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Cemetery dates back centuries
ST. MARYS - Kay Westberry doesn't see dead people, like in the movie "The Sixth Sense," but she does know a lot about them if they died in Camden County.

Westberry, of St. Marys, has just completed a book called "Oak Grove Cemetery: Quiet Reflections on the History of Saint Marys and Its People."

A local historian, genealogist and former newspaper editor, Westberry said she became interested in the cemetery, built in 1788, when she had the unexpected task of guiding a tour group of 85 people for the Guale Historical Society, an organization that works to preserve local history.

The more she learned preparing for the tour, the more interested Westberry said she became in the cemetery.

"It was so interesting, I couldn't forget it," she said. "There were so many interesting burials."

And burials tell a lot about a city's history, she said.

The earliest marked grave dates to 1801, containing the remains of John Houstoun McIntosh, a ship builder who died from yellow fever. McIntosh County was named after his family, Westberry said.

Though the McIntosh burial site is the oldest marked grave, Westberry strongly believes the cemetery contains the remains of people buried earlier.

"I'm sure they're here. They're just not on the surface," she said.

She estimates there are about 600 unmarked graves in the old part of the cemetery.

Several years ago, she convinced city officials to stop selling sites in the old part to ensure none of the unmarked graves were disturbed. The new section of the cemetery still has about 1,500 sites available, she said.

The cemetery contains the remains of 24 soldiers from the American Revolutionary War and every war, foreign and domestic, since then. Entire families were buried in plots next to each other after they died from yellow fever, malaria, flu and other epidemics that swept through the city.

While some visit the cemetery to mourn a loved one, others visit to look at the old grave sites with ornate headstones and, in some instances, interesting inscriptions such as "Thanks for stopping by."

Westberry said the headstones and statues were carved by hand by craftsmen, some world famous at the time. One of the cemetery's most well-known statues, the Resurrection Angel, is believed to have been carved in Italy and shipped to St. Marys.

Westberry said a similar marble statue, known as the "Mitchell Angel," overlooks at a grave site at the Palmetto Cemetery in Brunswick.

The book contains about 400 photographs, some showing old and current photos of different areas of the cemetery, framed identically, to show how it's changed through the years.

Other photographs show a wide variety of headstones, including history of the craftsmen who carved the stones by hand. The book also explains the symbolism of some of the engravings on headstones, such as two hands clasped, one from above, signifying God reaching down from heaven. Other headstones show chains with broken links, signifying the breaking of earthly bonds.

Westberry said the research included oral histories by family members she met when they visited a grave site, as well as census data, library archives, local history books and city records, which she said were incomplete.

The book identifies every marked grave site in the old part of the cemetery, something city officials had not done. The book also contains a map of the cemetery laid out in grids to make it easy to find a grave site.

* Reporter Gordon Jackson writes about Camden County and other local topics. Contact him at gjackson@thebrunswick news.com, on Facebook or at 912-464-7655.

BRKOUT:

Kay Westberry will sign copies of her new book, "Oak Grove Cemetery: Quiet Reflections on the History of Saint Marys and Its People," 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday at Once Upon a Bookseller, 207 Osborne St., St. Marys.



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