A lot of life lessons can be found inside cemeteries. Whether you find them spooky or serene (or both), burial sites often force us to pause and connect to the past, remembering the lives that were led and the history that was made. Moreover, cemeteries have a unique way of making us feel more alive, reminding us to celebrate the present and the golden gift of life.
The following pays homage to 12 historically significant cemeteries in Forsyth County. Some of the sites are nationally revered, others are barely known, but all offer elements of history, beauty, and an appreciation of the here and now.
Origin: 1857 | Address: 301 Cemetery St.
Of all the cemeteries in town, nothing rivals Salem Cemetery in terms of majesty. With its imposing tombs and opulent family plots, the site stands in sharp contrast to the flat, uniform graves found at the neighboring God’s Acre in Old Salem.
The cemetery was chartered in the 1850s as a nondenominational graveyard by a group of prominent city leaders. The designers took full advantage of the terrain’s sloping topography and natural vegetation, carving a series of winding footpaths into the 10-acre landscape. The first burial took place that same year when William Barrow—the eventual mayor of Salem—buried his infant son, John, in his family’s plot.
While a 1989 tornado would wreak havoc on the burial grounds, Salem Cemetery has managed to maintain its postcard-worthy beauty.
In recent years, a mausoleum and columbarium were constructed onsite. Yet because the site is bounded by city streets, the cemetery has no room for expansion and thus burial plots are no longer available for purchase.
As of 2013, an estimated 10,000 people were buried at Salem, including many of the city’s most dignified citizens. Among them is Hanes Hosiery founder John Wesley Hanes, Confederate Army General William Boggs, and former N.C. Gov. Robert B. Glenn. But of all the gravesites here, it’s the Reynolds family plot that stands above the rest. The plot includes the tombs of R.J. Reynolds, Katharine Reynolds, and Z. Smith Reynolds (among others). Fittingly, it sits in the shadow of the Winston-Salem skyline—a town the Reynolds family almost single-handedly put on the map.
God’s Acre in Old Salem
Origin: 1771 | Address: 100 Cemetery St.
“Equality in life and death.” That’s the presiding ethos at God’s Acre in Old Salem (aka the Salem Moravian Graveyard), which spreads along a verdant patch of land just south of downtown. The cemetery is home to row after row of simple, flat gravestones—more than 7,000 total—all made of white marble. Each measures 20-by-24 inches and stands 4 inches high, bearing only the name of the deceased, his or her birth and death dates, and an occasional line of scripture or description. A plaque inside the cemetery states that the first person buried here was John Birkhead in June 1771, and that the first Easter Sunrise Service was held onsite in April 1773.
Nowadays, the cemetery is the communal burial site for members of the Salem Congregation, a collection of 13 Moravian churches in Winston-Salem (including nearby Home Moravian). Like most Moravian cemeteries, the graves are organized chronologically in a “choir system” based on age, sex, and marital status. Though it’s not the oldest graveyard in Winston-Salem, it’s certainly the most famous. This is partially because of its position next to the city’s main tourist attraction—Old Salem—and also because of its popular Easter Sunrise Service, which draws upward of 10,000 attendees each year.
With its graceful, unassuming presence, God’s Acre provides the perfect foil for the adjacent Salem Cemetery, with its soaring tombs and lavish sculptures. The overriding theme here is that everyone is embraced equally by God; no one person is more important than the next. Equality in life and death.
Bethabara Moravian Cemetery
Origin: 1753 | Address: 2100 Bethabara Road
Many people assume that God’s Acre in Old Salem is the oldest graveyard in Winston-Salem. But in reality, that distinction goes to the Moravian graveyard at Bethabara, which is also known as God’s Acre (as are all Moravian cemeteries). The site was established by the first settlers of the Wachovia Tract in 1753, more than a decade before the founding of Salem. It sits inside Bethabara Park and is accessible via the park’s greenway trail or by car via Old Town Drive. Visitors will initially see a small graveyard outside the cemetery gates with family plots and upright stones. This is a separate lot known as Old Town Cemetery and isn’t a part of God’s Acre.
Like most Moravian burial grounds, Bethabara’s graveyard features row after row of simple, recumbent markers that form a checkerboard of white marble and green grass. More than 400 graves are here, the oldest of which dates back to the late 1750s.
Stranger’s Graveyard at Bethabara
Origin: 1759 | Address: Midkiff Road
While a lot of people in town know of God’s Acre at Bethabara, very few know about the other park’s other gravesite: the Stranger’s Graveyard (aka the Dobbs Parrish Cemetery). Established in 1759, the site was created for non-Moravian settlers who lived around Bethabara. It’s actually two graveyards in one, both of which are surrounded by a rickety wooden fence. You first enter the Stranger’s Graveyard, a smaller section with a handful of hidden headstones, before passing into the larger Dobbs Parrish Graveyard. The cemetery sits at the end of a short path in an open canopy of woods near the Bethabara Greenway and is accessible from Midkiff Road.
Bethania Moravian Cemetery
Origin: 1760 | Address: 5545 Main St, Bethania
With its peaceful presence and soaring avenue of cedars, the God’s Acre at Bethania rivals its counterpart in Old Salem in terms of beauty and serenity. Nearly 1,200 gravestones are found here, unfurling in a traditional Moravian choir-system layout. Men are buried in the southern half of the cemetery while women are in the northern half. The choir system designates that the deceased be buried chronologically in the order they die rather than in a plot with their family members. The system also separates graves by gender, age, and marital status, reflecting the way the congregation would have been divided while sitting in church centuries ago.
With that said, Bethania’s cemetery differs from the majority of Moravian graveyards in a few ways. For one, not all of the graves are of the simple, recumbent variety. Several of the headstones stand upright, reflecting Bethania’s stance that non-Moravian community members could be buried here also. Areas for cremains have recently been established in the northwest and southwest corners of the cemetery as well.
Odd Fellows Cemetery
Origin: Unknown | Address: 2881 Shorefair Drive
The next time you’re at the Dixie Classic Fair, perhaps soaring high on one of the rides, take a second to look across the street. Sitting quietly along Shorefair Drive is one of the city’s most storied burial grounds: Odd Fellows Cemetery. The 13-acre tract is viewed as one of the most significant black history sites in the city. It was established officially in 1911, but historians say burials took place here long before that. They also estimate that more than 10,000 people were buried in Odd Fellows, many of them former slaves. While the cemetery fell into neglect in the latter half of the 20th century, a restoration group—The Odd Fellows Reclamation Project—has worked tirelessly to clean it up in recent years. Their hard work paid off in 2010, when a historic marker was unveiled at the cemetery.
St. Paul’s Cemetery
Origin: Mid-1800s | Address: 504 S. Main St., Kernersville
Tucked in the woods behind Cagney’s Restaurant in Kernersville, historic St. Paul’s Cemetery sits silently in the shadows, screened from civilization by a curtain of trees and wrapped in a wrought-iron fence. It’s believed that nearly all of Kernersville’s black population was buried here prior to the Civil War. In some spots, weathered rocks mark anonymous graves.
Once the War ended, the town’s first church for African Americans—St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal—opened next to the cemetery and began burying their dead here. The church would eventually relocate to Piney Grove Road, yet the cemetery remained behind. Little by little, the gravesite vanished from public consciousness and fell into disrepair. After years of neglect and overgrowth, a group of locals banded together and restored the grounds in the early 1990s. Today the site is managed by the Kernersville Historic Preservation Society and maintained by various volunteer groups.
The Graveyard at Historic St. Phillips
Origin: 1816 | Address: 911 S. Church St.
On the façade of historic St. Phillips Church in Old Salem, you’ll find 131 names engraved on a 12-foot granite slab. The names represent the 131 people who were buried in the African-American Graveyard in front of St. Phillips from 1816 to 1859. Each name comes with a date and simple description:
1819 FRAN “WORKED AT THE PAPER MILL.” … 1818 HARRY “MAN IN HIRE” … 1831 LUCY “TRUSTED IN THE SAVIOR’S MERCY.”
The engravings were part of a $3 million effort to restore St. Phillips—the state’s oldest African-American church—in the 1990s. Crews also worked to uncover the graves of all 131 people believed to be buried at the church. Little by little, each grave was found, restored, and etched into memory.
New Evergreen Cemetery
Origin: 1928 (moved in 1944) | Address: 2124 New Walkertown Road
Set along 48 tranquil acres in East Winston, Evergreen Cemetery is known as Winston-Salem’s pre-eminent black burial site. The original Evergreen Cemetery opened in 1928 on private property owned by James Foy, a prominent black farmer. The grounds backed up to Smith Reynolds Airport, and when the airport needed room for expansion in the 1940s, the graveyard was moved to its present location. The Winston-Salem Foundation helped the move by acquiring land on New Walkertown Road and footing the bill for relocating 700 graves (although they apparently left a few behind; several graves are still viewable in a densely wooded area behind the airport).
Renamed New Evergreen Cemetery, the site now stands as one of two city-owned cemeteries—the other being Woodland—and contains some 32,000 gravesites.
Mount Pleasant Methodist Cemetery
Origin: 1809 | Location: Tanglewood Park
Located deep within Tanglewood Park, just a few feet away from the famed Championship Golf Course, a small white church presides over a timeworn cemetery. Officially known as Mount Pleasant Methodist Cemetery, the graveyard dates back to the early 1800s and was used for more than a century by members of the adjacent Mount Pleasant Church.
Today, most of the soapstone grave markers have been eroded and erased by time. One exception is the headstone of William Johnson (1732-1765), the area’s first settler and original owner of the land. Williams’ marker was believed to be lost at one point but was located in 1934 and moved to an adjacent plot next to Mount Pleasant, where it’s since been encased.
Lewisville Baptist Cemetery
Origin: 1881 | Address: Lewisville-Clemmons Road
In the center of the Lewisville Baptist cemetery, an original pig-iron fence surrounds a cluster of historic headstones. The tallest of these headstones is that of Lewis Laugenour, the founder of Lewisville and the town’s original namesake.
Laugenour grew up in the Friedland area of Forsyth County before heading west and striking it rich during the California Gold Rush. He returned to Forsyth County in 1857 and purchased land that eventually would be known as Lewisville. He then implored others to move to the area by offering them free land to build their home or business. Among those who took him up on the offer were members of Lewisville Baptist Church, who acquired the highest point in the village to build their new church. Laugenour’s obelisk-style grave (pictured left) now keeps watch over the church’s cemetery and the surrounding town he helped create.
The ‘Old Cemetery’ at Shiloh Lutheran
Origin: 1772 | Address: Jennings Road, Lewisville
Don’t confuse this historic cemetery with its modern sibling. While the newer graveyard at Shiloh Lutheran is easily viewable along Lewisville-Vienna Road, the older cemetery is a harder to locate. To get there, turn by the church onto Jennings Road and follow it a quarter-mile as it narrows and turns to dirt. At the end of the road, shrouded in the woods, you’ll find the historic cemetery spread across a 2-acre tract.
Commonly called the “old cemetery” by church members, the site sat next the original Shiloh Lutheran Church—believed to be the oldest church congregation in Lewisville. Nearly 300 marked graves comprise the grounds, some of which date back to the late 1700s. Among the standouts are Francis Ketner (1748-1831), a Revolutionary War soldier, and Wilheminia Doll (1772-1792), the first person buried onsite. (Rumor has it that the unmarked graves of two Native Americans are also found here, though we couldn’t confirm it.) While the majority of graves date back more than 100 years, there are a few notable exceptions, including the grave of Betty Dull (1958-2008), a longtime member of Shiloh Lutheran who helped lead preservation efforts at the cemetery.