Early in my teaching career, I attended a conference for history teachers. One of the workshops I attended concerned local burial practices and using a communities cemetery as a source of historical information. If, for example, you notice a large increase in burials around a certain date, it may indicate a medical epidemic. Burial practices, obviously, are often dictated by an area’s geology.
If you’ve ever been to New Orleans or Southern Louisiana you probably noticed that people aren’t buried underground. This isn’t dictated by any religious or ethnic custom. Instead, it all has to do with the water table. If you dig but a foot or more in New Orleans you hit the water table and caskets just won’t stay buried when the rainy season arrives. Therefore, long ago it was decided that bodies had to be buried in above-ground vaults. (SEE POST NOTE BELOW)
In the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia flat ground is at a premium and historically it was needed to grow food so cemeteries had to be placed on the mountainsides. Several years ago while traveling US 52 through the mountains of West Virginia I passed through a very small town that suffered from an obvious shortage of flat earth. Every space that was large enough to have a mobile home on it, had three. The town sat between a creek and a cliff and up on the cliff was a ledge. I don’t know if it was natural or man-made but there were a dozen or so tombstones sitting on that ledge, each decorated with faded plastic flowers. I don’t have a clue as to how caskets were hauled up there or how people visited their loved ones.
I recently drove through Eastern Kentucky along US 23. In the heart of the mountains, I noticed several small church or family cemeteries on the sides of very steep mountains. None held more than a few dozen tombstones but each represented a major effort to dig a grave, transport a casket, and place a tombstone at the head of the grave. They went by too fast to safely stop and photograph but I did manage to get one photo.
Closer to Pikeville, KY I came across what was probably a city or county cemetery and it too was built on steep terrain but not as much as witnessed earlier. This cemetery was much larger and the burials were very close together to conserve space.
A number of years ago my wife and I attended the funeral of a woman we knew who lived in Greenup, KY. Following the services, we went to the burial site and to our amazement, and the chagrin of our knees, it was one of those hillside cemeteries. We did manage the trek up and back but given our knees today, we’d had to stay at the car and watch the burial using binoculars.
COMMUNITY CEMETERY NEAR PIKEVILLE, KY
POST NOTE: Years ago we took a guided tour of one of New Orlean’s older cemeteries. The large, tall, tomb was fronted with a marble slab on which a large number of names and dates were engraved. The guide said that at one time the family merely rented a casket for the services but when arriving at the tomb the body was placed in a shroud and inserted into the uppermost empty interior chamber and the name engraved to the front marble panel. With the humidity and heat of the climate, decomposition would occur rapidly. When another burial place was needed it would be decided which internal chamber held the most decomposed body and those remains would be pushed to the back where a large open chamber existed. Those decomposing remains would become mixed with those of their ancestors and decomposition would continue.