A glance at Old Live Oak

Published 9:52 pm Thursday, June 25, 2009

Old Live Oak Cemetery is one of the most historic in the Southeast.

It is the site of William Rufus King’s mausoleum. King was founder of Selma and former vice president of the United States. If that fact piques an interest, then consider a visit.

Massive oak and magnolia trees laden with Spanish moss line the cemetery’s dirt roads, which add a look of grandeur to the site’s peaceful, but unique appearance.

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There are a recorded 103 bodies buried in this cemetery, compared to Live Oak, the newer cemetery across King Street. That cemetery holds 3,141 bodies, says Katie Brown the secretary at the cemetery department.

James Hunter has been a custodian for the cemetery department for nine years. While working among the marble and granite tombstones of prominent people, such as Benjamin Sterling Turner, a former slave and Alabama’s first black congressman; John Tyler Morgan and Edmund W. Pettus, Hunter says he has heard a ghost talk.

“I heard a strange voice,” Hunter said.

The custodian thought the spirit was headed in his direction, but it went the opposite way.

Of course the old graves of such famous people, the imported markers from Europe and the tombstones of marble and granite their many Italian influences bring people from all over. Some of those people leave items behind.

Hunter said he has found money and has seen teeth, eyeglasses watches and rings, all he believes belongs to the dead.

Sometimes Hunter and other custodians are called out at night to fix something or check on something. Hunter said the nighttime visits don’t frighten him. “No. It’s the living I’m scared of.”

After all, Hunter and others on the custodial staff are there to care for one of Selma’s treasures.

William Peeples, the cemetery department superintendent, says the hardest portion of the upkeep proves cleaning the “shedding of old trees.” The leaves from oak trees and magnolia trees provide some challenges.

The trees have their story, too. Col. N.H.R. Dawson bought 80 live oaks and 80 magnolias to be planted on both sides of the cemetery in 1879. The trees are believed to be 200-300 years old and have a lifespan of 800 years.

Then, other chores include cutting the grass, cleaning up debris anytime a storm rolls through and replacing old trees with new ones.

Folks are particular about their cemetery here. It continues to serve, Sexton says, “as memories of the deceased.”