CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — Terry Hardwick’s mother is buried in Brown Swamp United Methodist Church’s cemetery. So are his father, grandparents, and five generations of his family. And when it’s his time, it’ll be his final resting place, too.

“In our church, you have whole rows of the same family,” Hardwick said. “You grew up together, and you’re buried together.”

Hardwick, the church’s historian, estimates that between 400 and 500 people are buried in the church’s cemetery, with graves dating back to the 1840s.

Brown Swamp United Methodist, like many historic churches in the area, are modern-day stewards of tombstones that date back centuries. But as new houses of worship continue to plant roots in the growing Horry County area, church cemeteries are becoming more of a rarity.

Preserving history

The oldest marker in Kingston Presbyterian Church’s cemetery is for Elizabeth R. Singleton, a four-year-old girl who died in 1815.

But she wasn’t the first person to be buried beside the Conway church.

“I think all of the early wooden markers are long since gone,” said Ben Burroughs, the church’s historian.

Overlooking the Waccamaw River, the church interred its worshippers in the cemetery until the early 1900s, when Conway banned burials inside of city limits. The last person to be buried in the cemetery, 96-year-old Edgar Robert Beaty, needed special permission in order to be interred there in 1950.

Kingston Presbyterian Church is pictured on March 24, 2021.

The church’s roots stretch back to the 1700s, and it’s current sanctuary building was constructed in 1858, when the church officially organized. There’s records for 107 people buried in the cemetery, although Burroughs estimates that there’s four times that many on the grounds.

“You could see in early spring little indentations when the sun was just right, and make out the rows,” he said. “Everything was full.”

It has also used ground-penetrating radar to confirm that there are more people buried there than what is marked.

Burroughs gives talks about the church’s history and the people buried there, and plans to create a book of their stories.

Kingston Presbyterian Church has a fund to help maintain the graves and gravestones, which has included placing dirt on top of some of the graves that were sinking in. 

The church sees it as an important duty to take care of the cemetery. 

“They are sacred grounds for people who are buried there, and we are a church, and just feel it’s the right thing to do, and not only from a religious standpoint, but a local history standpoint, probably more so than the religious side of it,” he said. “We don’t think they should be destroyed or misused in any way.”

He discourages stone rubbings, which damage the headstones. If someone doesn’t know what one says, he urges them to ask the church.

“I wish people would treat it with respect, and when you go into an old historic cemetery, do look, but don’t touch,” he said. 

Although he isn’t related to anyone who is buried in the cemetery, he has a special attachment to the people resting there. 

“I feel like I know them all because I’ve studied them and the records,” Burroughs said. 

An evolving practice

Burial is one of most slowly-evolving cultural processes, according to Aneilya Barnes, a professor and the chair of the department of history at Coastal Carolina University in Conway.

“The history of Christian burial and sacred spaces and places of worship being put together is, in fact, literally ancient,” she said. 

That includes formulaic headstones, which include a name, their relationship to others, a birth date and a day of date.

Barnes said people have historically been attached to their places of worship. She points to Rome, where the first public churches were built near catacombs. 

Church burials have also been a status symbol, with the idea that the more privileged were buried in pricier plots closer to an altar. Westminster Abbey, for example, is the resting place for famous figures such as William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Elizabeth I and Stephen Hawking — a vocal atheist. 

On a worldwide scale, she said, Catholics have historically wanted to be buried next to saints and martyrs. Most of Horry County’s historic church cemeteries are attached to Baptist and Methodist places of worship.

Unlike Europe, faith in the United States typically doesn’t inter their congregations inside of a physical church.

“We have already Americanized it in ways, the tradition of people being buried outside of the building itself,” Barnes said. 

A gravestone is pictured on March 24, 2021 in the Kingston Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

She attributes the fading of church cemeteries to the shifts in American culture, both with changes in nuclear families and a population with fewer people identifying with religion with each new generation. Someone in a divorced family, she said, has to choose which parent they’d be buried alongside. 

Newcomers to Horry County, she said, might also not want to be buried in a place away from their ancestors.

“I think all of those things collectively erode the practice of the church burial,” Barnes said. 

Continuing traditions

Brown Swamp United Methodist Church in Conway was built in 1865, according to Hardwick, and many of its early graves don’t have markers that have survived the last century.

“To get a tombstone, you had to be wealthy,” he said. “It had to be brought in by a wagon or by a boat, because we didn’t have a railroad.”

He suspects the now-missing markers were made out of wood. Tombstones start marking the cemetery’s graves starting in the 1880s.

Being buried in a church’s cemetery, he said, was a historic tradition.

“It used to be a long time ago, the church was a center of the community — and a lot of people went to church for the wrong reasons — but that’s where you found out everything,” Hardwick said. “That was a giving place.”

He believes that another factor was that funerals were held at the church. Most people couldn’t afford an undertaker, and hot summers meant bodies needed to be buried quickly, so they were interred there.

Nowadays, people have to be a member of the church, or buy a plot and have it approved, in order to be buried at Brown Swamp United Methodist Church.

Hardwick’s late mother used to tell him stories about how her mother rode a wagon to travel to church. She took care of the cemetery for three decades, cleaning graves and using dirt to fill in spots where wooden caskets decomposed and created indentations in the ground.

“We take care of our cemetery,” Hardwick said. “It’s where your ancestors are.”