Grave Houses: A Review

[This article was presented in different format at the Second Annual Conference of the Redbone Heritage Foundation in Natchitoches, La. (September, 2006).  The relevance to Redbones is that the Redbones of southwest Louisiana have a tradition of maintaining their cemeteries well, and the cemetery featured here has the most grave houses in the U.S, and is used by them].

Background

In order to understand the grave house phenomena it is necessary to look at the origins of, and influences on, funerary practices in America. Nowhere are the problems of transmission of history and custom by oral methods alone more evident than in our funerary practices. The problems of oral transmission have been well documented. Oral transmission is highly dependent upon such factors as the differing perceptions of the individuals involved, the emotional nature of the subject, changes in circumstances and therefore in the customs developed to deal with these changes, and the great expanse of time involved.

In early America the weakness of the oral history method was exacerbated by the melding of customs from many countries and religions. These customs migrated to America from Africa, Europe, the Middle East and with the Amerindians. Many of these customs grew out of Paganism—and passed to us through the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

Catholic cemeteries in America today are considered sacred and are elaborately adorned with statues, emblems, artifacts and icons.

Protestant cemeteries are not so adorned with few muted exceptions such as an emblem of a dove, lamb, bible or organizational affiliation. John Wesley said that consecration of burial grounds was a “… mere Romanish superstition.” This belief is reflected in the use of secular names such as: Little Hope and Dark Corner.1 My own survey of Vernon Parish, La. cemeteries reveals that of 123, only 14 are, by name, church related.2 Many non-Indian burials from early times are on private grounds for various reasons, not the least of which is that many people on the frontier were little concerned with religion. And if they were concerned established cemeteries were often far away. Funeral services, if they were held, were sometimes delayed for months or years until a minister came to the area.

Some common practices from Paganism can be seen in the following:

  1. Burials on high hills or slopes predate Christianity,
  2. Flowers and evergreen were used in the Pagan religion—including planting roses and other flowers in burial places and their use in funeral services. The rose was associated with the Mediterranean Mother Goddess, cedar trees (tree of death) was associated with the Cedars of Lebanon.3
  3. Burial east and west; feet to the east. In the American South outlaws were sometimes buried north and south.
  4. The wife is buried to the South of the husband.

Flowers were not used at funerals in England and America until the 1800s, and then used over the objections of Christian leaders.4 Another Pagan holdover is placing shells on graves. Pagans being concerned with fertility rites used the shell and up-right stone marker as symbolic of the female and male genitalia respectively.

Grave houses have evolved over time from cave burial to pyramids, our own grave houses, sepulchers and mausoleums.

Grave Houses in America

As stated above, grave houses in America were influenced by Pagan religion and also African and Amerindian beliefs and practices. They have been found in Africa, Scandinavia, Europe and all over North America. Most of the surviving ones are in the southeastern part of the U.S. and the upper South. The Talbert/Pierson Cemetery in Vernon Parish, La. is reported to contain the largest number of grave houses of any cemetery in the U.S.

Considering the above background it should not be a surprise that our customs and practices have outlived our knowledge of the meaning of those customs. Not much is known about the original purpose of grave houses and the current purposes seem to have evolved to fit the conditions of society in America.  Some ideas about the purposes seem to be guesses or rationalizations to cover lack of knowledge of the real or original purpose.

Some stated purposes are to:

  1. Keep livestock and wild animals off the graves. This is attributed to the days of open range for livestock. It ignores that the cemetery could have been fenced with less effort than erecting and maintaining grave houses.
  2. Keep rain off the grave.
  3. Provide shade and a resting place for family members.
  4. Provide a memorial to loved ones–usually babies or older honored    persons.
  5. Provide a status symbol for the dead person.
  6. Give comfort to the spirit of the dead.
  7. Provide a home for the spirit of the dead. Provisions for the journey of the dead could be left unmolested.

At the Talbert-Pierson Cemetery, it was in the past, a strong custom to build the grave house before nightfall on the day of the funeral. This custom suggests forgotten purposes.

Grave houses are made from local materials. In Appalachia they are likely to be made of rock or wood. In East Texas and Louisiana they were mostly made of cypress. Cypress boards, rived by hand, covered some but most are covered with what was then called tin–a metal roof. Some had a roof only, others were totally enclosed with windows, curtains, etc., but most of the ones made of wood had pickets and a gate. Most cover one or two graves, but as many as six have been observed.

Many grave houses are neglected today and they are disappearing; some are maintained by family members. The Talbert/Pierson Cemetery grounds are maintained by Parish (County) prisoners, but the grave houses are still maintained by family members.

Two members of the Talbert family who live near the Talbert/Pierson Cemetery, Susan Talbert Bass and her mother Sarah Talbert, were interviewed for information on the grave houses. Susan recently lost a son who had a young family, and a grave house is planned for him.  When asked why it was not built before sundown on the day he was buried she said that the tombstone had yet to be put in place by heavy equipment and the grave house would be built around it later. Perhaps this is another bit of evidence that times and circumstances change, and customs match the change.

Both of these ladies said they would like a grave house when they die “if the family will do it for me”.  This statement suggests that there is still a strong value placed on grave houses by this family even though they have lost track of the original purpose of the houses.  And it suggests that they are hopeful but uncertain about the future of grave houses in the current culture.

Terry Jordan in his book, Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy, has a wonderful summary statement with which I will close.

The traditional southern cemetery, then, contains a disorderly array of European, African and Amerindan (sic) material culture. In the main, the customs and artifacts displayed are pagan, and almost without exception, the original symbolic meaning is unknown to … the people who maintain these graveyards. They have no knowledge of the ancient fertility cults and animism that provided the individual elements of their funerary culture. They do not know they are perpetuating millennia-old practices.

The message of the folk cemetery, for those who would read it, is that there is a lot of European, a fair amount of African, and more than a trace of Indian in all southerners, regardless of their skin color. In the cultural sense the people of the South have much in common with each other. For three centuries the three groups exchanged ideas and genes, creolizing the culture to a remarkable degree. Nowhere is that blending more apparent than in places we have set aside for our dead. These traditional graveyards are not merely repositories for our dead, but museums full of reminders from our ancient past and distant, diverse ancestral homelands.

Endnotes:

  1. Terry G. Jordan, Texas Graveyards:  A Cultural Legacy ( Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), p. 33.
  2. Jane Parker McManus, L’est We Forget,    (Alexandria, La. Parker Enterprises,  1995), and Don C. Marler, Redbones of Louisiana, (Dogwood Press  Hemphill, 2003), p. 255.
  3. Op.cit., Jordan.
  4. J. Mitford, The American Way of Death, (New York. Simon and  Schuster, 1963). Also see James K. Crissman, Death and Dying in Central Appalachia, (Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1994).
  5. Op. cit., Jordan, pp. 39-40
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