I’ve been fascinated by cemeteries my whole life. The headstones found in cemeteries tell us a lot about the people who have passed this way before us, what these folks thought was important and where they wanted to be in the next life.
I hope to write about some of the most interesting cemeteries over the next few months, but let’s start with an examination of Newton County’s largest. It’s located near the intersection of Conyers and East Streets, just south of the square. This cemetery is actually five cemeteries in one! There is a Confederate burial ground, a historic African-American cemetery, Southview Cemetery, the Old Methodist section and a more contemporary memorial garden.
I have to admit that I like the oldest sections of the cemetery myself. Maybe this is because I am over 60 and assume that "older might be better." The headstones in these sections of the cemetery are the most interesting to me and say a lot about the county’s former residents. Let’s look at the Old Methodist section first. There are a number of chest tombs in the Old Methodist Cemetery. These burials look like elongated boxes or trunks that some assume contain bodies. The reality is different. The burials were placed under the chest tomb in a vault with the box standing like an ancient sarcophagus above.
Remember that in the 19th century, the world was just discovering the wonders of the Egyptian pyramids and their contents. Who would not want to be buried like a pharaoh in a sarcophagus? The chest tombs would generally be inscribed with the names of those buried below. One chest tomb of particular interest in the Old Methodist section of the cemetery marks the burial of Robert Pullen, one of the few Revolutionary War soldiers buried in the county. Pullen first moved to Greene County after the war, where he owned a lot of property. He later moved to adjoining Newton County to live with family members. This is something that you see a lot around here.
Many early county residents moved westward into Newton from more easterly located counties as land opened on the "frontier." Today, with all the traffic and people, it’s hard to think of Newton as a "frontier."
The African-American Cemetery also contains the burials of many important people. Former county commissioner Monty Laster introduced me to the headstone of Mahalia Pitts Clark several years ago when the Newton County Historical Society was preparing to stage one of two "Voices from the Past" cemetery tours. Mahalia Pitts Clark lived to be 100 years old (1855-1955) when most didn’t make it past childhood. She was born into slavery, lived through the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, and survived to see Dwight Eisenhower elected president. It is hard to imagine what stories this woman could tell us today about her experiences. Near her burial is the headstone for the Rev. Tony Baker. His headstone is topped with a stone Bible. It stands as the final pulpit of a devoted man of the cloth who preached for 65 years.
The Confederate Cemetery often is misunderstood by many who do not stop and read its inscribed memorial. Many assume that there must have been a "Battle of Covington." This cemetery does not mark any such battle. The real story is that Covington contained many hospitals during the Civil War, and some who died under medical care are buried in this location, even some marked as "unknown."
These headstones face to the East, awaiting the return of the deceased’s Lord and Savior. It is sad to think that some persons never made it back home or could not be identified.
You might notice the existence of footstones that mark the entire length of the burials in this very confined space. The final section of the cemetery is generally termed Southview Cemetery. There are several obelisks in this section; most are covered by stone drapes. The obelisk is a classic Egyptian feature that marks a ray of light pointing to a spot below from the heaven above. This symbol would be inscribed with a cross and crown design to inform those who passed by that the person buried there was a Christian. The drape is an admonition to beware, because it reveals that there is little to separate this world and the next. Visitors can also see a classical revival mausoleum that marks the burial of William and Olive Porter. Many of the finest burials within this part of the cemetery mark the resting places of members of this wealthy family of (the city of) Porterdale fame. I hope to bring you more about other cemeteries located within the county. I would suggest that those interested in the many cemeteries located around the county purchase "Cemeteries of Newton County, Georgia: Interpretive Driving and Walking Tour," written by Deborah L. Bell, RLA, Newton County Landscape Architect. This is a wonderful introduction to the historic cemeteries that exist all around us in the county. It is available at the Chamber of Commerce in Covington.
Dr. George Lonberger teaches sociology and geography at Georgia Perimeter College, Newton Campus. He can be reached at George.firstname.lastname@example.org. When he’s not teaching, he usually can be found cleaning up local cemeteries with the help of his students.