Federal Point Cemetery is on the “back road” of the island comprising Carolina and Kure Beaches, “back” as in farthest from the beach, the sound side. One might think the cemetery was located here in the area of cheapest real estate, furthest from the beachfront hotels and condos located yards from the open ocean. But, the cemetery has been here since well before the island became a hot destination for people to spend their one week off from work, laying in the hot breezeless sun by day and drinking beer and eating fried seafood at night. The cemetery was located here in the 1700’s, its beginning, because it was determined to be the highest point in elevation on the island by those here lived there. The last place a hurricane might wash over, exhuming the shallow, sandy graves of deceased loved ones.
There are two cemeteries at this same location. One was started in the 1700’s, and burials took place here until the 1800’s, most likely congregants of the Methodist Church located a few hundred yards down the sandy lane. The fenced in area is now taken over to maritime forest, many of the wooden markers now gone. Only the tallest, heaviest stones still anchored into the sandy soil.
Just beside the old plot is a new cemetery, new as in headstones from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Adults and children who were less likely farm families, more likely those who have lived and worked in Carolina and Kure beaches, in military, maritime and tourist occupations. The photograph in this post shows a marker from 1912, a child who never saw her second birthday. The top of the marker shows a bird, most likely a dove, symbolizing peace. This marker is one of the oldest in the new cemetery, with recent graves in the same plot, yards away.
I visited the Federal Point Cemetery one Saturday afternoon last April, a sign on the back road pointing me in its general direction. I walked into the dense maritime forest, along a small path, only large enough for foot traffic. Just as I felt as though I was surely lost, the forest opened up into a 3/4 acre clearing, the cemetery in these photographs.
Something about this cemetery struck me immediately, different from the many others I visit. Most cemeteries are regulated by the towns or cities in which they are located, the local municipality mowing the grass, pruning the trees. Part of their oversight includes a list of rules, regarding decoration of the graves, even the size or placement of the headstones. These regulations have turned most contemporary cemeteries into soulless fields, devoid of the haunting winsomeness and reverence found in previous cemeteries allowed to develop over time, on their own. The same dichotomy between a historic neighborhood and the newest cul-de-sac development full of the same house plan, over and over and over.
The Federal Point Cemetery has no such regulation, or at least no regulation that is policed. With this absence of oversight, loved ones of the deceased have taken to decorating the graves year round. With man-made flowers like you see in other cemeteries, but also with small plastic and concrete renditions of angels, flowers, children and saints.
At first, comparing the scene before you compared to your previous experience with cemeteries, the decoration looks garish, absurd. Why choose plastic decorations from a Dollar General or Family Dollar type store to honor your deceased loves ones?
But, as I walked around the plot, making photographs and seeing how people had used these objects to decorate the graves, my opinion changed. Stripping away the consumer culture in which the adornments were purchased, the humble artistry returned. In the photograph above, an angel prays in silent reflection about a child who passed away 100 years ago. Flowers, weathered over time, seem towering in relation to the small grave they embellish. In other parts of the cemetery I saw an angel, head bowed, praying under a small American Flag beside the grave of a veteran. A guardian angel enveloping a fireman, as he saves a child. A pink “Precious Moments” angel and Easter eggs mounted on thin wire poles, stuck into the ground beside the grave of a child who passed way in the Spring season a few years back. What was so foreign at first, to the point of seeming funny, upon further inspection became heartbreakingly beautiful.
(click on photograph for full size image)