The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 83, July 1979 - April, 1980 Page: 228
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Like so much of southern culture, the practices relating to burial cross
racial lines. The folk cemetery of the South is characteristic of whites,
blacks, and Indians alike; you will find it among the descendants of
wealthy planters, slaves, and "civilized" southeastern Indian tribes.2 The
first glimpse of such a cemetery truly startles the visitor. Bare earth lies
exposed throughout the burial ground, its natural cover of grasses and
weeds laboriously chopped or "scraped" away, creating a desolation more
symbolic than real. An expanse of red-orange East Texas soil or somber
black prairie earth greets the eye. At every grave, dirt is heaped in
elongated mounds, each oriented on an east-west axis and anchored by
head and foot stones. Here and there upon the mounds is deposited a
remarkable variety of objects: shells, pieces of glass and pottery, toys,
broken lamps, light bulbs, small decorated Christmas trees, razors, vases
and flowers, and similar items.3 Additional visual relief is provided by
a scattering of cedars or juniper evergreens; by rosebushes blooming
along the surrounding fence; by iris, lilies, crape myrtles, gardenias,
nandinas, and perhaps a holly or yew.
Closer inspection reveals that burials are grouped by family, with rows
of bricks, low fences, or curbs bounding the individual clan territories.
Husbands lie to the south, or right, of their wives. An occasional grave
or two may be covered by small, open-sided, roofed sheds. Tombstones
are modest in size and inscribed with scant biographical information.
A terse epitaph and an image of a dove or lamb may also appear on the
stone, though the Christian cross is absent here, as in the chapel. Under
shade trees next to the burial ground, the visitor may spy long board
serving tables or perhaps an open-sided tabernacle.
More often than not, no church or chapel stands alongside these ceme-
teries; and even if one is present, its founding normally postdates that
of the burial ground. Clearly, the southern folk cemetery is not sanctified
ground. Many are located on private family property.
How are we to interpret the obvious dichotomy of chapel and grave-
yard? What can be the meaning of the curious, diverse material culture
in the cemetery, of the rampant graveyard symbolism? Do the various
2See Donald G Jeane, "The Traditional Up1land South Cemetei)," Landscape, XVIII
(Spring-Summcr, 1969), 39-41, and, by the same author, "The Upland South Cemetery: An
American Type," Journal of Popular CulIu)e, XI (Spring, 1978), 895-903; Marguerite S.
Rogers, "Death and Burial Customs Among American Plantation Negroes" (M A. thesis,
Atlanta University, 1941); and Terry G. Jordan, "Forest Folk, Prairie Folk: Rural Religious
Cultures in North Texas," Southwesternl Hisloical Quated)ly, LXXX (Oct, 1976), 153-158.
3Dorothy J. Michael, "Grave Decoration," in Mody C Boatright and Donald Day (eds.),
Backwoods to Border, Texas Folkloe Society Publication No. 18 (Dallas, 1943), 129-136.
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 83, July 1979 - April, 1980, periodical, 1979/1980; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101207/m1/272/: accessed July 24, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.