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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Family Cemetery And Burial Practices In Appalachia

The Family Cemetery
The family cemetery in Appalachia has played an important role in social life, local history, and culture since Daniel Boone led the earliest settlers through the Cumberland Gap.  The early settlers were coming into a country in which there were no roads, no white or European presence, and no prior history by their own kind of people.  It was a rugged and dangerous environment.  In a very short time, accidents, child birth, Indian warfare, and disease began to take their toll.  Customs and sanitary norms of the time required that the dead be buried immediately.  A certain percentage of those deaths took place even before the settlers were near an area where they intended to stay long term.  In those cases, the dead were simply buried in the next available bit of ground where it was soft enough to dig. Many of those trail side graves have been lost for centuries. At times of Indian warfare, it was also not unknown for the settlers to make attempts to conceal the graves of their dead.  They generally would have done this for two reasons: 1) to conceal losses of able bodied fighters from the enemy; and, 2) due to generally unfounded fears of desecration of the graves.  But after settlers had found the piece of land they intended to call home, they buried their dead on their own land.  A small piece of land would be chosen at the time the need first arose.  The first grave would be dug and that spot would be designated the family cemetery for the Browns, or White's, or Hicks'. These first and most eventual graveyards in Appalachia were usually located on a piece of high ground, often with a good view of the surrounding area.  It was often a favorite spot of the head of the household. There was also a common belief that on resurrection morning the dead in Christ would arise with the first rays of the morning sun.  The higher elevations usually got morning sunshine earlier than low lying ground.  It was also common for graves to be placed with the face of the dead toward the sunrise.


Photo of A Family Graveyard

 My maternal grandfather, Woots Hicks, chose the site for one of the graveyards my relatives are buried in when a great-grandchild died of SIDS.  It was a high spot in his cow pasture overlooking the home and garden.  It was also a spot he often stopped to rest when he was working in the fields.  In time, a fence might be added.  Some form of marker was generally made for the graves in the early cemeteries, usually a local sandstone with rude carving.  Sometimes, the marker was a piece of wood with equally rude carving or wood burning with a hot poker.  And, with a certainty, more graves would be added to the location.  Even in the last few years, I have known of families who designated a piece of land near the house in Eastern Kentucky or Southern West Virginia as a graveyard.  I know of one near a small church in Western North Carolina.  I have seen them in Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.  One of my favorites in West Virginia is the Hatfield Cemetery in Logan County which contains the graves of Devil Anse Hatfield and most of the other members of the family from the days of the Hatfied-McCoy feud. 

Woots Hicks Cemetery Photo By Roger D. Hicks


Decoration was not common on graves for many years after settlement began.  The earliest form of decoration was usually some form of flowering tree or plant. Red buds and dogwoods were common.  I have found mention in two different writers work of asparagus being used to mark and decorate graves.  Both Cratis Williams and Verna Mae Slone mention the use of what they say the locals called "spar grass" to decorate graves. I have never found asparagus on a cemetery.  But I have helped a cousin plant some on one which is located on a farm he owns in Lawrence County Kentucky since I learned of the practice.  Cratis Williams was writing primarily about Lawrence County.  Slone was writing about Knott County. The best book about Appalachian burial customs is "Death And Dying In Central Appalachia" by James K. Crissman.  He covers burial practices from settlement to modern times. He does an especially good job of documenting changes in trends and practices over time.  "Coal Camp Kids: Coming Up Hard And Making It" by Barbara Ford Ritch has a large chapter on burial practices with many good photos of graves, caskets, graveyards, and corpses. It is an oral history about the coal camps near where I was born around Wayland, Kentucky. The book has excellent recording of first person oral history and a fine collection of photos on many subjects which make up for what it lacks in expository writing. 

 The current practice of placing multitudinous plastic flowers on graves came about after the end of WW II.  It began initially with handmade flowers using wire and crepe paper.  My sister and I made some once to put on the grave of an elderly alcoholic neighbor who died without family in a house fire.  But today it is common to see relatives of the deceased spend large sums of money, which they often cannot afford, to put extravagant displays on graves.  They often seem to feel that the flowers at Memorial Day proves their continued love and devotion for the dead.  I was raised to believe and still practice the belief that a far more fitting memorial for the dead is the effort to live an exemplary and admirable life of which the deceased could be proud.  I also know of a few occasions in modern times where families have turned graves into veritable shrines to the deceased.  I recently observed a case where a family spent more than fifty thousand dollars for marble and a building to cover the grave of a young person killed in a car wreck.  I have also seen one other incident in which a mother spent extravagantly to decorate and memorialize the grave of a son who committed suicide.  In both cases, the expenditure appears to be a manifestation of the inability to fully process grief upon the early death of a cherished child. 

 At some point, shortly after the original settlement, the use of grave houses became common.  A grave house is a simple wooden or stone roof placed over the grave to protect it from the elements and, in those earliest times, wild animals which might attempt to dig out the unembalmed body.  Grave houses are uncommon today.  I know of one site in Johnson County Kentucky right beside US 23 not far from the Lawrence County line where a grave house still exists. A modern variation of the grave house is the use of a large slab of granite or marble to cover the entire grave.  These are usually heavily engraved. It is also becoming more common today for grave markers to be decorated with laser generated images of the deceased.  The most memorable use of a marble grave cover I have ever seen was in a small cemetery in West Central Georgia not far from Holy Trinity, Alabama.  It was the grave of a young boy who had died in a car wreck and was very extravagantly carved prior to the days of laser images. It also fits my earlier statement about such practices often being a response to the early death of a cherished child.  One cemetery near where I grew up in Knott County Kentucky has, perhaps, its earliest grave simply outlined with hand cut sandstones about eight inches square and two or three feet long marking the entire outline of the grave.  No one I know in that community knows who the occupant of the grave is.  But that grave has been protected for the entire time it has been there and a cemetery with more than a hundred graves has sprung up around it.  That particular cemetery is more a community cemetery than a family location.  In fact, members of a dozen or more unrelated families, including a few of my own relatives, are buried in that cemetery.

Appalachian Grave House Photographer Unknown



That cemetery also, for many years had a covered but open sided shelter with a pulpit and seating for church services which usually occur on Memorial Day or, as it colloquially known, Decoration Day. At times in good weather, funerals might have been held in such a "stand" as they were known.  The Old Regular Baptist Church, The Primitive Baptist Church, and a few other regional denominations still adhere to the practice of Memorial Meetings.  This practice is an outgrowth of the circuit rider tradition which followed the early settlers. They are often accompanied by dinner on the grounds or in the home of a nearby member of a family represented in the cemetery.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, settlements were widely dispersed, communities were small at best, and ministers were few and far between.  It was common at that time for burials to take place as soon as possible with whomever was nearby in attendance.  Someone would say a few words, deliver a prayer, a song or two might be sung, and if anyone present was literate, a few Bible verses would be read.  Then at the next visit of the circuit riding preacher, a formal service would be held for anyone who had died and been buried since his last visit.  This circuit riding practice is also tied to the once monthly Saturday and Sunday meetings of the Old Regular Baptists and a few other denominations. 

The family cemetery is less common today but, as I noted earlier, new ones still periodically spring up.  At times, they come to negatively effect the price of land when it becomes necessary for a family to sell.  I also know of at least one case in Menifee County Kentucky where new land owners have made attempts to keep relatives of people buried in a family cemetery from visiting the graves.  But, in general, most new land owners have the common decency to act more mature and allow free passage to and from cemeteries.  Usually, graveyards are excepted out of deeds along with a right of way to the site.  I have also known of one recent case in Pike County Kentucky in which an old casket believed to be from the early twentieth century was found by a land owner dumped by party or parties unknown on his property.  The embalmed body of a woman was in the casket according to press reports.  Apparently, the casket had been removed from land by a landowner or mining company and dumped on the land of the man who discovered it. His land was described in press reports as a likely dumping site because of its proximity to a paved road and lack of close neighbors.  I have never seen a report that the deceased woman or the individuals who violated her original grave site and abused her corpse were ever identified or the site of her original grave ever found.  It is likely that a relatively new land owner simply decided they no longer wanted a grave on their land.  This is a rare occurrence anywhere in Appalachia although there have been numerous documented incidents in which strip mining enterprises simply bulldozed over existing and generally unused graveyards.  

Grave digging and burial practices have changed over the last half century. I was actually grown before I ever knew of anyone being paid to dig a grave and I was nearly that old before I knew of anyone paying for a burial site.  I was nearly forty before anyone in my family was ever cremated.  Up until about the 1980's in most of Appalachia it was the rule that friends and neighbors dug graves.  I remember one old man who lived not far from us who always farmed and logged and never held "a public job".  When anyone within walking distance of his house died, he would appear the next morning at the home carrying his tools and volunteer to  help dig the grave.  It was his chosen form of community service and he was dedicated to it until he was too frail to carry his tools.  I feel safe to say that he alone helped dig several hundred graves in his lifetime.  He was also a perfectionist about grave digging and felt all four walls of the grave should be smooth, level, and unblemished.  He, and most of the people I grew up around, felt that digging the grave was the last act of respect you could show the dead and they deserved to get the best. I have seen him actually use clay or mud to fill in a small hole in the side of a grave where a stone came out and left an imperfection.  When my half-brother, Curtis  Hicks, was buried several years ago in Kendallville, Indiana, I thought of that old man at my brother's grave site.  The grave, in a public commercial cemetery, had been dug with a backhoe and one side had fallen in leaving, perhaps, the worst looking grave I have ever seen.

 It was common for several men and boys to dig graves in Appalachia taking turns and working for brief spells.  The family of the dead would supply drinking water, soft drinks, and lunch.  That was all anyone expected or got for digging a grave.  At the time of the actual burial, friends and family members would fill in the grave after the casket was lowered into the ground.  I was also nearly grown before I saw funeral home staff allowed to fill in a grave.  Today, almost no one digs or fills in a grave for a friend or a family member except in rare occasions where a family cannot afford the charge for grave digging.  During my childhood, it was still common for many people to be buried in simple pine coffins without a burial vault.  Such graves were dug in a unique manner due to the fact that the cheap wooden coffins were prone to collapse quickly after burial leaving a grave with a sunken surface of several inches to as much as two feet at times.  Such graves were dug wider in the top half and more narrow at the bottom.  An earthen vault was constructed in this manner which had edges that were offset from the upper opening by about four to six inches on all four sides.  After the casket was lowered into the grave, precut rough oak lumber of exactly the width of the grave was laid over the casket on the offset to protect the casket and decrease the propensity for sinking.  It was also common for most cemeteries of any size to have a pile of unused dirt just outside the fence for use in sunken graves. 

It was not uncommon for children in Appalachia to play on cemeteries; and, in those days, vandalism was not common as it is today.  Once several of us were playing hide and seek on a local cemetery after dark and there was one grave which was sunken to a considerable depth.  As we went to hide, I happened to be looking directly at another boy who was slipping along behind tombstones looking for a hiding place.  Suddenly he dropped totally and instantaneously out of sight.  He had stepped into the sunken grave without seeing it.  The tombstone was between me and him so I had no idea what had happened. He and I both screamed and he clawed his way out of the grave and took off running toward the gate.  However, he never even opened the gate.  He jumped the fence and kept on running straight home.  None of us who were chasing him and yelling could get him to stop.  The game of hide and seek was broken up and, so far as I know, he never again went on a cemetery after dark. 

Many of the old family cemeteries in Appalachia have fallen into disrepair and are rarely mowed these days except just prior to Memorial Day.  Often family farms have been sold off or fallen into neglect after ownership has been split between dozens of heirs without division of the whole.  Also, with the construction of flood control lakes such as Dewey Lake in Kentucky, Blue Stone in West Virginia and dozens of others in Appalachia, many of the old cemetery sites were flooded.  But federal policy required that all graves due to be flooded were to be moved at government expense.  Every flood control lake built has a government funded cemetery somewhere just outside the area of flooding.  Contactors and crews would be hired to move the cemeteries and graves from a dozen or more might be put in one large public location.  Graves from the same cemetery were usually put in close proximity and names of the original cemeteries are sometimes on stone markers near their particular graves.  These cemeteries usually are operated on an ongoing basis by a board of directors and have added space for continued sales of plots.

Today, family cemeteries are growing less common and some day may well cease to exist except as unused plots with a few old graves.  But their place in the history of Appalachia has been important and every effort needs to be made to respect and protect them.  A few people and agencies from state to state have done work recently to locate the cemeteries and use to GPS technology to document them.  In a few cases, individual marked graves are also documented. 

Addendum March 28, 2017
Recently, I did a Google search of myself as I frequently do, and as I believe everyone should do, to keep track of my publications and citations of my writing and also to become aware of any potential misuse of my online presence.  I found that this blog post has been quoted and appropriately cited in a masters dissertation by Marjorie Fey Farris in pursuit of a masters degree in history at Eastern Kentucky University which was completed and published online in 2015.  The title of the dissertation is "The Persistence of Place in Appalachia: The Phenomena of Post-Death Migration, 1930-1970".  The dissertation addresses the practice of Urban Appalachians of returning deceased family members to the region for burial in Appalachian ground.  I had discussed this phenomena superficially in this post and other writings about Appalachian burial practices but had never seen it discussed at length before.  It is an interesting practice, still common today throughout Appalachia, and unlikely to cease in the immediately foreseeable future.  If you are interested in Appalachian burial customs, the dissertation is worth the time to read.  I recommend it.  

2 comments:

Sarah McDonnell said...

awesome post!

Anonymous said...

very informative; thanks for posting