A cemetery isn’t just a field full of mouldering, carved stones — it’s a testament to the people who are buried there, and to the times they lived in.
The tongues of the deceased may be stilled, but a series of interviews conducted by Dee Williams and Lewis Armmond in 1989 record anecdotes and remembrances shared by elderly Kenilworth residents who lived near the cemetery for many years.
Here are the voices of some of them, giving a picture of a vanished world, whose remnants still lie buried beneath the South Asheville Cemetery’s creeping underbrush.
Love, not money
Mrs. Annie Mae Bolden: “Yes, Mr. [George] Avery was a gravedigger over there. He would clean up around your family plot, but you had to pay him — or you could do it yourself … you and some of your friends.
“People used to work more out of love than they do now; people don’t care now. … In 1917, during the flu epidemic, when they were burying at least five people out there in the cemetery, the kin people buried their own, and friends got together and buried their own — not for money, but out of love and friendship.
“There was one white undertaker that would take blacks, and that was Mr. Starnes. His place of business was between the Square and Eagle Street, on South Main.
“I remember when my grandmother died: My father had just built us a new house, in 1900, and my grandmother came to live with us. She died not long after we moved … in 1902: She died of the pneumonia. I didn’t get to go to her funeral, because I had caught the pneumonia from her. But I remember lifting up from my bed and seeing Mr. Starnes taking her casket away for the funeral (they used to bring the deceased body in the casket to the house back then, you know). Then Mr. Noel Murry came here; [he] was the first black undertaker to come to Asheville.
Dressed to kill
Mrs. Ethel Burgan: “When I was a little girl, I had to give a speech in school. … I came home to change clothes, but I couldn’t find a clean slip, so I went in my mother’s bureau and got out this pretty shimmie … (I know you don’t know what a shimmie is — it’s like a bra and slip made together). So I pinned it up to fit me, put on my clothes and went out and gave my speech.
“So when my mother got home, she said, ‘Child, where did you get that shimmie from?’ and I said, ‘Mama, I needed a clean slip and couldn’t find one, so I got this one out of your bureau drawer.’ And she said, ‘Child, I was saving that to be buried in.’
“You see, people used to save something they considered special from among their own things to be buried in. People don’t do that anymore.”
Rev. Benjamin F. Brewer: “Now the family was responsible for dressing the body. The family would dress the family member in very expensive clothes or gowns, and whatever jewelry they had — wedding rings, favorite jewelry, or any favorite object of that person’s would be buried right along with them. People went all-out to bury their kin, because they wanted to put them away nicely in their final resting place.
“They would also place favorite objects on the outside of the graves, too — things like antique vases and bowls to put flowers in, or children’s favorite toys. It was very nice, until the vandals started taking everything. I remember my family placed an antique vase on my sister Sara Ellen’s grave. … Some white folks in Georgia, the Dr. Sherrels family, had given it to her when she was about 3 or 4 years old; we placed it on her grave to keep the flowers in.
“One day, I saw a white lady riding down the trail on a horse, with a vase in her hand, and I thought to myself, ‘That looks just like Sara’s vase.’ So I went up to Sara’s grave to look — and, sure enough, it was gone.”
Mrs. Rosa Gordon Brewer: “My father and mother are both buried at the South Asheville Cemetery. My mother, Mrs. Lela Banks Gordon, was an avid church worker. She had rheumatism and couldn’t work outside of the home, but she loved to sew and spent a lot of time at the church. Her grave is one grave over from my father’s (Rev. Gordon), because someone else died before she did, and that person was buried next to my father. So she was buried next to them, the next grave over. Their graves are very near what is now a tennis court.
On the run…
Mrs. Annie Mae Bolden: “… I haven’t been out there in years. The last time I was out there, I was the acting secretary for the Missionary Convention, and there was a meeting at the church, so a few of the other ladies and I walked over to the graveyard.
“It was all grown over with weeds, and it was in bad shape. So we were walking around out there, and we heard what sounded like a whistling sound. And one of the ladies said, ‘Ladies, let’s go fast! That’s the whistle of a rattlesnake, I’ve heard it before.’ And we flew, and I haven’t been back out there since.”