Tent Graves

Two weeks ago I shared Highland Cemetery with you and some of the pictures prompted further research and comments from readers.  (You can’t imagine how happy that makes me!) The comments are always available for everyone to read but I thought today I’d share with you some of the research it led me to.

Shawna asked me what are the graves that are covered with large slabs of stone.  Believing I knew the answer, I confidently explained these tend to be among the oldest graves in the cemetery and were certainly placed before the availability of airtight coffins and vaults.  The stones would secure the burial site from digging animals.

She kept looking.

Sure enough, a simple Google search revealed a website www.TheGraveWalkers.com which asserts that these types of graves are predominately found along the Highland Rim and especially in Overton County, Tennessee.

I found a blog article here That shared lots of pictures of these graves and lots of information but no hard and fast conclusions.  The Tennessee Sate Library has a photo collection of these tent graves dating through the 19th century, with a few as late as the 1920’s. 

The Hutchison blog noted that these graves are more prevalent in family cemeteries and most often represent the first and second generation of immigrants to the area.

Irish Cemetery:  Don't those little houses look a lot like our Tent Graves?

Irish Cemetery:  Don't those little houses look a lot like our Tent Graves?

My first thought on reading these articles was that I knew I’d seen pictures of similar graves in Europe.  We know that the area was predominately settled by Scots Irish so isn’t it logical that this is a tradition that simply immigrated with them?  However, I guess the absence of these graves in North Carolina and Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains precludes the immigration theory since that population was even more directly Scots Irish. 

Plaque Graves near Culross Scotland

Plaque Graves near Culross Scotland

Looking online, I found several pictures of old European cemeteries with covered graves, but one in particular whose coverings look so much like the tents we’re familiar with.  I didn’t actually find examples among Scottish cemeteries which surprised me because I would have thought the Scots Irish would have brought more Scottish traditions than Irish.  However, there are examples of unique approaches to graves in Scotland.  Near Culross are three graves of siblings who died on the same day in the seventeenth century.  They are known as the Plaque Graves and do seem to have a huge plaque atop each one. 

The greater European area has lots of examples of covered graves, although they all seem more ornate or finished than the slabs we have around here.  Could these Appalachian Tent Graves represent a crude, frontier representation of the tradition the people observed in the old country?

These graves always seem to represent a lot of work to me.  Often the cemeteries are far from established quarries and these are big, heavy slabs of stone.  However, in so many cases the names were either never clearly inscribed or never maintained so now we have these very visible grave sites with no idea just who they are memorializing. 

Finally, it occurs to me that the very tradition this blog seeks to celebrate and perpetuate fails in this area.  Our oral tradition has preserved family details carried for centuries.  We’ve learned and continue to use skills that our ancestors brought from their foreign homes.  Yet here is a tradition that no one seems to have explained as the years passed.

Old West Kirk of Culross, Scotland This professional photo (used with permission)  is representative of work available at www.ghgraham.com

Old West Kirk of Culross, Scotland

This professional photo (used with permission)  is representative of work available at www.ghgraham.com

What do you think?  Does it seem like these are just a style of burial site?  Or do you think it’s some tradition that came with early immigrants but didn’t last very long on American soil?