Folklife: The Vanishing Grave Houses of Appalachia
The cover photo shows the family of William and Nancy Agee. The photo was taken in 1915 and currently hangs inside the grave house. The couple had two sons that died at a young age. One child was stillborn and the other son, Guffrey, died in 1914 at the age of two years old.
The grave houses were built by their grandfather, William Christain, to protect the children in their resting place. According to the Agee family, Mr. Christain kept a split bottom chair inside the large grave house pictured on the right. Grandfather Christain would walk two miles up hill to the cemetery, take out his chair, and sit and whittle to be with the babies until evening. Agee Cemetery, Newton County, Arkansas
In early colonial America, early settlers were confronted with a harsh life that often ended in premature death for many of them.
A lot of our early ancestors were buried in mass graves that were camouflaged to protect the bodies from the threat of Native Americans.
In pioneer days some bodies were buried quickly and wagons run over the graves to mislead the Native Americans who might desecrate the graves. As families moved further west to find and claim their own land, loved ones were buried on family land. Most of these burial plots were located on hills or mountains and were usually more than a mile away. Family cemeteries were difficult to reach because of the steep slopes you had to walk or climb.
I remember reading about a someone who had to carry a coffin up a steep mountain. When he finally arrived at the top, he stated, “If John don’t make it to heaven, it ain’t my fault! I’ve already carried him halfway there.” Burials on top of mountains and high places provided comfort to the family that water would not seep into the grave and disturb the departed. Most communities never willingly chose areas that were subject to periodic flooding or standing water. It also served as a symbolic gesture that our loved ones were closer to heaven and even better if the burial site was facing the east to have a better view of the coming Resurrection.
Remember the old Bluegrass song recorded by the Carter Family? “Oh bury me under the weeping willow. Yes, under the weeping willow tree; So he may know where I am sleeping, And perhaps he will weep over me.” To be buried on top of a mountain to be closer to heaven wasn’t enough, the surroundings of the resting place were even better if the plot was located beneath a tree. The most popular Christain symbol used on gravestones is the weeping willow tree which signified grief and sorrow. Trees provided shade and protection from inclement weather and enhanced the beauty of the deceased one’s surroundings.
Trees also served as natural markers for graves. Many of the early Appalachians left their graves unmarked because they lacked the skills to create elaborate grave markers. Graves were sometimes marked with two sticks fashioned into a cross and inserted into the ground at the head of the grave. Since the wood would eventually deteriorate, no inscriptions or epitaph were carved into the wood. Over a period of time, it became impossible for loved ones to identify who was buried where and became confusing. Another common grave marker used was a simple plain piece of fieldstone.
Since many Appalachian pioneers could not read or write, inscriptions on fieldstones were rare. But as time moves on, grave markers became even more important so that loved ones could identify, visit the site of interment and place flowers on the grave. Family members also visited to pray and talk with the departed like many of us still do today. Grave markers evolved from large rocks and trees to stone carvings. Stone carvings with inscriptions grew into an art and a variety of materials such as granite, marble, soapstone, and bronze were used.
Grave houses are believed to be of European origin where house-tombs in Catholic countries were widespread. House tombs in the British Isles were constructed of stone. These types of stone structures can be found in some of the earliest graves found in cemeteries in Georgia. Most of the surviving grave houses can be found the in Appalachia, upper South and southeastern parts of the United States.
The practice of constructing grave houses has also been long associated with Melungeons centered on Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee. Grave houses began to appear around 1840 in upper Cumberland County, Tennessee and were small tent-like wooden structures covering the grave. Between 1870 and 1900, the structures evolved from small structures to much larger decorative houses often decorated with flowers and shells often complete with windows and rain gutters.
These small houses were surrounded by picket fences. Melungeon grave houses are linked to the Appalachian superstition that if a gravesite is not well maintained, a mythical creature entered the grave and disturbed the deceased. The grave house acted as both a means of protection and also a sign of respect for the deceased loved one.
As soon as the burial was complete, some mountain folk constructed a grave house or grave shelter to cover the grave to provide extra protection from rain, snow and sleet. They were usually constructed in family cemeteries and covered little more than the length and width of the burial site. The typical grave house was rectangular with open sides, picket fencing and gables at the head and foot of the grave.
Most of them were enclosed structures so that animals and grave robbers would not disturb the departed. Some grave houses varied from having low latticed houses resembling doll houses to some made out of rock with a tin roof.
Not much is known about the original purpose of grave houses but one can rationalize aside from superstition that they served to keep livestock and wild animals off the grave, provide shade for visiting family members, maintain a memorial to our loved ones and give comfort and a home to the dearly departed spirit. Some grave houses may contain more than one grave. The Hufstedler Gravehouse or Pinckney’s Tomb, near Linden, Tennessee, is considered to be the largest grave house in the United States and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Between 1887 and 1895, Hufstedler constructed a grave house surrounding the cemetery with a 5-foot limestone wall. The Pinckney Tomb is the burial site of a local farmer, Pinckney Hufstedler along with members of his family. Hufstedler constructed the grave house in fear of water seeping into his grave.
Today, grave houses of Appalachia are vanishing. Most of the grave houses constructed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have decayed, disappeared or have been torn down. Long past family cemeteries that have been isolated and forgotten have disappeared from the landscape due to neglect and overgrowth of foliage.
Many grave houses have been abandoned by residents which suggest that the cultural practice of these structures have ended. The popularity of concrete and metal vaults along with mausoleums have replaced these structures.
Death has migrated from the home to a hospital. Modern funeral practices have taken presence over traditional wakes in the home and other funerary practices of days gone by. The spread of urbanism has slowly pulled these communities into mainstream American culture. With some of these structures being over a century old, it will only take a few decades before these remnants of the past disappear. Photographs will be the only evidence that will be left of these old time honored traditions.
Do you love all things Appalachia? Then you might enjoy Sitting Up With the Dead: Lost Appalachian Burial Customs and Folklife: The Lost Tradition of Lye Soap and Hog Killin’ Day.