Folk Custom: Graveshelters

Thursday, January 14, 2010

There's a fantastic bookshop in downtown Montgomery called New South Books on South Court Street. Love the neon sign:

That is a great font:

They had a bunch of old issues of Tributaries, Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association. I have several of these already, and one really got my attention because on the cover was a graveshelter, and inside was a feature by Dr. Gregory Jeane entitled 'Southern Graveshelters and English Lynch-gates'.

I've come across several of these but had never seen the subject of them in print much. Here's just a bit:

Few American cultural landscapes are as intriguing as that of the Southern folk cemetery.

A material culture haven, the folk cemetery possesses artifacts of commemoration and memorialization that provide a powerful statement about local sentiment toward and respect for the dead. The folk burial landscape is in part characterized by hilltop location, scraped ground, mounded graves sited on an east-west axis, highly personalized and emotive forms of decoration, and cults of piety (annual rituals such as graveyard work day, decoration day, and homecoming which bring the community together in remembrance of the dead). Among the more expressive of the decorative artifacts is the graveshelter, a house-form structure of small to modest proportions commonly erected over individual graves.

There was so much really wonderful information in this paper. I've seen graveshelters that look like tiny brick houses, others that look like...well, you know - I'm going to show several here, in future posts just because this is so intriguing. But this first one here is in the style of a carport. It's in the cemetery at New Hope Primitive Baptist Church near Sipsey, Alabama:

Underneath are the heavily decorated places for a whole family. Oh, it's terribly sad:

...but it's also wonderful to see the way the relatives have taken this up - and the last burial here was in the '70s - and kept it decorated and tended to in such a careful and loving way.

One other thing in Dr. Jeane's paper:
No systematic survey of Southern graveshelters has ever been conducted. Most data is contained in large-scale surveys of specific counties widely dispersed across the region, and no meaningful distribution map exists.

...graveshelters exist from Virginia to Texas and from Kentucky to Florida.

I know of at least twenty other cemeteries in Alabama with graveshelters (and one of them is even on the National Register!). If you know of some, please email me as I'd like to map and document these: ginger ((at)) deepfriedkudzu **dot** com

Thank you!

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