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Situated in the beautiful historic district of downtown Charleston, The Circular Congregational Church began it's history in 1681 as a protestant or dissenting church and is now affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church.  The graveyard is the city's oldest burial grounds with monuments dating from 1696.

According to church records, the land on which The Circular Congregational Church stands, was gifted to the church in the early 1690s by Henry Simonds,  "...for the Religious Worship of God... to be Publickly Solemnized and performed by any Protestant Dissenting Minister of the Congregational, Independent or Presbyterian Persuasion."

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Tomb said to be that of Henry Simonds



Simonds' tomb, which is unmarked and also contains the remains of his wife Frances, and their son whose name is not known is said to be here - an arched, ivy-covered vault.  Many tombs, such as this one, in the Low County areas of the South are located above ground due to some areas being below sea level and the ground having a high water table.


Circular Church Burial Ground Statistics
Earliest unmarked grave: 1695
Earliest inscribed gravestone: 1729
Number of burials before 1776: 150
Number of burials for people who were born before 1800: 450

There is meaning - a certain symbolism in the designs carved in old gravestones.  Interpretations can safely be made of some of the more obvious designs.  For example, the winged hourglass tells us that time flies. An hourglass displayed on its side means that time has stopped for the deceased.

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Many of the oldest gravestones in the Circular Congregational Church are made of slate and were shipped from carvers in New England and in some instances, shipped from carvers in Europe.  There are many of these unusual 18th century slate stones in this graveyard than anywhere else in the country.

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Gravestones in the 1600s were often carved with bold images of skulls and crossed bones  - ancient symbols of death.   By the early 1700s,   Gravestone art witnessed a softening in its depiction of death.  While depictions of skulls were still obvious, the crossbones began to be replaced by wings and the images were referred to as "death's head." So, while the skull continued to represent death, the presence of wings suggested the idea of flight from life to the hereafter.

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Bust of Soloman Milner

A significant artistic development of the eighteenth century to American gravestone art was portraiture. Portaiture in gravestone art refers to the natural representations of the deceased. Many artists carved the likeness of the deceased from actual paintings.  However, others were carved from a generic "type".   

There are quite a few Roman-style gravestone portraits in Charleston to suggest that, by the mid-1700s, a trend was developing where Americans were imitating certain cultural aspects of the Romans. This bust of Solomon Milner (1726-1757), which has been called "the most notable and best preserved example of neoclassicism from 18th-century Charleston," attests to the influence of this period.

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Grave of Henry Peronneau (died 1743)

Rare medallion portraits are found on some of the slate gravestones, including that of Henry Peronneau, a successful merchant.  Born in La Rochelle, France, Henry Peronneau arrived in Charleston in 1687, at 20 years of age.  Peronneau and his family were some of the early Huguenots in the colony of "Charles Towne".  
 
Peronneau, his wife Desiree, at least three of their children, and many grandchildren are buried in the church yard.

 
Another style of tomb which became popularized in the 1800s in the midwest, had it's beginnings on the East coast in the 1700s due to the high water table in many areas of the Low Country.  This was the Box Tomb. 

Throughout the Middle Ages and even in during the time when the East Coast of the United States was first being colonized, many people felt no need for a visible tomb or memorial tablet.  Even those who did have visible tombs constructed did not necessarily have their bodies placed inside.  Horizontal tablets placed on the floor of churches allowed maximum walking space while still memorializing the deceased.

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Box tomb of Anthony Toomer (d. 1798)

However, in the Low County, Box Tombs were actually used to entomb the bodies - sometime entire families.  These early tombs in the Circular Congregational Church are exemplary of this.
 
This box tomb of Major Anthony Toomer is a part of the Warham family plot.  Toomer became a leader of the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. He was a "housewright" or builder by profession. After the war he served on the South Carolina state legislature.  Only his wife's inscription - that of Ann Warham Toomer - is still legible on the family monument.

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Tomb of Arthur Peronneau (d. 1774)

This is by far the largest burial monument in the graveyard of the Circular Church - approximately 10'x10'x10'.  This vault near the center of the yard was identified as belonging to the family of Hutson-Peronneau during an archaeological survey in the 1980s.  Arthur Peronneau, who died in 1774, may have been the first person buried in the vault.  It was also discovered that at least 18 persons had been buried in the vault as well, many of whom are listed in church records.

Many of the early gravestones have disappeared over the years through either decay or vandalism, however, over 500 remain naming about 730 individuals on those stones. Another 620 persons are named in church records with evidence they were likely entombed in the church graveyard.

References:  Circular Congregational Church; Cemetaries of the Old South;  Charleston Historical Society.

Other Homes of The Dearly Departed

The Olde Burial Ground

Bonaventure Cemetery

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