The experience of walking on the remains of a person, no matter where I stepped was a unique and rather unsettling one. Built in 1741 by William Byrd II, St. John’s was the first public burial ground in Henrico County, which the City of Richmond was originally a part of. Unless a person chose a plantation burial, people of every religion were interred on the small square block the church sits on. Within a century after the church was built, the land it sat on was so full of graves it no longer was able to hold any more burials.
Despite the fact that hundreds of people were buried in the churchyard, very few gravestones still stand. Some headstones were made locally; most often the family of the departed commissioned and imported headstones from England or New England. A majority of the still standing stones are those imported ones. The reason why so many tombstones were not locally made was because Virginia does not have suitable local stone to make the monuments. To be able to afford the tombstone, the family of the deceased had to have been wealthy. Having an elaborate gravestone was a status symbol. Many of the surviving stones in the graveyard belong to notable people like Dr. James McClurg, a Virginia State Delegate to the Philadelphia Convention and mayor of Richmond, Virginia for three terms.
It was common that the less wealthy were often buried without any marker at all and that partly explains the unequal deceased to headstone ratio. Many noteworthy people like George Wythe, who taught law to Thomas Jefferson, and Eliza Arnold Poe, the mother of Edgar Allen Poe, were buried in the graveyard without any markers until they were added during the twentieth century. Unlike Eliza Poe, Wythe did not lack a grave marker because of lack of funds but because he was a Quaker.
The central Virginia climate is also pretty harsh on the stone monuments. Humidity, rain, and hurricanes do not help the preservation of the graves. Many are crumbling and the inscriptions have completely eroded. The St. John’s Church Foundation has begun trying to preserve the surviving tombstones but with no funding coming from the government or the Episcopal Church, they have to rely on private donations and ticket sales which might take a while.
As the congregation of St. John’s grew, the church needed to expand the building to accommodate the extra members. Extensions were added to the church in 1772, 1830, and 1880. The expansion of the church made it necessary to destroy gravestones to make way for the larger building. Though they did attempt to try to keep as many as they could, many grave markers are in the middle of the walkways or in the steps around the churchyard. In the basement of the church multiple tombstones are still standing in their original places or stacked against the walls.
In Aries Western Attitudes Towards Death and Crowell and Vardney The Funerary Monuments and Burial Patterns of Colonial Tidewater Virginia both write that in the beginning of the Christian church most burials were inside the church under the floor boards or within the walls. Later on when churches were running out of space, the English traditionally allowed only those of rank to be laid to rest within the church walls. St. John’s is an Episcopal Church descended from the English Anglican tradition. It could be perceived that being buried underneath the church itself is an honor. Though if the idea that the monument of the grave itself is a symbol of the dead’s status, why would they want a building to be right on top of it? Personally I think those who paid the money to have a grave made for themselves would not be too pleased to know that now very few people can see it.