Nearly all grave markers from the last 40 years or so are machine-cut, their lettering precise and even and utterly predictable. In Wilson County’s African-American cemeteries, however, even a casual perusal of older markers reveals artisanal work, almost always anonymous. Though there are many hand-cut styles, one repeatedly snags the eye with its distinctive font — squared letters with flared serifs and, especially, 9’s with long, pointed tails. These carvings are the work of marble cutter Clarence Benjamin Best, who chiseled stars, crosses, flowers, lambs, and Masonic emblems, as well as grammatically idiosyncratic epitaphs, into slabs of stone for more than 50 years. I have found his work in rural Wilson County cemeteries and as far afield as Wayne, Edgecombe, and Greene Counties, but Rest Haven Cemetery is the ground zero of his oeuvre.
Best got his start as a marble cutter at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company on North Railroad Street. By the early 1920s, he was designing and cutting headstones for African-American clients as a side gig. Operating from a backyard workshop, Best worked at every price point, often repurposing scrap stone or headstone seconds to create custom monuments that collectively testify to his skill and endless creativity. He opened his own business in 1946, advertising FINE CEMETERY MEMORIALS, and worked another 30 years.
As a tribute to this unsung vernacular artist, I’ve set out to photograph every monument I can attribute to Clarence B. Best and will feature his stand-out pieces in a dedicated Instagram account. Stay tuned.
Behold the Lamb of God. Clarence B. Best’s work is well-represented in Saint Delight Cemetery, near Walstonburg, Greene County, North Carolina.