Mounded up Graves in Appalachia

tradition-of-having-bare-graves-sites-with-no-grass

My recent trip to the Wiggins Cemetery Decoration day on Noland Creek reminded me of the traditional styles of graves that can be found throughout the cemeteries of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

In days gone by cemeteries were kept clear of grass and swept clean. Each grave had a mound of dirt along its length. Often the graves were facing East for a better view of the second coming of Christ. Field stones were most often used as gravestones. Amazingly, some of those field stones were shaped and carved with the deceased one’s information.

The tradition of keeping the graves swept clean was practiced in other parts of Appalachia too. A few years back Blind Pig reader Tim Ryan left this comment about the custom:

“Graveyard workings were an important social event on Keith Springs Mountain when I taught in the one-teacher school there. Three small graveyards at two churches and one isolated at the end of a long road along a ridge. One custom stood out as unique in my experience. The soil above each grave that had a family to tend it was chopped with a hoe till only bare dirt remained. Then the soil was mounded up like a grave that had just been filled. I asked a community elder why they did this.  She replied, “So that we remember the pain we felt the day that daddy died.”

Tipper

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    harry adams
    November 2, 2018 at 9:13 pm

    From Oct 31 to Nov 2 is Day of the Dead in Mexico. A much better tradition than Halloween in the US. Families celebrate and honor their dead with food and music in the cemeteries. I think this is much better than handing out candy to already over weight children.

  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    November 2, 2018 at 6:49 pm

    Tipper. It made sense with those wooden coffins. I really thought it was tradition like scrap their yard and sweep it clean. No one had lawn mowers then and I guess snakes could be a problem. So many cementaries are going by the way side their kin all deceased some cementarys are straight up a mountain side . I guess the body was sleaded in for burial.

  • Reply
    Jay A Clark
    November 2, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    Regarding graves in Appalachia: There is a unique type of grave found in the Cumberland region of Appalachia. These are called “comb graves”. Here is a link to good info on these: http://www.thegravewalkers.com/tentgraves.htm There are a number of these in and surrounding the area in Tennessee my family is from. I also have personal photos if there is a way to share them with you.

  • Reply
    David L
    November 2, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    Could explain the the chorus in the song “See that my grave is kept clean”.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    November 2, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    Tipper,
    Red Marble has someone from the Church to take care of things. My grandma, Delia is buried right beside mama and daddy and not far past their graves are two of my brothers and one wife. My place is right beside them two brothers.

    Two of my Uncles donated a couple of acres, so anyone could be buried at no cost, down behind the Church, where Tom and Toots are buried.

    Mama had us to sweep the yard real good so she could feed the Chickens. When we got thru, I remember her saying “oopie, that’s real nice.” I miss those times! …Ken

  • Reply
    Dee
    November 2, 2018 at 10:39 am

    I guess from the time I was a little girl, I would go with my parents up to my Daddy’s grandmother’s grave. This was up on top of a high hill. The ground sparkled like white diamonds! I’m not kidding. No grass grew up there and it was unlike any cemetery I had ever seen. As I grew older, I was told they brought in white sand and it was kept swept. Of course, back then many families lived all around and came to church at the Kennedy Chapel, but as people died and moved away it changed again. Now 76 years later, you can see clay and sometimes little sprigs of grass but there are still some that come back and try to keep the grass pulled out. This was a pioneer cemetery. I thought everyone in the South kept their yards swept, as I remember the yard around my grandparents home out in the country never had grass in it. Looking back maybe to the 1990’s, I remember seeing some huge snakes crawling across the road out at the old place so I think they were very wise to keep the yards swept so they could see what was out there.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    November 2, 2018 at 10:36 am

    My paternal Grandparents are buried at Cold Springs. I hadn’t been to their graves until I got into genealogy when I was in my 40s. With a little difficulty I found the graveyard and found their graves on a mountaintop overlooking Lower Alarka Creek. Grandpa had died in 1942 and Grandma in 1958. The entire graveyard was in unkempt condition to say the least but my grandparents’ bothered me. They were covered with moss and debris. Their single stone was covered with lichens, mold and grime. The worst part of it was that they were sunken in terribly. So much so that water could puddle on the graves. I pulled the brush and weeds away with my hands such as I could and vowed to return with tools and rectify the damage.
    After a few months of trying to get some help, I went back alone to that lonely hilltop. This time I was armed with a wheelbarrow, maddock, shovel and rack. I was lucky to find that a fairly fresh grave had been dug in the interval thus a source of fresh dug soil. They had dumped it down over the bank on far side of the cemetery. The digging wasn’t hard but I had to weave my way back and forth through the headstones. I lost count of the wheelbarrow loads but I finally got their graves filled to slightly above grade. I didn’t mound them up because none of the graves surrounding them were.
    I went back from time to time after that to tidy up until I got to where I couldn’t make the two hour drive to the cemetery then home again. Now my wife is buried on another mountainside just a few ridges over and I can’t go see her either.
    Now back to the real subject of today. To be blunt, graves were mounded up so that as the wooden coffins and the bodies themselves rotted away and the ground would cave in, there would be dirt there to keep it filled back in. When a grave was filled back in after a burial the remaining dirt was mounded up top. With modern metal caskets and burial vaults it is no longer a problem.
    A sunken grave is a sign of neglect or abandonment. A freshly mounded grave is proof that some caring person or persons still exist.

  • Reply
    Vann Helms
    November 2, 2018 at 10:22 am

    A number of small mountain churches along the eastern Buncombe County line put very manicured mounds on every grave. These stand about a foot high. This tradition may have started because the graves would sink as the coffins rotted, and by keeping the mounds built up the graves would be protected. Also the dirt left over from the original digging would be piled atop the grave for the same reason, and maintaining that mound was a way of honoring the deceased.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    November 2, 2018 at 9:17 am

    The Historical Society takes care of the cemetery where daddy’s parents are buried. I’m not sure why they don’t help maintain the cemetery where my parents, mom’s parents and grandparents are buried. Cleaning the stones, mowing, raking and decorating the graves has always been a tradition in my family. Some of the old graves are sinking, but I have no idea how we could ever get a load of dirt up that steep mountain.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    November 2, 2018 at 8:38 am

    I had never heard of that tradition of refreshing the grave mound. I just thought the mound was the way to deal with ‘extra’ dirt. And I had never heard of sweeping the cemetery as folks used to do with their yards. However it was done, the annual Decoration Day was one way to have some regular maintenance to keep the woods from taking over.

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    November 2, 2018 at 8:16 am

    It was while researching Appalachian cemetery conventions and burial customs that I came across Blind Pig and the Acorn some years ago.

  • Reply
    tmc
    November 2, 2018 at 8:14 am

    Where my GrandParents are buried fresh sand is brought in and each family cleans the graves off, mounds the sand like freshly dug, and also they do this where my Wife’s GrandParents are buried, in the next county over, just has always been that way.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    November 2, 2018 at 8:08 am

    We always went once a year to clean-up the cemeteries and if I remember correctly it was in the spring. I know it was cold. We always did a clean-up the week before Memorial Day. Memorial Day was the biggie with flowers and flags.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    November 2, 2018 at 7:26 am

    I’ve never heard of these traditions but I think they are very sweet. They honor the dead as if they were alive with live feelings. It seems a very sincere way of treating the dead like sitting up with the body all night before the burial.

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