Mobile is an old port city founded by French and later Spanish immigrants. As a Roman Catholic colony, the burial of citizens took place in the original Catholic cemetery which stretched between Conti and Dauphin streets in front of the present-day Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Protestant English and American settlers began arriving early in the 19th century and Church Street Cemetery was established by the City of Mobile in 1820. Within a decade it became apparent that more land would be needed for burials. Like many coastal cities, Mobile was visited with yellow fever epidemics which killed hundreds of men, women and children.
There had been a national trend to establish cemeteries away from crowded urban centers and the creation of Magnolia Cemetery in 1836 followed that trend. Its original 30 acre tract was outside the city limits but could be reached by carriage and later streetcars. Spreading out beneath a canopy of ancient oaks in Mobile, Alabama is a magnificent city of the dead. This peaceful graveyard now lies in the heart of historic Mobile, just blocks from downtown.
In 1847 the city began offering lots to various fraternal organizations, free of charge. Members who might not have the money for a plot could be assured of a space with their membership dues. The city would discontinue this practice in 1873.
With the onslaught of the Civil War, Soldier’s Rest was created in 1862, but later renamed Confederate Rest. In 1867 what had been called New City Cemetery became Magnolia Cemetery by order of the City of Mobile.
In 1911 the city council made provisions for automobiles to enter the cemetery but warned motorists that it was not to become a “speedway.” The worry that the machines might frighten a horse was considered a myth.
Although Magnolia Cemetery was city owned, no records of who was buried there were maintained by city employees until 1912. Prior to that it was up to the lot owner to know who was buried where since many graves were never marked.
Today, Magnolia Cemetery covers over 120 acres, and contains some 80,000 grave sites. Originally called the New Burial Ground, the name was officially changed to Magnolia Cemetery on January 15, 1867.
Adjoining Magnolia Cemetery are a National Cemetery containing the graves of over 6,000 veterans, and the cemeteries of Mobile’s two Jewish congregations.
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, Magnolia Cemetery documents much of the history of Mobile, Alabama.
Resting within its 120 acres are many notables from Mobile’s past. Among them are: Confederate General Braxton Bragg, Battle House Hotel owner James Battle, renowned
physician Dr. Josiah Nott, twice Governor of Alabama John Gayle, Civil War authoress Augusta Evans Wilson, Cowbellian de Rakin society founder Michael Krafft, Apache Indian Chappo Geronimo, and the founders of Bellingrath Gardens, Walter D. and Bessie Morse Bellingrath.
In Confederate Rest and the National Cemetery within Magnolia Cemetery are buried war dead from the War of 1812 through Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The variety and array of funerary art on display are breathtaking; from hauntingly mournful angels to elaborate urns, anchors, lambs, and crosses symbolizing hope, mercy, forgiveness, and memory. In addition, the many graceful epitaphs are reminders of a more eloquent and devout age. A visit to this fascinating necropolis is an outdoor experience not to be missed.
Today Magnolia Cemetery is cared for and managed under contract by the Friends of Magnolia Cemetery, Inc., which has made it an inspiring example of historic graveyard preservation and restoration.
By the middle of the 20th century, Mobilians had largely forgotten about Magnolia Cemetery. A number families had their ancestors and loved ones moved to newer perpetual care cemeteries. The city was only keeping up the roadways and it was considered the lot owner’s responsibility to maintain the lot itself.
In 1981 members of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society founded the Friends of Magnolia Cemetery to conduct volunteer work days. The group cleared brush and grass that had obscured graves and monuments for decades.
In 1987 the Friends entered into a contract with the City of Mobile to operate the cemetery and hire their own personnel. Funds that the city once budgeted on just maintaining roadways and paths were given to the organization each year for funding.
Funds were also raised for restoring broken funerary art and a memorial fence program was begun in the 1990’s to replace a rusted chain link fence. That iron fence now surrounds more than three-quarters of the cemetery.
The Friends of Magnolia Cemetery raises money through memberships and memorials to run its office. It also provides its members with an annual walking tour and three newsletters each year which tell the colorful stories of those Mobilians who are buried here.
Magnolia Cemetery has always been a place of change, as it continues to be today. It is a unique and vast urban cemetery. The needs today are very real ones. The challenge to present-day Mobilians is to preserve Magnolia Cemetery; for its past, for its present, and for its future.
A Photo montage of Magnolia Cemetery, Mobile Alabama: