Center For Transportation Research

Hancock County

Southern Appalachian Burial Customs

In the Anglo-American culture, while mortuary features usually represent single event deposits, conformity in construction can be equated with a shared ideal between independent events. Each burial, therefore, is an assertion of social norms as played out by the participants of the ritual (Goffman 1959). That is, construction of a grave follows what the community believes are acceptable burial procedures.

Personalized care for the dead and cemeteries was an important aspect of family and community life in rural sections of the Southern Appalachians from the frontier period until the introduction of professional funeral services and perpetual care cemeteries in this region around the 1930s-1940s (Bettis et al. 1978; Brewer 1952; Crissman 1994; Garrity 1976; Montell 1975). Long-standing patterns of care for the dead, ranging from practices relating to preparation of the body to curation of the gravesite, are potentially reflected in the material remains and soil deposits encountered at pre-World War II cemetery sites in the Southern Appalachians. Familism and neighborliness were core values which supported this system of burial customs (Crissman 1994). There was, however, temporal, intra-regional, and interethnic variation in mortuary activities and symbolism within Southern Appalachia (Bettis et al. 1978; Brewer 1952; Crissman 1994; Garrity 1976; Montell 1975).

The first cemeteries in colonial America were church affiliated and maintained by the congregation. Family cemeteries developed as populations and settlement areas expanded inland (Coffin 1976; Crissman 1994; Puckle 1968). Jeane (1989) has defined three phases of folk cemeteries in the Upland South, including the Southern Appalachia region. These are pioneer, transitional, and modern folk cemeteries, all of which had an uneven spatial and temporal spread. The pioneer folk cemetery was in use in Virginia and western North Carolina by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, peaked in the Upland South during the 1830s, and is still maintained in some rural locations. The design, material culture, and iconography which appear in transitional and modern folk cemeteries in the region were influenced by those which developed in urban centers and small cities between 1830 and 1920, which were, in turn, influenced by the landscape architecture and public parks movements (Farrell 1980). Religious themes (reunion with God, family, earth/dust) and social and aesthetic symbolism and practice (consolation, instruction, asylum; class distinction and reinforcement - location, monuments, taste, refinement; individualism) were more pronounced in transitional and modern cemeteries but have gradually invaded folk cemeteries. These later shifts resulted in important changes in the handling of the dead, including changes in care of the body, container type for the body, places for the funeral, and funeral procedures. Attention was increasingly directed away from death to the trappings of death and from the deceased to survivors. Even the term "cemetery" ("a place for sleeping until resurrection"), often replaced the earlier more literal terms of "graveyard," "burying ground," or "churchyard" (Farrell 1980; Jeane 1989).

The cemetery at Cool Branch (40HK9) best fits Jeane's pioneer folk cemetery model (Jeane 1989). This phase and type of cemetery is characterized by a preference for hilltop location; scraped ground; mounded graves; east-west grave orientation; cedar and other evergreen trees; surface decoration with personal effects, toys, and/or items such as shells and rocks; gravehouses; and reliance on informal "cults of piety," which consist of immediate family or extended kin groups who perform maintenance rituals, such as grave cleaning and decoration, communally on annual Homecoming and/or Memorial days. Most of these associated practices derive from customs in use in western or southern Europe, the British Isles, and Mediterranean areas prior to America's early colonization, though some practices, including the use of shells and personal items as grave decorations, also were adhered to in Africa for different reasons (Jordan 1982; Vlach 1977). Pioneer folk cemeteries frequently covered less than 1 acre (0.4 ha) and because of prevailing settlement patterns contained the remains of one or more often interrelated kinship groups. The earliest pioneer folk cemeteries in the Upland South were neither strictly family cemeteries nor necessarily associated with a religious congregation (Jeane 1989). In fact, pioneer folk cemeteries were often in use before local churches were organized. Even when clearly associated with a particular congregation, the pioneer folk cemetery was not always located near the church building. Complicating this, traditional marriage and kinship patterns and practices in Appalachia frequently resulted in congregations that consisted of a small core of related families (Dunn 1988).

Initial settlement of the Southern Appalachians occurred between 1750 and 1775. Significant Anglo-American settlement of Hancock County, which was part of Hawkins County until 1844, however, did not occur until around 1795. At least one white family probably lived in what became Hancock County before that date (Hancock County History and Genealogical Society 1989).

Most early settlers of the Southern Appalachians moved westward from the English colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina or southward from Scotch-Irish, English, and German settlements in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Jersey (Crissman 1994). Local legends say that the earliest settlers of Hancock County were predominantly of Scotch-Irish descent. The county is often noted for its Melungeon population, originally associated with the Newman's Ridge community a few kilometers northeast of Sneedville (Figure 5). The Melungeons were socially marginalized in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because they did not fit neatly into prevailing racial categories. The county also had a small African-American presence -free black and slave (Hancock County History and Genealogical Society 1989). In the early twentieth century, a black community, large enough to support a school and church, existed on Copper Ridge in the southern part of Hancock County (Brown Johns, personal communication 1996). An abandoned cemetery behind the Brown Johns home in the Cool Branch community is believed to be a "slave cemetery."


A local cemetery documentation project in Hancock County recorded the presence of an abandoned graveyard located on a hillside immediately north of the intersection of Cool Branch Road and State Route 31, across the highway from War Creek Baptist Church (Hancock County History and Genealogical Society 1989; 1994). This cemetery was noted as the Cool Branch Cemetery. In the 1910s, Brown Johns (born 1897) and boyhood friends often played in and around the cemetery. At that time, the cemetery had been unattended long enough for large trees to have grown up within its confines, to show no sign of new graves or of grave maintenance, and for its affiliation to have become generally unknown. This suggests that two or three generations had elapsed since active use of the cemetery had ceased. It also indirectly dates the site to the early nineteenth century, a temporal affiliation born out by material evidence recovered from excavations in the portion of the cemetery located within the proposed highway right-of-way.

Settlers lived along War Creek at least by 1802 when a congregation called the War Creek Baptist Church was organized. Initially, as many as 54 members met monthly in the home of Richard Byrd who lived at an as yet undetermined location in the community. The first War Creek congregation served a number of settlements south of the Clinch River and north of Clinch Mountain. These may have included the Flat Gap, Duck Creek, Providence, and Chinquepin communities. No church minutes survive for the early decades of the War Creek Baptist Church (Fullerton 1974; Goodspeed 1972; Hancock County History and Genealogical Society 1989).

About 20 years ago, a church member examined associational records and surmised that there had been at least four building sites and five structures which served the War Creek congregation. She apparently included the Richard Byrd home on War Creek, the original meeting site, as one of the five structures. She believed that the first church building was possibly erected near Elrod Falls (PawPaw or Low Gap vicinity) but admits her evidence for this is scanty and unclear at best. She gives no date for the move of services from Byrd's home to the first meeting house. The second building probably was at Flat Gap (1849); the third (1878) "just below the bridge crossing War Creek on Highway 31," and the fourth "at its present location" (1906 and 1963), immediately west of the intersection of Cool Branch Road and State Route 31 (Hancock County History and Genealogical Society 1989). It should be noted here that Cool Branch was also known historically as Big War Creek (Fullerton 1974). Given current research findings and regional patterning it is still not possible to firmly attribute the Cool Branch Cemetery (40HK9) to a particular group of people. It may very well have served the widely dispersed early War Creek Baptist Church congregation. The cemetery temporally fits within the first quarter century of the congregation's history and it is located near the sites of at least two of the later church structures. On the other hand, there are numerous family cemeteries within the civil district in which the site is located. Also, given early frontier cemetery and settlement patterns, the cemetery may have been neither strictly church or family restricted. The Cool Branch Cemetery does seem to temporally and stylistically fit Jeane's pioneer folk cemetery model.


In Southern Appalachia, if someone was obviously near death, family, kin, and neighbors gathered in the home for a death watch in the hours or days before the person's passing. When death finally came, the neighborhood was notified by the tolling of a dinner bell or church bell, one toll for each year of the deceased's life (Crissman 1994). At the home where death occurred, any number of customs would be followed including seeing that in the house all clocks were stopped and mirrors draped, while outdoors the family's "bees were told" of the passing. Before the 1880s in urban areas in the United States, undertaking was usually informal and unorganized, often a sideline of a furniture-making business (Farrell 1980). In the Southern Appalachians, preparation of the dead was carried out by family and neighbors in the home as late as the 1940s or 1950s. A transitional period occurred in some places in which an undertaker performed embalming services in the deceased person's home. The usual practice in the Southern Appalachians was for neighbors, or less commonly relatives, of the same sex as the deceased to prepare ("lay out") the body for viewing and burial (Bettis et al. 1978; Crissman 1994; Montell 1975; Wigginton 1973). The assignment of this duty to neighbors may derive from sixteenth century practices in the British Isles in which neighbors and guilds helped the family of the deceased with funeral expenses. More specifically, in Scotland neighbors were required by law to see that bodies were taken to a cemetery and buried (Habenstein and Lamers 1981).

In Southern Appalachia, attendants washed the body, placed the extremities before rigor mortis set in, arranged the hair, shaved the face (if a male), weighted down each eye with a coin until the muscles set, and tied a handkerchief or strip of cloth from the top of the head around the chin to close the mouth. Preventing deterioration of the body, especially during warm weather, was a problem. Sometimes this was attempted by applying "sody clothes" (material soaked in a soda or camphor solution) to the face and hands to keep them from darkening or by placing a plate of salt on the chest, which was believed to keep down swelling. The prepared body, left on the cooling board it was prepared on, was placed in a handmade coffin or laid on the deceased's bed. The body was then ready for viewing. Family and friends watched over the body ("set up") during an all-night vigil or wake (Bettis et al. 1978; Crissman 1994; Montell 1975; Wigginton 1973).

In the 1500s in England, wealthy people were often buried in fine or other clothes symbolic of their social rank while ordinary people were wrapped in a sheet or linen shroud. Burial clothes for the deceased in the Southern Appalachians from the frontier period into the twentieth century could be a shroud, a specially made dress or new suit, or a curated outfit such as a military uniform, wedding dress, or workclothes. Any jewelry the deceased might own was more likely to be left to a family member than buried with the deceased; this was especially true for women (Crissman 1994).

Shrouds, which consisted of a piece of cloth draped (not fastened) over the body so that only the face and hands showed, were still very common in the early nineteenth century and continued to be used occasionally into the twentieth century. Shrouds were often black, although white might be used for children and women for whom a decorative ruffle around the neck, hand, and feet areas and a ruffled cap might also be added. The bodies of babies or small children were sometimes simply wrapped in a blanket or quilt (Crissman 1994; Wigginton 1973). Older informants in Hancock County remembered seeing shrouds used for the burial clothes of both men and women. A man's shroud at this late date looked like a suit but was open in the back for easy draping of the body (Brown Johns and Phoebe Seals Greene, personal communication 1996).


Burials without coffins were common in England through the 1500s, although wealthy citizens were more likely to be buried in a coffin or chest. Coffin-less burials continued as a minority practice through the seventeenth century. There are reports of frontier period burials without coffins and even of hollow logs being used for coffins. However, by the eighteenth century hexagonal-shaped burial containers which were narrower at the top and bottom, became popular in Europe and America (Bell 1987; Haberstein and Lamers 1981; Lang 1984). These "mummy" coffins were still made at times in rural Appalachia in the early twentieth century (Anonymous 1974; Brown Johns, personal communication 1996; Montell 1975). While coffin-making gradually became a separate occupation from furniture and cabinet-making in urban areas in the United States during the eighteenth century, in the Southern Appalachians most coffins were still handcrafted by nonspecialists in the early twentieth century. Sometimes the coffin was made by the deceased years earlier but more likely it was made at the time of death by a family member or neighbor who was a craftsman (Habenstein and Lamers 1981).

Simple unadorned coffins of the mummy type were made by bending and shaping the wood or by a simple break side technique. One piece lids were nailed on at conclusion of the graveside burial service. Such coffins were commonly manufactured from choice hardwoods, poplar, or oak (Bettis et al. 1978; Crissman 1994; Wigginton 1973).

Formal coffin linings were not in common use in the United States until after the 1850s (Farrell 1980; Haberstein and Lamers 1981). In the Southern Appalachians, the body was often laid on or wrapped in a quilt before interior padding and linings which were held in place with small tacks came into use. Exterior cloth covers were sometimes used as well (Crissman 1994; Wigginton 1973). The interior of the coffin might also contain paraphernalia from the body preparation phase - the coins used to weight the eyes of the deceased which were sometimes deliberately knocked off into the coffin; personal items or momentos; or, among Southern blacks, the dish of salt and ashes placed underneath the cooling board to absorb disease or other substances (Crissman 1994; Coffin 1976).

Mummy coffins continued to be handmade in Hancock County into the twentieth century. Johns Brown also stated that his mother, who came to Hancock County as a girl around the time of the Civil War, said that bodies were wrapped in the family's best quilt for burial. This suggests that formal coffin linings had not been adopted locally at that point in time.

The oblong hexagonal-shaped subfeatures of the graveshafts at 40HK9, which contained the adult remains, are the outlines of mummy coffins. Concentrations of nails along the sides of the subfeatures also approximated the shapes of these coffins. No coffin hardware or lining tacks were recovered. Subfeatures for infants were more linear suggesting that infants were interred in a rectangular shaped container. Nails recovered from infant graves at 40HK9 were considerably shorter than those associated with adult graves. The use of distinct rectangular coffins for deceased infants and children in rural Appalachian communities was a common practice (Wiggenton 1973). The relatively simple design of an infant's burial container may be indicative of an age distinction. Less time and effort may have been invested in the manufacture of coffins for those in which there was less community investment (such as infants) than among older more socially embedded individuals.


In Southern Appalachia, next-day burial was preferred and especially necessary in warm weather. A group of male neighbors dug the grave, preferably on the morning of the burial since it was considered bad luck to leave a grave unfinished or open overnight. This ritual was not just a solemn occasion but a time when Southern Appalachian men could indulge in coarse language, joking, and possibly even drinking in a socially sanctioned setting (Crissman 1994; Montell 1975; Wigginton 1973).

Graves were oriented east-west and the body later was placed inside so that on rising from the grave on Resurrection Day the person would face Christ who would appear in the eastern sky. Those who committed suicide were considered beyond redemption and therefore unable to rise and meet Christ. They were deliberately buried in north-south orientations, usually outside the edge of the cemetery.

In the eastern United States from the late eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century, a preparation technique and style of burial chamber called "vaulting" was commonly employed (Garrow et al. 1985; Lofton 1968; Swauger 1959). Both the use of mummy coffins and vaulting declined sharply after the mid-nineteenth century when the funeral industry slowly emerged. In Hancock County and elsewhere in the Southern Appalachians, this style of burial chamber was still being constructed in the early twentieth century.

In the vaulting technique, a larger external shaft was dug down to a particular depth and then stepped in to where an interior shaft, which conformed to the shape of the coffin, was dug to a deeper level thus acting as a "vault." Once the coffin was in place in the interior shaft or subfeature, boards were laid across its top, that is, across the bottom of the primary grave shaft. Vaulting was believed to prevent the surface of the grave from sinking as the coffin deteriorated and to make it more difficult for animals to disturb the burial. However, as the boards soon rotted, vaulting may have actually accomplished the opposite result and created a need for routine remounding of the grave (Bell 1987; Crissman 1994; Brown Johns, personal communication 1996; Swauger 1959).

Johns Brown used the term vaulting for the inner grave shaft and referred to the covering boards as "rail and boards." He also said that the lid was left off until viewing was over and then it was nailed onto the rest of the coffin. Phoebe Greene described one twentieth century grave on a neighbor's farm that was completely lined with wood "like an underground room." This appears to have been an idiosyncratic occurrence built by the farmer to protect his beloved wife's burial chamber.

All graves encountered at 40HK9 had a rectangular straight-sided grave shaft (primary feature) with a form fitting chamber (or subfeature) cut into its floor. Artifacts and interments were found exclusively within the interior subfeature, that is, inside the earthen "vault" where the coffin would have been placed. Use of the double chambered grave pit at 40HK9 is archaeological evidence of the early nineteenth century use of the vaulting technique in the construction of graves on the Southern Appalachian frontier.


Colonial funerals in urban areas combined three functions - sociability, religiosity, and reaffirmation of the deceased's social status - and were often quite rowdy events (Habenstein and Lamers 1981). In Southern Appalachia, services were historically simpler and more strictly religious events. After the grave had been prepared, the deceased was carried from the home in a coffin, feet first, on the shoulders of male pallbearers, or by children if a child had died, for transport to the cemetery. A graveside service, which reviewed the deceased's good and bad deeds in life and indicated his or her prospects in the afterlife, was conducted. A "funeralizing" for one or more recently deceased community members was preached the next time a minister was available. This might be months or years later and a service might be held for several deceased people at once. Family and close friends, attired in black, wept and wailed openly at both types of services (Crissman 1989; Garrity 1976).


In the Southern Appalachian region, organized group decoration and maintenance practices developed out of the delayed memorial ritual of "funeralizing." While individuals might tend to the graves of loved ones more frequently, annual group events became codified by such events as "Decoration Day," "Homecoming," and "May Meeting." These were memorial and religious occasions during which kin and neighbors labored together to clean the graves of relatives and the entire cemetery of overgrowth, scraping and remounding graves, and repairing gravehouses and fences. They also signified and strengthened community and family cohesion (Bettis et al. 1978; Crissman 1994).

In some rural cemeteries, a early custom of burying or placing with bits of pottery, china, cutlery, medicine bottles, and personal items on or around the grave continues. In many cases, this action served aesthetic and commemorative functions. Traditionally among Southern blacks, however, it was performed "so [the deceased's] spirit may use them in another life" (Brewer 1952).

Flowers as a form of grave decoration were not widely used in the United States until after the mid-nineteenth century. In the Southern Appalachians, traditional grave decorations included personal effects, toys, and other items such as shells, rocks, and pottery sherds. Bunches of wild flowers and weeds, homemade plant or vegetable wreaths, and crepe paper flowers gradually attained popularity later in the nineteenth century (Bettis et al. 1978; Brewer 1952; Crissman 1994; Jeane 1989). Placing formal flower arrangements on graves was gradually incorporated into traditional decoration day events in the twentieth century.

Social affirmations of community ideals are largely expressed during primary funerary rituals and secondary maintenance events; however, a larger audience can receive funerary ideology when it is communicated over a broader period of time. One effective means of accomplishing this is through the use of grave markers. The use of undressed field stone as a form of social communication has been observed at numerous mortuary sites in the Eastern United States. In East Tennessee, they are particularly associated with the burial grounds of rural and lower socioeconomic status communities (Crissman 1994). Archaeological investigations note a tendency for these stones to be present in cemeteries dating to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, their use is noted well into the twentieth century (Faulkner and Roberts 1985; Swauger 1959). The custom of building and maintaining gravehouses is still practiced in a few places in Hancock County today. However, there was no archaeological evidence at the Cool Branch Cemetery (40HK9) to suggest that this practice ever occurred at this site. Here, the only remaining surface decoration on the graves were 33 fieldstone markers. Other graves were apparent from surface depressions. The markers consisted of slabs of locally available Rome limestone set vertically at the east and/or west ends of the graves. None of the examined stones were inscribed, and it also seems unlikely that these markers were dressed. Placement of the markers at the head and foot of the mortuary features communicated the exact location of existing graves. More importantly, concentrations of graves in a specific locality is viewed as an indication of social unity; they are permanent designations of a social structure which tended toward an egalitarian mode (Saxe 1970; Warner 1959). By marking graves within the designated burial area, the community was able to communicate to all audiences that the dead held a place in the natural and cultural landscapes.


The Cool Branch Cemetery (40HK9), located on a steep hillside, contains a minimum of 28 graves. One interview revealed that the burial ground was long-abandoned and unattributed by the 1910s. An inventory of cemeteries in Hancock County also failed to link the site to any known church or specific family, citing instead a local legend that this was an Indian cemetery. Archival research revealed that a dispersed farming community and a Baptist congregation existed in the War Creek locale by circa 1800. Analysis of mortuary and cultural remains found at 40HK9 indicate that the cemetery was used during the first quarter of the nineteenth century and that the people interred there were of Caucasian descent.

Gregory Jeane's model of pioneer folk cemeteries in the Upland South suggests that cemeteries of this period were not strictly family or community repositories but some combination of the two. This probably was the case with the Cool Branch Cemetery (40HK9). Pioneer folk cemeteries were often located on hilltops; the Cool Branch Cemetery is located on a hillside. The lack of artifacts on grave surfaces at the Cool Branch Cemetery suggests other aspects of Jeane's pioneer folk model - frequent ritualized scraping of graves and/or the entire burial ground, with repeated remounding over graves - were practiced. Double chambered burial pits, the end result of a grave digging custom called "vaulting," were also encountered. Interior pits were designed to snugly fit the handmade "mummy" coffins of adults or rectangular boxes which held children or infants. The paucity of artifacts within the double chambered burial pits reflect coffin-making, burial clothing, and interment customs which reached peaked popularity prior to the 1850s. Many of the burial customs in vogue on the Appalachian frontier around 1800 continued to be practiced into the twentieth century in Hancock County, Tennessee and other rural areas.

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This page was last updated on 4 Aug 2006.

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