Did you know that it was once common in America to pack up a picnic lunch and visit the local cemetery with your friends and family? Before many towns and cities had public parks, people would lounge at local graves instead. They would sit for hours and enjoy the sun, the trees, and—presumably—the peace and quiet of their surroundings.
That practice has since largely fallen out of favor. However, some local cemeteries and graveyards still attract visitors. Local historians take rubbings of gravestones and try to match the occupants to municipal and newspaper records. Paranormal aficionados gather fodder for podcasts and stories. And many nearby residents take advantage of the safety and serenity of cemeteries to get their daily exercise.
If you’d like to visit a historical cemetery or graveyard in Western North Carolina, there are many from which to choose. But first:
What’s the Difference between a Cemetery and a Graveyard?
Many people refer to cemeteries any time they want to talk about where the dead are laid to rest. But there are actually significant differences between cemeteries and graveyards, crypts and tombs, or catacombs and ossuaries.
While the terms are often used interchangeably, a graveyard refers to a burial ground within a churchyard. In contrast, the land marked as a cemetery is specifically designated as a burial ground, apart from belonging to a church.
Now that we’re aware of that distinction, here are just a few of the historical burial grounds we enjoy visiting around WNC.
Located on a hillside at the foot of Cold Mountain, Bethel Cemetery serves as the final resting place for many generations of Haywood County residents. The site was established in 1854 in a spot that offers panoramic views of the Bethel community, an unincorporated area between Canton and Waynesville. Visitors with the Cold Mountain Heritage Driving Tour CD can learn about many of those interred here, including a famous resident in an unmarked grave. William Pinkney Inman inspired his descendent, Charles Frazier, to pen the acclaimed novel, Cold Mountain, which accounts how Inman deserted his Civil War regiment to return home to his love, Ada.
3401 Old River Road, Waynesville | (828) 400-0415 | bethelcommunitycemetery.org
Locust Field Cemetery
In 1803, Locust Field Baptist Church became one of the first churches established west of Asheville. The church sat quietly on a plot of rolling hills, offering true peace and quiet for those who were buried in its graveyard. Today, the site is featured as a local point of interest on the NC Civil Wars Trail. An informational post on the grounds tells how the cemetery and church served as a campground and rallying point throughout the war for Confederate soldiers. Dozens of Confederate soldiers are buried in Locust Fields. Locust Field Cemetery can be found across from the Canton Public Library, just a short stroll from downtown.
130 Academy Street, Canton | (828) 492-0038 | visitncsmokies.com/blog/haywood-countys-historic-cemeteries
“Each of us is all the sums he has not counted,” wrote Asheville author Thomas Wolfe in his debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Historians believe that the eponymous angel, a marble statue that stood guard over his father’s monument shop, now presides over the grave of Mrs. Margaret Bates Johnson at Oakdale Cemetery in Hendersonville. Established in 1885, the historic cemetery includes the original separate white and African-American sections, as well as a section for Agudas Israel Synagogue, Hendersonville’s sole Jewish congregation. The City of Hendersonville now owns and maintains the grounds of Oakdale Cemetery. The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
US-64, Hendersonville | (828) 697-3084 | hendersonvillenc.gov/public-works/oakdale-cemetery
Should you fancy a stroll this fall, we highly recommend a visit to Historic Riverside Cemetery, a Victorian rural garden cemetery in the Montford neighborhood that dates back to 1885. There are paved roads/walkways throughout the cemetery’s 87 acres, making it easy to navigate by car or by foot. You can also purchase maps of significant gravesites, or even schedule a guided tour! Riverside is the final resting place of a number of famous people, including authors Thomas Wolfe and William Sydney Porter (better known as O. Henry), Confederate General Robert B. Vance, North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance, and many others.
53 Birch Street, Asheville | (828) 350-2066 | nps.gov/nr/travel/asheville/riv.htm
St. John in the Wilderness
A private chapel for Susan and Charles Baring originally constructed in 1827 became over time one of the oldest active churches in Henderson County. After the chapel burned, the couple built a brick church in 1833 and deeded it to the Diocese of North Carolina in August 1836. As the congregation grew quickly, another structure, double the size, was completed in 1852. Even so, because of the seasonal nature of Flat Rock’s early years, St. John only operated in the summer months until the 1950s. A graveyard occupies some of the church’s 23-acre property. Among its residents are descendants of signers of the Declaration of Independence, influential politicians of the 19th century, and local military leaders.
1895 Greenville Highway, Flat Rock | (828) 693-9783 | stjohnflatrock.org
South Asheville Cemetery
What began as a slave burial ground in the early 1800s has had a remarkably rich history that continues today. An estimated two thousand African Americans are resting there, but only 93 have headstones with identifying names and dates. Many of the remaining graves are marked only by field stones or handmade crosses, meaning the cemetery must be cleared by hand. After it was closed in the 1940s, the grounds fell into disrepair. But in the 1980s, members of the St. John “A” Baptist Church community began restoration efforts on the property. Today, the well-kept cemetery is part of a larger effort to promote greater public awareness of African-American history in Buncombe County.
20 Dalton Street, Asheville | (828) 254-9109 | southashevillecemetery.net