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Frozen Faces of Mt. Nebo Cemetery
By Kelly Kazek

An isolated dirt lane in the woods of Clarke County, Alabama, leads to a tiny, picturesque white church. Nearby is the burial site of late members of the church, some of whom stare blankly back at visitors through concrete eyes molded into grave markers. Four graves in Mt. Nebo Cemetery are marked with death mask headstones crafted by Isaac Nettles Sr, an inventor born in the 1880s. The exact dates of his birth and death are unknown, because in an odd twist, he is buried in an unmarked grave.

No one is sure why or how Nettles created the stones, though local lore says he made impressions by pressing their faces into wet sand and used concrete and wire to create the masks. Sadly, only two of the four markers are intact, and even those are eroding. One marker has three faces on it and is marked with the word “mother.” There is a legend that the woman died while giving birth to twins, but Kerry Reid with the Clarke County museum said the marker bears the faces of Nettles’ three daughters—Pauline, Marie and Clara—and that the stone marks the burial site of his wife, Korea Nettles.

 

Nearby, an oversized bust missing its head marks the grave of Nettles mother, Selena. Concrete troughs flanking the bust’s head were inlaid with locks of the woman’s hair to add realism, but by the 1980s, the hair was no longer visible. The head itself went missing after that, but no one knows what happened to it.

A few graves away, Angel Ezella Nettles’ stone bears a woman’s likeness and the words “Sis. Dollie” beneath, and still another reads “Manul Burell. Died 1946. He is at rest.” The National Park Service designated the stones as historic sites based on their artistic and ethnic significance that “represent a unique burial tradition” in the community. They are the most enduring testament to Isaac’s creativity—although he was widely known locally as an inventor, none of his inventions survived. Local lore has it that he invented a perpetual motion machine that drew the interest of the Ford Motor Company, but who knows what became of that?

Weird Alabama

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