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Buried Truth: The hunt for cemeteries

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I spent Sunday afternoon visiting cemeteries in Gordonsville, but by no means did I see them all. The truth of the matter is that I only visited two; it was a lovely day and I was suffering from not enough field research. Plus, I have a thing for cemeteries and wish all counties had a “cemetery commission” that could help to restore and maintain those burial grounds that do not have anyone to care for them. Graveyards can provide an enormous amount of information, and not merely birth and death dates.

Deciphering the burial layout, position and others buried in the same plot or nearby can reveal relationships as well as offer clues to family situations, occupations and more. Take for example the commonplace Christian rite of laying the body face up, head to the west and feet to the east. There also is a tradition of burying the wife on the husband’s left, closer to his heart. It is not always the case, but we lean hard on patterns. In the family cemetery on my farm—not my family, but that of previous owners—the wife is to the husband’s left and all the gravesites are oriented from west to east. The husband and wife are the only ones with engraved headstones, but there are a dozen or more graves marked with field stones.

In this farm cemetery, the graves are laid out with precision, equally spaced, and all but two are equidistant from head to toe or headstone to footstone. The two shorter graves are believed to belong to children.

Burying the deceased is a tribute of respect as well as a mechanism for sanitation. Without a doubt, there are burial spots all over America, particularly along the trails going west. During the migrations west, before those traveling reached a destination and the hope of land ownership, they simply buried an individual where they died.

The East was populated and landed far earlier and burials during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries were predominantly on private land or the occasional churchyard, a circumstance that mostly benefited the wealthy. For the poor and landless, burial was a problem, although there were paupers’ grounds. The enslaved often were buried on the owner’s property, commonly unmarked and subsequently in many cases lost to preservation. I would suggest that as soon after Emancipation as was feasible, African-American communities sought to establish community-based burial grounds generally, but not always, associated with churches.

In Culpeper County, Antioch Baptist Church established burial plots near Fairview Cemetery, the municipal grounds, and later turned the property over to the town. It was a segregated section of the larger cemetery and for all intents and purposes remains that way today, though there are no legal restrictions.

When a gravesite was marked with only a fieldstone, it would require diligent attention to keeping that stone in place. If not fenced in, livestock and wildlife tended to knock the stones over and very quickly they would be covered by soil. In other cases, an unfenced cemetery site could be a hazard to mowing and farming practices, and the stones would be removed to an out-of-the-way spot. In many situations, the only visible sign revealing a possible grave site is what is called a grave shaft, or a sunken area of ground with identifiable dimensions and upon further inspection, other shafts nearby.

Stay tuned for more on cemeteries, and please share any information you may have.

Until next week, be well.

Contact Zann at or on Facebook.


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