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Ruth Little stared at an empty patch of earth in a Harnett County graveyard. Ten days earlier, on her way to survey a nearby house, the historic preservationist had walked

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Ruth Little stared at an empty patch of earth in a Harnett County graveyard. Ten days earlier, on her way to survey a nearby house, the historic preservationist had walked

Tombstones at Greenwood Cemetery in New Bern

Photo Essay/

Hallowed Grounds

Ruth Little stared at an empty patch of earth in a Harnett County graveyard. Ten days earlier, on her way to survey a nearby house, the historic preservationist had walked past a rare 18th-century Scottish gravestone carved with a heart and a face. The memory of the stone had haunted her, and now she was back to take a photo.

But the marker was gone. Shocked by the loss, she vowed to document North Carolina’s early graveyards before they were destroyed by weathering, vandalism, or theft.

At that time, in 1974, Little was in Harnett County during her job as a surveyor with the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office. Before cell phones and GPS, with only a map on the front seat to guide her, she drove all over the state and “walked into every country store I could find” to talk with residents. She carried a clipboard and camera, and wore a denim overall dress with pockets full of film and an extra pencil.

Raised in Fayetteville by a land surveyor father and schoolteacher mother, who picked antiques as a hobby, Little learned as a child the importance of recording history. She later earned a masters in art history from Brown University, where a class assignment to document city buildings resonated with her. “The assignment was so much fun despite being serious work,” she says. “I loved studying architecture while talking with the people who used those buildings every day.”

M. Ruth Little, has spent her entire career documenting and researching North Carolina cemeteries

Since earning her BA and PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, M. Ruth Little has spent almost her entire career in North Carolina. She now lives in Raleigh, not far from Oakwood Cemetery. photograph by Charles Harris

After college, Little returned to her beloved home state. The timing was perfect: As she started her career, the preservation space expanded from solely architect-designed buildings to include ordinary places. The National Historic Preservation Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, ensured that historically significant buildings, districts, and landscapes would be preserved and listed in a national registry. Little became an expert at listing properties, training future preservationists, and saving buildings, hundreds of which would have been demolished without her efforts.

At first, Little used cemetery markers to document family genealogy. After the loss of the Scottish gravestone in 1974, she shifted focus, and she has since traveled to more than 600 cemeteries from Murphy to Manteo, taking photos, drawing pictures, and writing notes. Many of the markers that Little surveyed now exist only in her photos and descriptions. “When I see abandoned cemeteries,” she says, “I want to grab a camera and document them for fear that they’ll disappear before anybody understands them.”

Her resulting book, Sticks & Stones: Three Centuries of North Carolina Gravemarkers, is the first complete study of grave markers in a Southeastern state and is the most popular of her 13 books. She describes graveyards where commercial tombstones intermingle with homemade markers like cedar headboard/footboard combinations, seashell mounds, and concrete forms embedded with playing marbles. North Carolinians on the Coastal Plain created markers from readily available wood, while some Piedmont communities decorated their stone markers with German sunbursts.

Meanwhile, Little’s memoir, The Book of Ruth: Taming Ghosts, Saving History, describes the challenges and adventures of balancing 50 years of preservation work with marriage and raising two children. Today, she lives in Oberlin Village in Raleigh, where she provides consultation services through her company, Longleaf Historic Resources.

“Saving everyday reminders of how everyone lived is important,” Little says. “Look around at the buildings and places you value: These represent history just as much as events [do].” Like the Scottish gravestone, they can vanish. Fortunately, Little is still discovering and recording ordinary — yet meaningful — places before they disappear.

The Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The Historic Oakwood Cemetery rests within a 72-acre urban wildlife habitat in the heart of downtown Raleigh. photograph by Charles Harris

Historic Oakwood Cemetery

Founded in 1869, Oakwood Cemetery is a resting place for the deceased where the living enjoy nature’s serenity and feel the nearness of history. Executive Director Robin Simonton describes Oakwood as “a cemetery full of life.” This 72-acre urban wildlife habitat in the heart of downtown Raleigh is home to hawks, foxes, and deer. Joggers and picnickers pass under a majestic stone arch to enter a world of landscaped, hilly grounds; eclectic monuments; winding paths; and oaks, cedars, azaleas, and dogwoods. The staff hosts a monthly Read in Peace book club, as well as walking tours that highlight the historical and cultural significance of the cemetery, where everyday citizens are buried alongside seven North Carolina governors, five United States senators, 10 North Carolina Supreme Court chief justices, and four Civil War generals.

701 Oakwood Avenue
Raleigh, NC 27601
(919) 832-6077

Gravestones at the Western Carolina State Veterans Cemetery.

With no national veterans cemeteries in the North Carolina mountains, the Western Carolina State Veterans Cemetery in Buncombe County became the first of four state cemeteries in 1993, followed by those in Jacksonville, Spring Lake, and Goldsboro. photograph by Derek Diluzio

Western Carolina State Veterans Cemetery
Black Mountain

This state veterans cemetery is one of four that were created when most of North Carolina’s national veterans cemeteries reached capacity. Opened in 1993, it has more than 8,900 veterans and their family members buried on the grounds. Eligible North Carolina veterans are buried at no charge, and their loved ones can request funeral military honors, including “Taps” and the ceremonial folding of the American flag, which is then presented to the family. For a deeply moving experience, visit on Veterans Day or Memorial Day weekend, when cemetery staff and volunteers place an American flag at each grave.

962 Old U.S. Highway 70 West
Black Mountain, NC 28711
(919) 664-1195

Angel tombstone marker at Oakdale Cemetery

Margaret Johnson’s family, prominent landholders in Henderson County, paid $1,000 in 1905 — nearly $35,000 today — for the monument to mark her grave, which includes a marble angel that stands more than 15 feet tall. photograph by Tim Robison

Oakdale Cemetery

The guardian angel who stands above the grave of Margaret Johnson — one of the approximately 8,350 people buried in Hendersonville’s Oakdale Cemetery — likely inspired the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel. One hand raised to Heaven in benediction and the other holding a shock of wheat, the marble angel stands atop a monument sold by Wolfe’s father, William. Oakdale Cemetery, named for the huge trees on the property, is intersected by paved roads that allow easy access to designated areas, like the historic 1885 white and African American sections, and a portion for the Agudas Israel Synagogue, Hendersonville’s only Jewish congregation.

U.S. Highway 64 West and Valley Street
Hendersonville, NC 28792
(828) 697-3084

The Jont Brown Cemetery

Many mountain headstones — including some in the Jont Brown Cemetery — were carved 25 or even 50 years after a settler died because the lack of roads in the early 1800s prevented stone carvers from accessing the area. photograph by Tommy White

Jont Brown Cemetery

Set on a knoll in Watauga County, with family markers tucked in the grass, this unassuming site has a stunning view of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, yet the nearby trees make it feel secluded. In the late 1800s, preachers like the Rev. Alex Wilson served isolated mountain communities by performing funerals and creating monuments to help families commemorate their loved ones. Using soapstone mined on his property, Wilson carved simple headstones for local residents, including four Brown family members, who were laid to rest in this cemetery.

100 Harmony Mountain Lane
Boone, NC 28607

Tombstones underneath a live oak tree at Greenwood Cemetery, one of the North Carolina cemeteries.

Among the graves at Greenwood Cemetery are those of five soldiers who served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, as well as that of James Edward O’Hara, a prominent African American legislator during the postbellum period. photograph by Baxter Miller

Greenwood Cemetery
New Bern

The many influential residents buried in Greenwood Cemetery provide lessons in perseverance. Greenwood is New Bern’s second-oldest public cemetery and the first city-owned cemetery for African Americans. Pioneering fashion model Levonia “Pat” Porter Frazier inspired young women when she modeled for Ebony and Jet magazines and became the first Black model for Pepsi-Cola. John T. Barber served for 39 years as principal of West Street Graded School, where African American students “were not only educated,” former student Carol Becton told the New Bern Sun Journal, “we were nurtured.” In 2019, white and Black community members worked together to right a long-ago wrong: the 1914 relocation of African Americans from Cedar Grove Cemetery to a mass grave in Greenwood to make more space. They conducted a respectful evaluation of the burial site and erected plaques to honor those who were moved.

810 Cypress Street
New Bern, NC 28560

Tombstones at the Abbotts Creek Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, one of the North Carolina cemeteries in Davidson County

The pierced tombstones in Davidson County are virtually the only remaining evidence of extensive German settlement in this part of the Piedmont during the 18th and 19th centuries. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Abbotts Creek Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery
High Point

In the early 1800s, German American stonecutters who carved intricate sunken reliefs on headstones realized the beauty that could be created when they cut completely through the stone. These pierced headstones — made from local, relatively soft soapstone — are impressive works of art containing German folk symbols like the fylfot cross, which symbolizes eternity, and tulips with long stems, symbolizing life, love, and immortality. North Carolina is home to the only pierced headstones in North America, and with 67 examples, Abbotts Creek Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery contains the largest and finest collection in Davidson County. Those headstones are some of the cemetery’s approximately 450 grave markers, with the earliest dating from 1795.

154 Browntown Lane
High Point, NC 27265

The cemetery outside of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, one of the oldest North Carolina cemeteries.

The cemetery at St. Paul’s dates back to 1722. Because stone was scarce along the coast, brick or wooden markers were more common in those days, and centuries of weathering have left many of the 700 graves unmarked. photograph by Charles Harris

Saint Paul’s Episcopal Churchyard

Not surprisingly, the earliest North Carolina gravestones are found in the cemetery next to the second-oldest church building in the state. There are more than 700 graves at St. Paul’s, yet most of the original wooden and brick markers have deteriorated. What remains are stone box tombs, flat ledgers, obelisks, and headstones, some imported from England by wealthy families in the early 1700s. Under spreading magnolias, the oldest ledgers in North Carolina, called the Governors’ Stones, include a 1704 slate ledger for Acting Deputy Gov. Henderson Walker and a 1722 red sandstone ledger inset with an elegant coat-of-arms for Charles Eden, the governor for whom Edenton was named.

West Church and Broad streets
Edenton, NC 27932
(252) 482-3522

Gravestones at the South Asheville Cemetery, one of the early African American North Carolina cemeteries,Wooden sign reading: African American Cemetery Early 1800s-1943

After George Avery served in the Union Army, he returned to Buncombe County and, until his death in 1938, continued to oversee burials at South Asheville Cemetery, where he is laid to rest (left). photograph by Derek Diluzio

South Asheville Cemetery

The oldest public African American cemetery in western North Carolina began in the mid-1800s as a burial ground for enslaved people on property owned by William McDowell and tended by George Avery, an enslaved man. It later evolved into a public African American cemetery with almost 3,000 graves. Only 93 of those have headstones, including Avery’s. Over the decades, the two-acre cemetery became overgrown with trees and brush until George Gibson, who’d helped dig graves there as a boy, felt God’s calling to restore it. In 1983, with hedge clippers and a sling blade, he started clearing the grounds. Since then, volunteers and members of the South Asheville Cemetery Association have improved and maintained this sacred historic site.

20 Dalton Street
Asheville, NC 28803

God's Acre Moravian Cemeteries in Bethabara and Salem, two North Carolina cemeteries.

Each uniform grave marker in the cemeteries at Salem (left) and Bethabara (right) lies flat on the ground in orderly rows. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

God’s Acre Moravian Cemeteries
Bethabara & Salem

Bethabara and Salem were established in 1753 and 1766, respectively, by Moravians who emigrated from Europe to Pennsylvania and then to what would become Forsyth County. Each town’s congregation had a graveyard called God’s Acre — translated from the old Germanic der Gottesacker, meaning “God’s Field” — where, Moravians believe, physical bodies are planted until they rise as spiritual bodies. Like all Moravian graveyards, the ones in Bethabara and Salem follow a layout and gravestone design recognizing that everyone is equal in God’s eyes. Members of the congregation worship and serve in “choirs” defined by age, gender, and marital status, and they are buried not in family groups but with their choir members in chronological order of their death. The Bethabara and Salem God’s Acres are still in use: Bethabara’s has nearby trails and scenic hilltop views, while Salem’s, at 40 acres, is the largest in the state.

Old Town Drive
Winston-Salem, NC 27106

South Church and Bank streets
Winston-Salem, NC 27101
(336) 722-6504

Old Burying Ground

Tales of bravery abound in Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground, established 300 years ago in what is now the historic district of one of North Carolina’s oldest towns. Ancient live oaks canopy over wooden slabs, ornate tombstones, and vaulted markers covered in brick to protect them from high water and wild animals. A young girl who died at sea in the mid-1700s is buried in a rum keg, which, stories say, her father used to bring her preserved body back. Sympathetic visitors leave toys on her grave, where locals describe having seen the ghost of a little girl playing. Swashbuckling naval hero Otway Burns, who captured more than 40 British vessels during the War of 1812, rests under a cannon from his ship, the Snap Dragon. The Beaufort Historical Association offers daily tours, available by reservation, that reveal other intriguing tales.

400 block of Ann Street
Beaufort, NC 28516
(252) 728-5225

Old Settler's Cemetery in Charlotte's Fourth Ward historic district, one of the North Carolina cemeteries

Old Settler’s Cemetery is located in Charlotte’s Fourth Ward historic district — a prosperous area that was home to merchants, ministers, physicians, and numerous churches in the mid-1830s. photograph by Brian Gomsak

Old Settler’s Cemetery

Situated between the historic First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte and modern skyscrapers, and featuring winding brick paths, towering trees, and manicured lawns, Old Settler’s Cemetery is more city park than graveyard. Yet many of Charlotte’s early influential families are buried there, including Revolutionary War veteran Maj. Gen. George Graham; State Senator and U.S. Representative Greene Washington Caldwell; and Thomas Polk, a founding father of Charlotte and great-uncle of President James K. Polk. The first burial occurred in 1776, making this Charlotte’s oldest municipal cemetery. In 1853, Old Settler’s was replaced by a new city cemetery because space had become limited, but burials continued with special permission until 1884.

200 West Fifth Street
Charlotte, NC 28202
(704) 336-2123

This story was published on Oct 23, 2023