Isaac Nettles “Death Masks” Headstones near Carlton, AL

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Located near the southern tip of Clarke County just west of Carlton, AL is the Mt. Nebo Baptist Church and Cemetery. In the cemetery, there are three graves that have very unusual markings. The headstones on these graves contain “death masks”. These headstones were crafted by Isaac Nettles, Sr. (1885 – 1957). He created the “death masks” by making mud molds of the subjects’ faces while they were still alive. From the molds, he cast the masks using concrete and wire. These “death mask” markers are an example of how Nettles derived creativity out of need. According to relatives, Nettles improvised with concrete because there was no money for stone grave markers.

Perhaps the best known of the headstones is one that has three masks. This headstone marks the burial site of Isaac Nettles’ wife, Korean, who died in 1933. The marker features the faces of their three daughters, Pauline, Marie, and Clara, arranged asymmetrically on a narrow headstone with an inscription to the right of center that says “mother” instead of Korean. The upper two of the three faces are still relatively intact but the one on the bottom is heavily weathered. Located a few graves away is another “death mask” headstone. It is a rough-hewn marker that contains a woman’s face that bears the words Angel Ezella Nettles and “Sis Dollie” in raised letters. Angel Nettles was a relative of Isaac Nettles. The third headstone has a face of a man and the markings, Manul Burell, Died 1946. Under the face are hand-drawn marks that outline a shirt complete with buttons. Hand-inscribed across the chest are the words, “He Is At Rest”. The concrete at the top of Mr. Burell’s head has been damaged by vandals, but the rest of the marker is intact. There was a fourth “death mask” headstone that was located near the wife’s marker. It was the largest of Nettles’ headstones, a life sized, from-the-hips-up figure of his mother, Selena, who died in 1940. This headstone was blow over by Hurricane Fredrick in 1979 and all that remains today is the hollowed-out base of the headstone. The Isaac Nettles “death mask” headstones were added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) on February 24, 2000.

The “death mask” headstones have encountered substantial weather erosion through the years because of their age and type construction. The Clarke County Historical Society checked to determine what needed to be done to prolong the life of the headstones. They were advised to let them continue aging naturally because any action taken would only degrade their historic value as folk art. CCHS is continuing with their monitoring and documenting of the headstones. The Clarke County Historical Museum at Grove Hill, AL has additional details about the “death mask” headstones and archived pictures.

The Mt. Nebo Cemetery is located on a gravel road approximately two miles west of Carlton, AL (GPS Coordinates 31.346222,-87.867444). There have been problems with vandalism in the Mt. Nebo Cemetery. To prevent further vandalism the Mt. Nebo Baptist Church has installed a gate to keep out motor traffic when the church grounds are not in use. If you visit the cemetery, please be respectful and take precautions to ensure that no graves are disturbed.

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