Article from 2006 originally published on Southern Graves site. Some newer images added.
South is the Upland South folk cemetery." - D. Gregory Jeane
Some Southern cemetery traditions include wife-to-the-left burials, bordered family plots, and feet-to-the-east interments. These practices can be fairly common in today's Southern cemeteries, but there are other traditions that may not be.
The southern folk cemetery is characterized by hilltop location, scraped ground, mounded graves, east-west grave orientation, creative grave markers and decorations using materials readily available (not commercially produced), certain species of vegetation, the use of grave shelters, and the obvious devotion to God and/or parents and family with the graveyard workdays and monument dedications. Some of these characteristics can certainly be found in other parts of the United States, even the world. It is the compilation of most or all of these traits within one cemetery that allows it to be called folk. Since the regional distribution of this type of cemetery coincides with the southern culture, this cemetery is known as Southern Folk.
The folk cemetery was introduced in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, and though this was a relatively short time ago, there are three distinct phases or models of the Southern Folk Cemetery that have progressed over time: pioneer, transitional, and modern. The diverse, yet true to tradition aspects of each of these provides a glimpse into the changing attitudes toward death.
The pioneer model is the folk cemetery's most historic, likely to be found in remote rural burial grounds. Though thought to be around as early as the late 1700s, the pioneer southern folk cemetery was certainly well established by the 1830s. Southern folk cemeteries in the eastern Georgia Piedmont were established 1810 - 1820.
An essential requirement of the new frontier communities was to designate space for formal burial of their dead. This sometimes even came before the building of a church. However, the British tradition of a churchyard cemetery did cross the pond with the settlers of the southern United States, so both examples of the pioneer type folk cemetery can be found.
The pioneer folk cemetery was small, though it was not necessarily an immediate family burial ground as linked to the Southern plantation. Extended family ties that emerged when pioneer families intermarried were just as important. The most distinctive trait of the pioneer folk cemetery of the south was the ground scraped clean of grass. The graves were laid out in an east-west direction, neatly aligned and mounded with dirt. This cleared patch of land, free of grass and weeds, was often found on a hilltop. It would have been scraped a couple times of year, possibly resulting in a hardened surface. The clean cemetery showed honor and respect for the ancestors buried there.
>>> Here is an old (somewhat shaky) video I took back in 2008 of a row of burials in a middle Georgia cemetery. The surrounding ground is not perfectly scraped, but you can get the idea. <<<
Terry Jordan describes a southern cemetery with a scraped ground in his book, Texas Graveyards, A Cultural Legacy: "The first glimpse of such a cemetery truly startles the unsuspecting visitor. Throughout the burial ground, the natural grasses and weeds have been laboriously chopped or "scraped" away, revealing an expanse of red-orange East Texas soil or somber black prairie earth, sometimes decorated with raked patterns. At each grave, this dirt is heaped in an elongated mound, oriented on an east-west and anchored by a head and foot stone."
Grave mounds served several purposes, such as marking the grave and compensating for the settling of the grave.
If a grave marker is found in a pioneer model southern folk cemetery, this is where the art of "making do" is seen. Sometimes, a wooden stake is all that is found at either end of a grave mound. The field research of D. Gregory Jeane in west Louisiana and east Texas resulted in findings of small, slightly curved, clay turpentine cups stacked to form a marker. In other cemeteries, these same cups were used to border an individual grave or family plot. I have seen the same instances with rocks. What is missing most often from a pioneer southern folk cemetery is commercially produced gravestones or granite or marble.
A common decorating practice in southern folk cemeteries still seen today is the use of shells. Conch shells, among others, are frequently seen. The shells are used to varying degrees, from a single one at the head of the grave to a line of them down the center of the grave or as a border. Sometimes the entire grave will be covered with shells.
The dominant species of vegetation seen in the pioneer southern folk cemetery is the eastern red cedar tree. It is found in connection with the southern burial grounds so often that it is known as the "cemetery tree." Species of pine were also used, probably because of the evergreen characteristic.
A grave shelter, or grave house, may also be found in a pioneer model southern folk cemetery. D. Gregory Jeane describes it as "small, rectangular, gable-ended structure placed over the grave...of simple construction -- four corner posts, often surrounded by picket fencing, supporting a shallow, gable-ended roof."
Honoring the family and ancestors buried in the cemetery was a common practice of the community keeping up these pioneer burial grounds. The graveyard workday was an annual event, in late summer of early fall, where all members of the community gathered to pay respect to the memory of the deceased. It was often an all day affair that went a long way for the maintenance of the cemetery. Grass was scraped, graves were mounded, grave markers were placed or replaced if desired, decorations were placed, repairs were made, and trash was removed. Furthermore, this was a social event. There might've been a noonday meal, a sermon, or singing.
The transitional phase of the folk cemetery may date from the mid to late nineteenth century, and it is seen across the South even today. It is characterized by the designation of family plots, a mixture of scraped plots and grassy areas, the lack of creative markings or decorations, the lack of grave shelters, and most sadly, the eventual decline or total lack of the gathering of the community to collectively honor and respect those interred.
The transitional phase also marked the decline of mounded graves and the increase of commercially produced grave markers, or tombstones. "Making do" was still seen with the bordering of family plots. A variety of materials were used: rocks, concrete, shells, wood, or whatever was available.
The transitional model southern folk cemetery also introduced different varieties of vegetation such as magnolia trees and crape myrtle. The cedar and evergreen still remained. Flowering shrubs such as roses, azaleas, and forsythia were also added.
Though shells continued to be used, decorations did somewhat change with the transitional southern folk cemetery. By the 1950s, the artificial flower became dominant. With the increase of commercially produced gravestones came the use of portraits.
The South remained largely rural until after World War II. The urban areas and cemeteries that were around became influenced by the Victorian school of thought about death at an early date, and this began to seep into the rural graveyards. The influence showed itself with the designation of family plots and the increase of elaborate grave markers. This time and influence gave way to the modern model southern folk cemetery.
After World War II, the South began to experience a cultural change, albeit at a leisurely "southern" pace. It was mainly urbanization, and it was called "progress." Southern burial customs did not escape the pressure of urban cemetery organizations to modernize, nor the pressure to be fashionable. This was even felt in the still rural areas. Therefore, urban memorial gardens and perpetual care mortuary complexes entered the region. Amazingly, this pressure and "progress" has not yet taken over the South, so the cultural shift is still today an ongoing process.
Some memorial gardens still show aspects of the traditional southern folk cemetery with bordered, and maybe scraped, family burial plots. Largely, though, more graves have standardized, commercially produced markers, and epitaphs are disappearing. Plastic flowers abound and are seasonally predictable.
There is much debate over the origin of the traits associated with the southern folk cemetery. Some say African American and Native American influences shaped the cemeteries. However, I agree with D. Gregory Jeane when he writes, "It would appear more logical that the pioneers arriving on the Southern frontier already had a system acceptable to the group for choosing and properly maintaining the group's sacred ground. The survival of the pioneer trait complex into the twentieth [and twenty-first] century would suggest something about its antiquity as well as its resistance to wholesale alteration...Thus, it is to Europe that one must look for the basic cemetery traditions that diffused with the settlers who fanned out across the Southern frontier."
The research of Terry Jordan indicates a European origin for the folk cemetery traits of the mounding of graves, the use of shells, the preference for flowers, the use of gravestones, and the use of cedars and evergreens.
The basis of feet-to-the-east burials can be linked to sun worship cults found in Europe at the advent of Christianity. Evidence of this might be the Christian Sabbath day of Sunday. I've always been told it is so the interred can "see the sun rise." It could be as simple as that.
Husband-to-the-right (or wife-to-the-left) is a traditional position of married couples in the southern folk cemetery. This apparently derives from a British Christian belief that Eve was created from the left side of Adam. Of course, this is not a strict rule. About 25% of the time, I see the opposite in an otherwise traditional-looking southern cemetery.
The trait of bordered, or somehow defined family plots might trace back to the days when many cemeteries in the South were private graveyards on family land.
Another tradition associated with the southern folk cemetery not yet mentioned is a fence enclosure, though I have seen many, many without one. More often, I have seen certain family plots within a cemetery have the enclosure.
A ceremonial entranceway known as a lichgate, or corpse gate, can be found in many southern cemeteries, as well. Even those that do not have entire fence enclosures may have an arched gateway. A lichgate is defined as a "roofed gateway to a churchyard used originally as a resting place for a bier (a stand on which a corpse or coffin is placed) before burial. This may symbolize the crossing from life to death. In the Georgia coastal region, a funeral procession may stop outside the gate while the leader asks the dead for permission to enter.
All three models of the southern folk cemetery can be found scattered about today. In my experience and regions of study, the transitional phase is dominant. Though I must admit, one can more and more often see the modern model taking root in our southern cities.
(1) Personal knowledge of Stephanie Lincecum.
(2) The Upland South Folk Cemetery Complex: Some Suggestions of Origin, D. Gregory Jeane. (Part of) Cemeteries & Gravemarkers, Voices of American Culture, Richard E. Meyer, editor, 1989.
(3) Texas Graveyards, A Cultural Legacy, Terry G. Jordan, 1982.
(4) "Elements Found in Texas Folk Cemeteries," Website [as of December 2016, link no longer available].
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