Cemetery Histories

                                           Burials and Cemeteries

                                                 Brian M. du Toit


Throughout human history different societies in different ecological settings have followed cultural expectations for disposing of the deceased members of their family and community. Such behaviors may be very simple or highly elaborate. Death may be viewed as a final statement or a transition; it may be glorified or denied; it may arouse fear, envy or indifference in those who remain behind. The deceased may be incorporated as part of an ongoing society, vigilantly watching and influencing human life. They may be shunned, supplicated, or deified. They may also be seen as entering a spiritual afterlife or unification with a divine Spirit. These actions are based in religious philosophies and flow from beliefs concerning dying, death, and expectancies related to an afterlife.

This discussion offers a brief background to the treatment of deceased members of social groups throughout history. It presents a back-drop against which early settlers in Transylvania County can be understood. They all came with belief systems and adapted these to the new frontier conditions. Many early burial sites close to homes  have been abandoned as family members moved away or property was sold, others have been incorporated into more formal cemeteries. Over the years family traditions merged into cultural patterns.

Cultural Traditions

For more than a century, anthropologists have observed and recorded human behavior as it occurs in patterns. An individual’s actions - even when they are repeated by that individual - do not have social significance. When a large proportion of a community repeat certain behaviors we speak of cultural patterning. Thus we might discern patterns of courtship, marriage, education, food preparation and so forth. We may also observe and record patterns in the disposal of the deceased.

The patterns referred to are universally linked to, and result from, the belief that living things have spiritual counterparts. The first professional anthropologist coined the term animism which he saw as  “the belief in spiritual beings” - he also considered this the minimum definition of religion. The result is a belief in a soul-spirit which may leave the body during life in conditions such as dreams, hallucinations, and visions (how else to explain sightings of trees, animals and people removed in space and time). This belief also holds that when the body dies the spiritual component separates from and survives the corpse either going on to “greener pastures” (variously defined by different religions), or receiving veneration in the form of ancestor worship or the veneration of the dead. 

Less complex societies historically, perhaps as a result of tool inefficiency, deserted the dead or placed rocks over a corpse to protect it from scavenger carnivores. Fishing communities, perhaps due to land shortage on coral atolls, entrusted the dead to sea gods or spirits. Early horticultural societies buried the dead leaving sacrifices of yams, rice, sweet potato and similar produce to tie over the spirit’s transition. Cremation was present throughout history. There is evidence of stone age cremations more than 3,000 years ago and this was carried over into Greek and Roman society. Pastoral societies buried the dead, the village head usually being interred in the cattle byre, and made sacrifices to a homeless spirit. After a period the spirit would ritually be “brought home” and installed in the line of ancestors.

In classical Greek and Roman societies cremation was common and urns were employed to preserve the remains of the deceased. In early Jewish and Christian traditions cremation was not acceptable. After 400 AD, as Constantine spread Christianity throughout Europe, earth burials became the standard form for the disposal of the dead. This remained so into the last decades of the 19th Century. By the end of the 20th Century in this country, one in four deaths resulted in cremation. The remains are saved in a variety of cremation urns made of wood, ceramic, metal or bronze.  For a long time such willful destruction of a body was viewed negatively in many parts of the world. This view also extended to societies among whom the deceased were venerated.  

All of the major religions prepare the corpse for final rites. Christianity, with a belief in an afterlife, prescribes the cleansing of the corpse in preparation for burial. In time a diversity of pre-internment activities have developed. These may include a wake, laying out of the corpse dressed in the fine clothes of the deceased, and usually a religious-ritual of internment. In time, religious ceremonies became social with internment perhaps attended only by the near of kin. There also emerged a practice, which may be less religious and more sentimental, involving the celebration of the life of the deceased. In the “greening” of modern society, many people distribute the ashes of a deceased in rivers, forests or meadows.

In a world marked by population mobility, faith-groups representing a diversity of religions have inter-mingled and co-habited. We speak of settlers, migrants, refugees and transplanted communities. Facing new situations and locations, people tend to reassemble to reinforce their cultural bonds and continue their religious rituals. This certainly was true of immigrants who came to this country. We look back at strangers who met other strangers and before long they formed communities.  Those who shared common tenets of their faith soon formed church groups. Such formal and informal groupings tended to inter deceased members in close proximity. Yet many such burial sites are not necessarily cemeteries.


Normally a collection of graves, laid out in geographical proximity, and frequently surrounded by open space or some enclosure is referred to as a cemetery, grave-yard, or burial ground. Those who are buried together in most cases share bonds of descent, faith or community. Thus there may be individual graves, clusters of graves, or family plots within larger cemeteries. The latter may also contain clusters of particular faith groups, perhaps marked by the Star of David or other symbols. Individual graves are marked by grave markers, grave stones, headstones, tombstones, tombs, or monuments. Such grave markers may consist of field stones, frequently having a headstone (with or without dates or names) and a smaller foot-stone. Markers may also be made of wood, clay, concrete or granite. The latter may be quite simple or very elaborate, varying in size and shape. 

The presence of a foot-stone allows later observers to establish a grave’s orientation. Christian graves usually face east. The belief in resurrection of the dead and the second coming would allow the risen to face the bright clean new day, and the new life. This burial pattern has been compromised in recent years as some graves have been set in small squares in commercial cemeteries.

But cemeteries range from small, isolated burial sites to large spread-out manicured collections of graves to open flower pocked fields. In the last couple of years the green-movement has resulted in burials which can be abandoned or open forests where ashes can be strewn.

Government Markers

Headstones and markers locating the graves of persons who died in military service were first provided in1862. These rounded top wooden headboards appeared in National Cemeteries. In the “War between the States”  many persons died, some were buried in official cemeteries, others in small or private burial grounds. Starting in 1873 a durable marble headstone, 4 by 10 inches, was issued for Union veterans buried in National Cemeteries only. Six years later these were extended  to Union veterans buried in private cemeteries. Honoring Confederate casualties, however, the Daughters of the Confederacy started in the 1890's to supply the Confederate Cross of Honor.

The year1929 had significance for the South. In that year stones were authorized for Confederate veterans in private cemeteries. By this time the marble stones were 4 by 13 inches and 42 inches in height. Markers also carried a Latin Cross or a Star of David designation. For the next eleven years slight changes occurred. The major one being that the markers were 12 by 24 inches, lay flat and were made of granite. The cost of marble was hindering the supply of headstones.

For a short period the government issued flat bronze markers with formal names and designations. For six years, starting in 1941, granite headstones were approved. However, due to cost the use of granite was discontinued between1947 and 1994. In January of that year granite headstones were re-authorized.

Many of the old cemeteries in Transylvania County contain the graves of military men and women. Some date to the years before government issued markers, others indicate the internment of persons who died in the years associated with wars. These are indicated by time and location.

Some Graves are Abandoned 

In rural areas, and especially in the mountains, a common discovery is a grave or a number of graves which have “gone wild”. People report on grave stones they discover in the wilds or in cow pastures. Irrespective of the good intentions of relatives or friends who prepare a grave and bury a deceased person, maintenance of the burial site requires continued care. This may fall to their or their children’s presence or that of other concerned persons, neighbors, or church groups. Such continued attention to the burial site may involve regular weeding, removal of overgrowth, cutting down trees or limbs and even maintaining a fence.

Too frequently we find abandoned graves or clusters of graves. These are often in the proximity of early settler homesteads or ruins where single families or hermits lived. Through the years, those who originally cared for the site either lost interest, were unable to maintain such care, or moved away. Thus we find large numbers of abandoned cemeteries on land still owned by distant relatives or by new owners. In some cases, due to land development, commercial expansion, dam flooding, highway construction or the desire of new owners wanting to expand home or garden, such old grave sites have to be excavated. This requires the permission of relatives (frequently living great distances away) or involving DNA confirmation of genetic links. Such grave interference also requires permission and oversight by county or state representatives. Human remains then receive re-interment in other family burial sites, appropriate cemeteries, or - in the total absence of descendants or relatives - cremation.

Unauthorized tampering with grave sites in North Carolina is illegal. Defacing or desecrating grave sites constitute a Class 1 felony and is punishable by fines up to $500.

Headstone messages

Some burial sites in Transylvania County are maintained and regularly visited. In such cases it is common to find fresh flowers or a small flag. In many cases burial sites contain burials marked by rough fields stones (the oldest), some by stones with markings, names or dates, and still others with modern granite headstones bearing neatly marked names, dates and frequently a message.

One question which arises is whether such messages in the form of statements, quotations or Bible verses represent the selection by the deceased or the survivors? Are they words of comfort, faith statements or platitudes. Being an inquisitive anthropologist, this writer has often wondered what conclusion an uninformed visitor would draw from wandering through our cemeteries. (There is a second set of questions concerning kinship, family terms, gender and marital relations which are not addressed here.)

To approach this question, the notations on grave markers, collected in various burials in Transylvania County, were recorded. They were then categorized to fall into themes we would recognize - we assume our hypothetical visitor would make divisions along roughly similar lines of categorization.

1. Jesus called; Christ is our hope; To live in Christ, to die is gain; Precious Lord take my hand; The Lord is my shepherd; The Lord be with you; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.

Was there a belief in some superior power? How was s/he designated - Jesus, or Christ, or Lord? The last two examples imply that a soul or a spirit will survive this burial.

2.In God we trust; God is love; In God’s care; God is our refuge and strength; Nearer my God to thee; Hope in God lifts us; God gave, He took, He will restoreth.

A new designation appears on these markers namely a Supernatural Power or Supreme Being. Is s/he different from those powers designated above?

3. At Rest; Rest in Peace; There is rest in heaven; Asleep in Jesus; He giveth His beloved sleep; God’s finger touched him and he slept; Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not here, I do not sleep.

These messages suggest two issues: Firstly, there is beyond the grave a location designated as heaven, where there will be sleep and rest, also implying peace. (The last mentioned entry may correctly state “I am not here” but this individual indicated that s/he does not sleep.) Does this value on rest and sleep reflect an agrarian laboring society?

4.Gone Home; Dying is but going home; He has gone to the mansion of rest; I won’t have to cross Jordan alone; Gone to a bright home where sorrow cannot come; Gone to a bright new home where grief cannot come; Gone home to Jesus.

Are the deceased going somewhere? Is there another “home” or “mansion’? Is this Jordan a mountain or a river? Jesus seems to be at this new location.

5. Two markers state “Till He comes”; Together Love we are asleep until Jesus comes”. Is Jesus coming back across Jordan?  Is He coming alone?  Will all those who sleep wake up when He comes?

6.Loving mother gone to be with Jesus; Gone to live with Jesus; Safe in the arms of Jesus.

Do the souls or spirits designated in (1.) above go to Jesus or interact with Jesus? What about Christ and Lord...or even God?

7. Our Father who art in heaven; Meet me in heaven; We will meet again; Death is eternal life, why should we weep?; In glory awaiting loved ones. On that bright immortal shore, we shall meet to part no more; We’ll join Thee in that heavenly land no more to take the parting hand; There will be no parting there; Together for ever.

This heavenly place seems to be a location for reunion. Is it on the shore of a lake, river or ocean? There will be immortality, everlasting renewed relationships, It also seems to be managed by “Our Father”. What about “Mother”?

8. A little flower of love that blossoms but to die; Transplanted now above to bloom with God on high; Just a bud born on earth to blossom in Heaven; The lovely flower hath faded; Gone to be an angel.

Is an “angel” a supernatural being or a child helper? Do buds, blooms and flowers refer to children? Most of children’s grave markers are also decorated with buds, small animals and similar designations. Are only children angels? Will everyone, regardless of age, become an angel?

What might our visitor conclude? What kind of questions would remain unanswered?

Cemeteries obviously represent the beliefs of a group of people. They also reflect the social structure, here suggesting a patriarchal society.

Did they believe in a Supreme Being or Beings? S/he or they are here designated as Jesus, Savior, Lord, Christ, Spirit, Shepherd, Father, God, or King. Does this Kingdom refer to a political, military or other power base?

It would be enlightening to know our visitor’s thoughts, impressions, and interpretations derived from grave markers in Transylvania County. This is part of our heritage.


How would you respond if you wandered into an old cemetery in Transylvania County? What would you conclude from viewing the lay out, reading the headstone, considering the messages? Remember, you do not know the history or religion of this region. Come on, be honest!


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