Church Street Graveyard, Mobile's oldest existing cemetery, opened in 1820 and officially closed in 1898. It is a remarkable place, rich in lore and legend, and encompasses five acres of burials set within an aging brick enclosure off Mobile's Government Street. Strolling its level grounds, visitors can get a feel for Mobile's colorful early history. Among those buried here are Don Miguel Eslava, a Spanish governmental official; Col. Jerome Cluis, a Napoleonic refugee; Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines, a hero of the War of 1812; Madame Mary Josephine Hollinger, who was born in British Mobile; and various Revolutionary and Mexican War soldiers, yellow-fever victims, antebellum men of affairs, a Mardi Gras founder, and Mobile's own Renaissance Man, Eugene Walter, whose internment in 1998 was made possible by special mayoral dispensation.
The graveyard replaced an earlier Spanish burial ground known as the Campo Santo (1780–1813, located at the site of the present Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Claiborne Street) that the increasing American population considered too close to the booming downtown. City officials began searching for a place for the new graveyard in 1819 and eventually settled on a parcel, owned by William and Joshua Kennedy, on Mobile's southwest side on the Old Choctaw Road. During ongoing negotiations that summer, a devastating yellow fever epidemic struck, killing 274 residents—a staggering 20 percent of the population at the time. Thus, before the sale of the property was even sealed, officials were forced to begin using the new cemetery.
On April 4, 1820, the Kennedy brothers formally conveyed the parcel to the city. Its dimensions are 417-feet square, encompassing a bit more than four acres. Oddly, the surveyor used magnetic north in laying out the site, whereas the nearby streets were laid out in relation to true north. As a result, Church Street Graveyard lies askew to the downtown grid. The original gate was on the south side, facing the Old Choctaw Road. The present gate is on the north wall, at the head of Scott Street. City officials divided the cemetery into three sections, with the northeastern third designated for Catholics, the southeastern third for Protestants, and the remaining western portion designated a "Graveyard for Strangers" and, incidentally, Masons, Odd Fellows, veterans, and the indigent. The graveyard consists of 20 rows of 14.5 lots each and contains more than 1,000 burials.
Church Street Graveyard was influenced by the traditions of old New England churchyards, wherein bodies were buried inside a walled enclosure next to a house of worship. This is not surprising, considering that so many of Mobile's early American settlers came from that portion of the country. Church Street is a municipal cemetery and was never affiliated with a church, but churchyard influences can be found in the surrounding brick wall (erected in 1830) as well as in the variety of headstones carved by New England artisans. These include the slate marker of Isaiah Thomas Andrews (died May 30, 1819), a Boston seaman, and the sandstone marker of John McCartney (died September 17, 1835), featuring a winged-soul effigy. Church Street Graveyard's many marble obelisks and box tombs are well within the Neoclassical vocabulary that dominated the mid-nineteenth century. Especially notable as a regional peculiarity are numerous raised graves, necessitated by the high water table at the site.
In 1836 the city of Mobile established Magnolia Cemetery, and Church Street Graveyard fell into disuse and was finally closed in 1898. Since then, however, it has become the resting place for several Mobilians prominent in the city's artistic and cultural life. These include Joe Cain (a Confederate veteran who revived Mardi Gras after the Civil War), who was moved into the cemetery in 1968 by author and raconteur Julian Lee Rayford (himself buried next to Cain), and finally Eugene Walter. These three burials (located just inside the gate to the east) now constitute Mobile's own little Poet's Corner. On Joe Cain Day, the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday each year, the graveyard plays host to a huge alfresco festival as members of the Merry Widows Mardi Gras society gather at Cain's grave to weep, moan, and decorate the flat-topped tomb with liquor bottles, beads, doubloons, and palm fronds. The graveyard is open daily from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Nelson, Col. Soren, and Lucy Green Nelson. A History of Church Street Graveyard. Mobile: Historic Mobile Preservation Society, 1963.
Sledge, John S., and Sheila Hagler. Cities of Silence: A Guide to Mobile's Historic Cemeteries. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.
John S. Sledge
Mobile Historic Development Commission
Published February 23, 2007
Last updated August 8, 2013