Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Theory: Upland South Folk Cemetery

Today I'm going to dip a toe in the realm of cemetery theory - in this case regarding the layout and place of cemeteries on the landscape. It's good to know some of the different styles of cemeteries and associated theoretical reasoning behind them - you can get a better idea when the cemetery was first used, what its original purpose was (family plot, commercial cemetery, church yard, etc), and where it belongs in the community. The discussion may get a little dry at times, but I'm going to try to just present a thumbnail sketch of the ideas involved and tell you where to go to find out more on your own if you are interested.

There are cemeteries that are formally laid out, for example, most city cemeteries (many of which follow the ideas of the Rural Cemetery movement, but that's a topic for another day), then there are the folk cemeteries - those that follow a folk, or vernacular, pattern. The distinction is roughly analogous to that between Landmark Architecture (created by professionally trained and schooled architects) and Vernacular Architecture (everything else - often applied to barns, houses, and other structures). Like Folk/Vernacular Architecture, Folk Cemeteries follow a cultural pattern developed through tradition and practical experience. There are many different traditions in cemeteries, one of which is the Upland South Folk Cemetery as defined by D. Gregory Jeane. I'm going to prevent a sort of thumbnail sketch of the Upland South Folk Cemetery (USFC), if you'd like to know more check out suggested reading at the end of this post.
The Upland South can be loosely defined as the area of significant log cabin construction. There is academic debate as to whether this area is defined more by geography or by culture, although for the purposes of the USFC culture is considered the defining characteristic. Jeanne notes that cemeteries, once established, are resistent change in the form of remodeling (people rarely dig up all their relatives so they bury them in a straight line or arranged by death-dates) but change may occur over time as new cemeteries are created and as old cemeteries continue to be used. To this end he has identified 3 phases in the USFC, the Pioneer, the Transitional, and the Modern. These three phases are identified by seperate traits for each phase. The Pioneer phase is distinguished by having all (or nearly all) of the following traits:

1) Hilltop location
2) Mounded graves
3) Scraped ground
4) East-west grave orientation
5) Creative decorations that emphasize "making do"
6) Cults of piety including work days which emphasized upkeep of the burial ground grounds as a memorial to the deceased (a cult of piety is made up of the various functions meant to remember and honor the dead, for example, decoration days and cemetery clean-up days)

The trait I have seen the least is scraped ground. This particular trait has to be maintained to really be visible, and it seems that while it might have been prevalent in the past, it is no longer being maintained in many areas.

The Transitional phase, as implied by the name, is a period of change within the USFC. Scraped areas begin to give way to grassed plots - the same cemetery may contain both grassed and scraped areas. Grave mounds began to dissapear, the use of grave markers increased, personal items on adult graves vanish (although this practice is maintained on infant and children's graves), grave shelters dissapear, and family plots come into use (among other changes). Family plots are often outlines with decorative items of convienence, ranging from rock to turpentine cups and the type of decorative plantings used changes. This phase lasted a significant amount of time, from the mid-18th century through the mid-to-late-20th century. The Rural Cemetery Movement (despite the name, this is a formal design and layout done by a professional landscaper) began in the United States in 1831, and it is perhaps this influence which brought about some of the changes in the Transitional Phase of the USFC.

The Modern Phase is the third phase in the USFC, and it does draw from the Rural Cemetery movement. This form became common following WWII, brought about by changes in the rural Southern landscape such as improved roads, automobiles, and television. This phase takes one of two forms of what Jeane describes as a "rural version" of the perpetual care cemetery or urban memorial garden. In both of these grassed areas replace scraped completely, headstones transition to mass-produced models which are very similar in dimensions and decoration, and the task of caring for the cemetery may be given over to perpetual-care organizations rather than dedicated groups of family members.

An important tradition in the USFC complex is that of "making do". Families "made do" by constructing markers of materials which could be worked by relatives of the deceased - often wooden markers, although in some areas with a strong ceramics tradition ceramic markers were made. In addition family plots might be outlined by turpentine cups, wooden rail fences, old bed frames, or other materials which could be adapted to the purpose. This ability to creatively adapt materials to a new purpose characterizes the "making do" ethic.

One additional note, the USFC complex is predominately a Euro-American tradition (ie "white" tradition) in that is draws heavily from the culture of the British Isles along with elements of Continental European culture. There are similarities in the material uses between the USFC and African American cemeteries, for example, the use of shells on graves, but to assume that either group was "merely" copying the decorative traditions of the other is an insult to the traditions and culture of both groups. African American cemeteries contain their own cultural traditions, which include elements such as making do, but were developed under different pressures from a different set of source traditions and are as rich and varied as those in any cemetery. That concludes the "soapbox" portion of the blog - I managed to touch on one of my own pet peeves!

There you have it, the USFC in a nutshell. Genealogy has a long tradition of "mining" cemeteries for genealogical information, but cemeteries can offer more to a researcher - they can give the researcher an insight into the people and place that led to the development of this cemetery, their beliefs, and what they considered to be important. It's important to keep this in mind when you visit a cemetery, whether you are there are an amateur genealogist or a professional academic researcher. Take a look around and see what the cemetery has to tell you, you might get a glimpse into the world of your ancestors that goes far beyond just names and dates!

If you'd like to read more, look for the following:

Jeane, D. Gregory. "The Upland South Folk Cemetery Complex: Some Suggestions of Origin" in Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Reluctantly Lingual said...

Have you checked out Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians by Alan and Karen Jabbour? Their book deals with the modern upkeep of Upland South folk cemeteries- lots of pictures of scraped and mounded earth, mostly from the Carolinas. We also see scraped earth fairly often on archaeological cemetery surveys in eastern Kentucky.