Backroads: Early Mountain Graveyards and Burial Customs

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Haines Chapel and cemetery on South Mountain. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Today when a death occurs the deceased is most likely to be buried in a church or public cemetery where the family has previously obtained plots. But in earlier times the people of the Blue Ridge Mountains wanted to be laid to rest on their own property and family graveyards were, and still are, commonly used.  

From the Love vicinity, where I live, to the bottom of the mountain, a distance of about five miles, there are nine graveyards I am aware of; the John Everitt graves, the Tom Coffey cemetery, the Chicken Holler graveyard, Mt. Top Christian Church cemetery, the Coffey/Hewitt graveyard, three Snead tombstones, the Hatter family cemetery, the Lunsford/Matheny/Henderson graves and the cemetery at Mt. View Mennonite Church.  

Old family graveyards lying deep in the mountains have worn tombstones, making it hard to read names and dates. Some graves are marked with a simple field stone while others have a more permanent marker, often with a ceramic photograph of the deceased embedded in the stone such as the one pictured of eleven year old Illa V. Bradley. Newer tombstones often replace much earlier ones that have fallen in to disrepair. I believe this may be the case for Bartlett Hawkins Fitzgerald, 1759-1836.

The ornate stone wall at the Coles family cemetery. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

In earlier times caskets were referred to as coffins and were sometimes made by hand into a six-sided modified hexagon built from pine or walnut wood. Before metal vaults, an earlier prototype of a wooden vault called a “pine box” would be put into the grave before the coffin was lowered down into it on ropes.  Because the makeshift vault and coffins were made of wood, they deteriorated over time, making a depression in the ground.  Many times these depressions are covered with an abundance of wild periwinkle, which grows in soil rich in decaying matter and calcium. This may be the only indication that a graveyard is located there.  

Some family plots are enclosed by ornate iron fences but many are just out in open fields and woodlands. The Coffey/Hewitt graveyard, located on our property, has heavy gauge wire strung through wooden posts to delineate its boundary.  One of the stones has an 1824 date but there are also plain field stones indicating older graves. The Coles family cemetery near Greenfield has a stone wall with parapets every few feet that encircle fourteen graves from the 1800s. Raymond and Beth Spitler took me to the old site and provided the photograph of the unique stone wall.

A newer, replacement gravestone for Bartlett Hawkins Fitzgerald. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

In talking with the native mountain people I learned their rituals of death, many of which are no longer practiced but were once commonplace and strictly adhered to by the family and friends of the deceased. Perhaps the combination of isolation and fierce independence made the mountain people attend death on their own terms instead of leaving the details to a funeral home.

When a person died, kitchen or mantle clocks were stopped and covered with a cloth at the exact time of death and were not removed until after the funeral. A doctor was called in to pronounce death and fill out a certificate. The body would be put on a covered table or bed and carefully washed and clothed.  As word spread throughout the community, all work stopped and food was prepared and taken to the home of the deceased.  

Since most deceased remained in the home, “sitting up with the dead” was a common practice where a body was closely watched by different people, day and night, until the time of the service. Because most of the people were related and lived close by, a church funeral and burial took place within a few days.

The ceramic photo on the grave of Illa V. Bradley.
Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Close friends usually dug the grave by hand, showing respect for the old mountain way of life and the people who lived it.  The tradition of each person at the service throwing a handful or shovelful of dirt into the grave before leaving is still practiced in some areas.

If one day you are hiking off the beaten path and come across a telltale sinking spot in the ground, sheltered by low groundcover with crooked stones sticking out of the earth, it is a good indication you have come upon one of these early graveyards. Take a moment to pause and remember the people of Virginia’s southern highlands and their burial traditions of long ago. 

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