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Church's cemetery is a place to be at peace
The Porter family grave site is covered with flowers and greenery. The plots in Mount Zion’s cemetery date from the 1800s — marked by simple stones — up to more recent family graves. Many have unique decorations and markers. - photo by Tom Reed
Mount Zion Baptist Church
Address: 4000 Thurmond Tanner Road, Flowery Branch
Contact: 770-967-3722 or

FLOWERY BRANCH — When Eloise Stringer thinks about the cemetery that sits just behind her church, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Otis Redding song “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.”

Jerry Joe Stringer, Eloise’s second son, was buried in Mount Zion Baptist Church’s cemetery in 1968. He was playing that song the day before his death at age 18.

“He could play a guitar and the Sunday before he died he was sitting on the back porch and he was singing that song about ‘Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay,’” Stringer said. “He was singing that same song — ‘sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away” — and that Monday when he was drowned, I said he must have felt something.

“It was heartbreaking ... he turned 18 in May and drowned the first day of July.”

Eloise has several other family members buried at Mount Zion, where she has been a member for 60 years, including her grandmother and three uncles.

The cemetery is small and has an array of plots, from large stones that mark grave sites from the 1800s to family plots with gardens or benches and statues.

The plots located behind the church are reserved for church members, according to Eloise.

“Each member buys their own plot,” she said.

Added Lillian Ross, wife of the Rev. Emerson Ross who is pastor at the church, “at one time they were letting them go for so cheap.”
But by the early 1990s grave sites were running out for church members. According to the church’s Web site, in 1994, a large portion of property was gifted to the church and was later used as additional burial ground.

And the array of styles of grave markers is representative of the many generations laid to rest there.

Many of Claud Whelchel Jr.’s family is buried at the cemetery, including his great-great-grandmother — whose grave is marked by a large stone — mother, father, aunts and uncles.

Whelchel, a lifetime member of the church, said the Mount Zion cemetery is a place for the community to come and learn about history.

“It’s really a family community from Gainesville on back down to Flowery Branch,” he said.

Claud’s parents Lillian S. and Claud Whelchel Sr. are buried at the cemetery, which he visits almost every day during his volunteer work keeping the church grounds in order.

The Whelchel family lived close to the church in Flowery Branch, and Claud Jr. said his mother worked at a poultry factory in Gainesville and his father worked at one in Buford. Claud Sr. also worked nights at the Bona Allen Mansion in Buford.

Eloise and Claud Jr. are related through marriage. Stringer, who was related by marriage to the Whelchels, called Laura Mae Mosley Whelchel and S.V. Whelchel aunt and uncle — Claud also called Laura Mae and S.V. aunt and uncle. The plot is well kept with a bench overlooking the graves beside a couple angel statues.

“She (Laura Mae) taught school for a long time ... I know she was connected with Beulah Rucker,” said Eloise, a Flowery Branch resident.

About 20 feet from the well-kept Whelchel plots are graves so old they are marked by large stones. The stones were used as headstones for one reason Whelchel Jr. said: “Because headstones were expensive.”

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