The Victorians used symbolism to discuss death. From heavenly hands reaching down to earth to wilted flowers, the use of words was rarely utilized to discuss the tragedy of death. Sometimes seen prior to 1900, there was a slight change in the 1900s where the manner of death was permanently shared as part of an epitaph. While not a frequent find, I admit these epitaphs always leaving me wanting to know more.
Ricky Wilson was a founding member and lead guitarist for the band The B-52s. Founded in 1976, the group helped put Athens, Georgia on the musical map. While most think of REM and Athens, The B-52s were one of the first musical groups I obsessed over. I loved the fun and quirkiness of the band.
As they were growing in popularity, Ricky Wilson found out he had AIDS and died in 1985. Like so many men who died during the early days of the AIDS crisis, his obituary listed he had died cancer. The band was so crushed by his loss that they did not make anymore music until the release of Cosmic Thing, five years later. It wasn’t until this album was released that band members shared he had died of AIDS related complications.
Whenever I am in Athens, I usually make time to visit Oconee Hill Ce,every and will stop to pay my respects to Ricky. Whenever I visit, there’s always some memento left behind.
If you’ve never seen the AIDS Quilt, you view Ricky’s pieces of the quilt at The National AIDS Memorial.
Founded in 1882, Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens, Georgia was the first cemetery owned by Black community in town. Over 3,000 Black Athenians have been laid to rest here. From Monroe “Pink” Morton, a prominent builder and namesake of the Morton Theater, to noted quilt maker, Harriet Powers.
The Gospel Pilgrims were a benevolent organization started after the Civil War. One benefit the group provided was burial insurance. In Athens, the organization was so popular that by 1912 almost 75% Black Athenians were members.
It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
Outside of Carlton, Alabama, Mt. Nebo Baptist Church’s cemetery contains death masks created by Isaac Nettles. Nettles created these masks by making molds of the subjects’ faces while they were still alive, which is different from the traditional death mask made after someone passes. The three-person marker represents Isaac and Cora’s three daughters and rests atop Cora’s grave. There are two other markers made by Nettles. These are deteriorating quickly. In 2020, Hurricane Sally caused significant damage to the masks. These are incredible pieces of folk art. At one point, there were four death masks. One was made for Isaac’s mother Selena/Celina. It was damaged by Hurricane Frederick in 1979. The markers were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.