. The cemetery was designed by architect Edward C. Jones on the banks of the Cooper River north of the city. Dedication rites were held on November 19, 1850. Artist Charles Fraser delivered the opening speech; Henry Timrod wrote an ode; and William Gilmore Simms’s “City of the Silent” was published to extoll a site of honor and memory. Here, away from the miasmas and fear of disease rising from downtown graveyards, one could wander among lush plantings, see the beauty of nature, and be consoled, soothing the fear of death’s inevitability. 

(Left) Vanderhorst Mausoleum; (Right) About 35,000 people are buried at Magnolia Cementery, including all of the crew members of the H.L. Hunley, which sank for the third and final time in 1864.

Former Secretary of State Hugh Swinton Legare’s body was brought to Magnolia from its resting place at Mount Auburn, and the call went out for heroes of the Revolution and others to be reinterred here. It was mostly the Civil War, however, and the return of bodies from distant battlefields that made Magnolia a shrine for many—especially after the remains of Union soldiers were exhumed from Magnolia  and taken to Beaufort’s National Cemetery. 

By the end of the 19th century, the site’s serenity made it a scenic spot for visitors to the Lowcountry. Henry James extolled “the irresistible poetry” of the place; and here in the democracy of death, lie members of the highest castes and lowest ranks, the oldest families resting next to the newest. While ornate tombs, obelisks, statues, and stones may seemingly jostle and vie for attention, Simms summed it up best in 1850: Here silence rules.