Suzassippi’s Mississippi: The Folk Tradition of Gravehouses

Criss gravehouse front elevation

The recent post from Thomas Rosell about Biloxi cemetery canopies, and W. White’s follow up comments about gravehouses inspired me to further investigate this new-to-me phenomenon of southern folk culture.  There are three earlier cultural traditions that may have influenced the adaptation of the tradition.  European, African, and American Indian cultures all utilized some form of grave shelter, although scholar D. G. Jeane traces them to the English “lych-gates.”  A lych-gate is a

…rectangular, wooden, house-like structure, located at cemetery’s entrance gate and used to protect the coffin and mourners from the weather until a priest leads the procession into consecrated ground. (as cited in description of Istre Grave Houses, no author, no date, for the nomination for National Register of Historic Places, retrieved from http://www.crt.state.la.us/)

Lych-gates also closely resemble some of the gravehouses found in rural and remote Alaska as part of the Aleut tradition, and may have derived from both Russian Orthodox tradition (Russian fur traders were among the early colonizers of Alaska and Russian Orthodox is the primary denomination in many of the remote locations) as well as the need to protect graves from animals and the difficult or impossible task of digging graves in the frozen ground.

They are also called grave sheds or shelter houses.  A gravehouse is distinguished from a grave shelter of other types by having walls, windows, and doors, and typically, a gable roof.  In Louisiana, they may also be called lattice hut, grave box, or board mausoleum.  Gravehouses have been reported in

Maine, throughout Appalachia, south central Kentucky, middle Tennessee, Georgia, northeastern Mississippi, Louisiana, eastern Texas, and the Ozarks. (Kessler & Ball, 2001, p. 75)

Montell (1993) indicated gravehouses began to appear around 1840 in the upper Cumberland County of Tennessee, and also described “prismatic grave covers” which were small tent-like structures extending only a few inches over the top of the grave with the edges touching the ground.  From 1870-1900, they changed from low, small, wooden houses to a larger and more open, decorative shed structure, often utilizing shells and ceramics in decoration (Frampton, 1998).  Often surrounded by picket fences, the gravehouses or shelters were generally reserved for those who died young, such as small children, young mothers, or those who had died a particularly or tragic heroic death.  The European origins included above ground brick or rock vaults, rock cairns, slabs (called “wolf stones”), low stone roofs (called hog-back tombs), and wrought iron “safes” (Frampton).  The primary function was to protect graves from animals, and in some southern traditions, to keep rain off the deceased’s face.  Although in some cases, the structures survived a 100 or so years after construction, many have been lost in recent years from deterioration.

As W. White noted in the Biloxi cemetery canopies, post, gravehouses remain in portions of northeastern Mississippi.  Hopefully in the coming weeks, I will be able to bring a few of them to Preservation in Mississippi.

Sources:

Frampton, M. (1998). In my father’s house: North Louisiana gravehouses as art and technology. Folklife in Louisiana.  Retrieved from louisianafolklife.org

Kessler, J. S., & Ball, D. B. (2001). North from the mountains: A folk history of the Carmel Melungeon Settlement, Highland County, Ohio. Marion, GA: Mercer University Press.

Montell, W. L. (1993). Upper Cumberland County. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Southern graveshelters and English lych-gates: The search for culture trait origins. Tributaries, 3. Retrieved from alabamafolklife.org

 



Categories: Cemeteries, Historic Preservation

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4 replies

  1. Thanks for the very interesting post!

    Best,

    Harry

    Harry Connolly

    Like

  2. Interesting post!

    First, one minor criticism: Russian Orthodoxy is not a form of Protestantism.

    Second, here are a few additional sources that might be of interest:

    Ball, Donald B.
    “Observations of the Form and Function of Middle Tennessee Gravehouses,” TENNESSEE ANTHROPOLOGIST, vol 2, no 1, pp 29-62, 1977.

    Cobb, James E.
    “Supplementary Information on Gravehouses in Tennessee,” TENNESSEE ANTHROPOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION NEWSLETTER, vol 3, no 6, pp 4-7, 1978.

    Jordan, Terry G.
    TEXAS GRAVEYARDS: A CULTURAL LEGACY. University of Texas Press, Austin, pp. 34-38. Jordan includes a distribution map for the South (p 37) and suggests that gravehouses are of American Indian origin.

    Like

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