Southern Graveshelters and English Lych-gates:
The Search for Culture Trait Origins

This article appears in Vol. III of Tributaries, published by the Alabama Folklife Association. Information about this publication and the Association may be found at http://www.alabamafolklife.org/.

References Cited

Few American cultural landscapes are as intriguing as that of the Southern folk cemetery. It is an integral part of the Upland South culture as defined by Fred Kniffen and Milton B. Newton; the Upland South was the dominant culture type that had spread across the South by 1825 (Newton 1974). A material culture haven, the folk cemetery possesses artifacts of commemoration and memorialization that provide a powerful statement about local sentiment toward and respect for the dead. The folk burial landscape is in part characterized by hill top location, scraped ground, mounded graves sited on an east-west axis, highly personalized and emotive forms of decoration, and cults of piety (annual rituals such as graveyard workday, decoration day, and homecoming which bring the community together in remembrance of the dead). Among the more expressive of the decorative artifacts is the graveshelter, a house-form structure of small to modest proportions commonly erected over individual graves (Figure 1)

There is little consensus on the nomenclature of the house-form structure built over graves. It is variously referred to as a grave shed, grave house [grave-house, gravehouse], lattice hut, grave-box, spirit house, and grave shelter (Jeane 1969:41; Price 1973:9; Swanton 1928:397; Stora 1971:145; Skinner 1921:261; Ball 1977:30; Sexton 1991:31; Frantom 1995:21; Jordan 1980:250; White 1952:261; Bushnell 1920:34; Cozzens 1972:8; Crawford 1989:19; Bible 1975:107). Each of the terms connotes something different as a material artifact, and terminology has been problematical. First using the term "grave shed" in early work on Southern cemeteries (Jeane 1969), I later adopted the term graveshelter (Jeane 1978:900; 1987:62) as a more appropriate term. In much the same way that the Association for Gravestone Studies has championed the more generic term "gravemarker" to encompass the variety of materials with which a grave might be memorialized (a tombstone, for example, is not an accurate descriptor of a wooden marker), the use of "graveshelter" enough flexibility to encompass a variety of structures, including those of house-form. The traditional graveshelter is a rectangular, wooden structure with gables at the head and foot of the grave. The roof would have split shingles, construction would use mortise and tenon jointing, and the sides would be enclosed with a picket fence. The typical structure would be four to six feet wide, seven to eight feet long, and stand approximately eight feet high (Figure 2). While few traditional structures are built today, the practice of building a protective shelter continues. Contemporary graveshelters, however, are seldom house-form, are metal, and are more likely to resemble a carport than a house. Thus, gravehouse might be appropriate in describing a folk structure, but the term is inaccurate in describing contemporary structures. Graveshelter is more inclusive, leaving the particulars of description to convey changes in form over time.

The purpose of this paper is threefold: a) to explore when graveshelters became an integral part of the folk tradition in the rural Southern cemetery, b) to challenge some current theories of origin, and c) to suggest other alternatives by which the trait might have established itself in the Upland South.† Primary research on the origin of Southern folk cemetery traits has been my work and that of Terry Jordan. While there is much we agree on, we disagree on the origin of two significant traits: scarped ground and graveshelters. I reject the notion that the folk graveshelter is Native American in origin, looking instead to the ancient tradition in the British Isles of using lych-gates, dominantly rectangular, wooden house-form structures at the entrance to churchyards which served the specific function of protecting the corpse and accompanying mourners from the raw elements until a priest arrived to conduct the funeral party into consecrated ground (Figure 3). Like the graveshelter, the lych-gate exists in a variety of forms, has evolved over time, and is decreasing both in usage and in construction.

The Southern practice of building graveshelters is largely past, although one still comes across an occasional structure that shows evidence of recent construction. The graveshelter is widely distributed across the South. Unlike the folk cemetery that literally peppers the Southern landscape, the graveshelter has a distribution broad enough to suggest a long history of development and diffusion, but at the same time is erratic enough to eliminate a clearly defined core area from whence it might have diffused to other parts of the Upland South.† In many ways it is an enigma.

Because the graveshelter is a form of decoration, the decision to build one is personal, depending upon the tastes and rationale of the individual family. Not every folk cemetery had one, some cemeteries would have one or more scattered across its extent, and the horizon in others would be dominated by a half dozen or more. The Talbert, or Pine Grove, Cemetery in Vernon Parish, Louisiana, for example, contains fifteen graveshelters, certainly one of the largest assemblages of the artifact found in the South (Frantom 1995:29). The common practice of building graveshelters warranted little special attention in Southern communities and, like so many other aspects of our material culture, now beg for explanation.

No systematic regional survey of Southern graveshelters has ever been conducted. Most data is contained in large-scale surveys of specific counties widely dispersed across the region, and meaningful distribution map exists. The extraordinarily dispersed pattern of occurrence (graveshelters exist from Virginia to Texas and from Kentucky to Florida) does not yield many clues suggesting a common date of origin nor a single explanation for the onset of the practice, but several of the explanations offered do not satisfy. For example, Frantom suggests that the practice is linked to the migration of the timber industry as it moved westward from the Atlantic seaboard (unpublished manuscript, no date). This does not account for the presence of graveshelters in areas where major timber industry activity was not implemented. Thus, it may explain the distribution in Louisiana, but it does not adequately explain the practice for the entire Upland South.

Likewise, Jordanís work on Texas graveyards indicates his preference for an Indian origin for graveshelters (1982:34), and the idea is reiterated in his and Kaups' revisionist text on the backwoods frontier (1989:87). Their argument that Indian influence was generally pervasive does not seem accurate for the realm of mortuary customs. Although some Indian cultures did have house-form mortuary practices, none of the ones who consistently practiced such a tradition, other than the Seminoles and Creeks, were Southern tribes (Watson 1950:102; Ellsworth and Dysart 1981). The Creek tradition of West Florida cannot be authenticated to pre-European contact, and their graveshelters bear a striking resemblance to the most sophisticated forms constructed by whites (Ellsworth and Dysart 1981). The fact that Cherokees practiced the tradition after removal to Oklahoma is not proof they built graveshelters while in the Carolinas and Georgia. To my knowledge, there is no ethnographic evidence or historical descriptions of Cherokee mortuary practices that mention the practice of building graveshelters. That would suggest the practice in Oklahoma was acquired after their migration and might have been influenced by their contacts with whites who practiced the tradition.

At any rate, the most persistent practice of building house-form structures among Native American tribes appears among the Menomini (Powell 1896:239), Chippewa (Levi 1956: 179, 1894; Walker 1950:240) and Ojibway (Jones 1861:99) in the upper Great Lakes region. Even among these Native Americans there is no indication that the practice was diffused widely among neighboring tribes, much less among whites. In fact, Powell (1896:239) indicates that among the Menomini it is the Christianized  tribal members who have adopted the building of spirit houses over the graves of their dead. The Native American practice appears too sporadic and contradictory to suggest it as a source for white communities.

Establishing the origin graveshelters construction might be easier if sufficient examples of authenticated historic structures still existed. However, the quality of construction varies widely and is often difficult to date accurately. Although an early antebellum origin is likely, it is simply not known how long graveshelters have been constructed across the South. Occasional examples from the mid-19th century have survived in rare instances. And the sophisticated use of mortise and tenon joinery suggests that such a technique not only evolved out of folk techniques for house and barn construction, but that the practice was not new by the mid-19th century. The majority of graveshelters still standing do not, however, exhibit sophisticated joinery, even when they can be reasonably authenticated to the mid-19th century. Even then the use of nails, sometimes wrought but more commonly wire, was commonplace. The period from 1880-1930 indicates a "golden age" of construction, based on the number of surviving shelters (Figure 4). Numbers decline during and after the decade of the 1930s.

Two general conditions militate against the survival of graveshelters: the tradition of building in wood and associated poor construction techniques. Considering the high quality of wood building techniques in folk housing of the early and mid-19th century, the rapid decline in quality of construction is puzzling. Considering the availability of requisite skills and the special symbolic nature of the structure, it is puzzling that graveshelters were apparently built hastily, commonly of green wood, and that little effort was made to systematically maintain the structures beyond occasionally replacing the roof. Although the use of mortise and tenon help to identify the oldest structures, perhaps a first generation graveshelter form, using green wood would negate the effectiveness of the folk technique. Once the structure deteriorated to the point of collapse, it was seldom ever replaced. On average the longevity of a typical graveshelter appears to be approximately 50-60 years. Unless extraordinary care was taken to maintain the structure, by the passage of one to two generations it deteriorated to a point beyond salvage and was generally torn down or allowed to collapse. In rare instances relict pieces of graveshelters indicate former existence; in all too many instances, no trace remains (Figure 5). Thus, the survival of a graveshelter earlier than the last quarter of the 19th century is rare indeed.

The 1930s are a decade of significant transition for the folk burial landscape. It became increasingly difficult to generate sufficient enthusiasm for the annual cemetery cleaning. The practice of scraping ("cleaning") grass and weeds from the cemetery was a principal visible means by which communities expressed their devotion for and respect toward their ancestors. Multiple reprints of newspaper cemetery cleaning notices and occasional editorials bemoaning the community embarrassment of unkempt burial grounds underscore the change.

World War II generated still another hiatus in the practice of local traditions. Spatial and demographic changes occurring prior to the War pale compared to what followed. The broad-based advent of the blacktop road and the automobile in the boom period following the War ushered in a new era for the rural South. Returning veterans commonly did not go back to the family farms, taking up residence in the county seats and other "urbanized" locales where they could apply skills and trades acquired in the military toward new careers. Rural communities favoring continuation of the traditional, labor-intensive cults of piety found it increasingly difficult to get enough people to perform the necessary cemetery maintenance. The folk cemetery had come upon hard times, and it never recovered.

The characteristics that identified the folk burial ground changed at such a rapid pace that a new Southern cemetery landscape emerged, one retaining elements of the traditional but incorporating new ideas about appropriate cemetery design and maintenance, largely evolved from urban practices. Although an occasional graveshelter would be built, attitudes had begun to change regarding the appropriateness of such features in the cemetery. As one of the more visible artifacts of the folk cemetery, graveshelters were rarely built after World War II.† Thus, the construction of fewer shelters, coupled with the decay and disappearance of historic examples, changed not only the distribution pattern of the feature but the look of the folk cemetery as well.

The question of graveshelter origin is very much an unresolved issue, and I am convinced that it is to Europe, specifically the British Isles, that we must look for the origin of the graveshelter tradition practiced by white Southerners. The lych-gate is a house-form structure long associated with British burial grounds and whose history goes back to at least the seventh century (Encyclopedia Britannica 1911). As with American scholars and the term graveshelter, British scholars have no standard spelling for lych-gate, the term being spelled variously lychgate, lych gate, lych-gate, lichgate, or lich-gate. There does appear to be common agreement on the termís origin, coming into modern usage from the Anglo-Saxon lich, or German leiche, meaning "corpse." Based on a field sample of more than 200 gates, the hyphenated spelling "lych-gate" seems preferred whenever the term is used on the gate.

The undeniable "authority" on English lych-gates is Aymer Vallance (1920). Nikolaus Pevsner (1951) is commonly accepted as the  authority for Englandís historic architecture, especially ecclesiastical architecture, but he treated lych-gates somewhat cavalierly, including them only when associated with architecturally significant churches. This bias notwithstanding, no published works come close to matching the scope of Vallanceís pioneering efforts to classify lych-gates, and his primary interest was not in lych-gates at all but in classifying church crosses -- a far older and more prolific religious symbol on the English landscape. Nonetheless, he considered them worthy of note because of their antiquity and geographic distribution and felt some effort to classify them justified. Terminology used to describe lych-gates in most publications uses Vallance's classification scheme, though seldom crediting him for his efforts. Vallance recognizes four types of lych-gates (1920: 164): a) porch -- roof ridge has the same axis as the passage way; b) shed -- roof ridge is transverse to the axis of the passage way; c) combination -- two roof ridges intersect one another at right angles [a rare type]; and d) room -- where the passage way is incorporated into a church house or other building. The porch type lych-gate is most significant as an archetype for the Southern graveshelter.

The tradition of building lych-gates survives in the British Isles, particularly in England and Wales. Lych-gates are noted for Scotland, though how common there is not known. In addition to new lych-gates, and frequent repair of historic ones, the occasional circular, octagonal, pyramidal or square, or other shape is encountered reflecting modern architectural rendering of an ancient tradition.

Just how common are lych-gates? According to Friar (1996:vii), two-thirds of Great Britainís Grade I historic buildings are ecclesiastical and account for better than 16,000 churches, many of which have churchyards. Although there is no substantiated count, scholars conservatively estimate that there are 10,000 churchyards in England [Brian (1987:19) estimates that 25,000 acres, or one in every 1,500, are used for burial purposes in England]. Christianity is believed to date from at least the fourth century in Great Britain, and the tradition of churchyards (i.e., burial grounds) associated with parish churches began in 752 A.D. when the Pope granted Saint Cuthbert the authority to establish churchyards around churches (Brian 1987:20). The graveyard has been an integral part of sacred space ever since. A common assumption is that most of these churchyards have, or had, one or more lych-gates. British cemetery scholars agree there is little pattern to the distribution of lych-gate types, but this may be a random observation rather than any systematic effort to map the phenomenon. In much the same way that the graveshelter in the South appears to have been so common as to not attract attention, the lych-gate, too, was taken for granted.

Two hundred nine lych-gates have been photographed and measured between 1990 and 1998 (Map 1). Of the four basic types identified by Vallance, the porch and shed account for 91 per cent of all measured gates. Fifty-seven per cent of the sample is porch type; the shed type accounts for the other 34 per cent. The combination type is rare indeed (only 5 gates scattered widely across England). The lych-gate incorporated into a room or other church building is equally rare (9 examples) and is geographically dominant in western England and the Welsh border area. Only one significant example of the room type, associated with St. Michaelís in Bray in Surrey and authenticated to AD 1448, is known for eastern England.

Dating English lych-gates, like authenticating American graveshelters, is difficult. Most medieval gates depend on details of framing and aging of the wood as verification of antiquity. On this basis, a very few 14th and 15th century examples survive. A number of decent examples survive from the 16th and 17th centuries. The 18th century is modestly represented, and the 19th and 20th centuries are well represented. A great surge in lych-gate reconstruction took place during the Victorian era and persists to the present, though there has been a general decline in construction since the end of World War II.†

The dominant lych-gate form is the porch type (Figure 6), a rectangular, gable-ended structure with a roof ridge parallel to the axis of passage. Although medieval shed type lych-gates have survived in greater numbers than the porch type, it is significant that the oldest verified lych-gate in Britain, dated AD 1470, is the splendid gate at Boughton Monchelsea in Kent (Child 1982:20). An important stone lych-gate dating from AD 1632 is found at Pennant Melangell near Llanfyllin (Powys), Wales, indicating the longevity of the porch type as well in the western regions of Britain.

The British make a very clear distinction between a lych-gate and a church gate, recognizing that each is a specific architectural feature having its own chronology and evolution of style. The common assumption that the single-dimension cemetery "gate" arching over the entrance to Southern cemeteries probably derives from the lych-gate is in error (Jordan, 1982, 38; Major, 1998, personal correspondence). The British separate the two because the lych-gate is emphatically associated with a funereal ritual while gates are simply ornamentation. The lych-gateís specific function is to protect the corpse from the weather until a priest arrives to lead the funeral procession into sanctified ground. It is interesting that the most frequent rationale given by Southerners for constructing graveshelters is to protect the body or grave from the weather. While the graveshelter also may have been built for protection from marauding animals, this appears to be secondary, perhaps suggesting that most Southern graveyards may have been fenced from their inception or within a short time thereafter.

Every British parishioner, regardless of social status, generally entered the churchyard for religious services and other church functions by passing through the lych-gate. From 1549 it was required by the Book of Common Prayer that the priest, "metyng the corpse at the church style," would commence the Order for the Burial of the Dead  ("church style" was redefined in the 1662 Prayer Book as the entrance to the churchyard) (Friar, 1996, 262). Only in comparatively recent times has the tradition been abandoned, and the demise is in part due to changes in funeral protocol linked to services of morticians and the use of motorized vehicles. While not every church in every parish had a lych-gate, they were found throughout the width and breadth of the country and were understood by every citizen as to function.

The challenge is to explain how the practice of building lych-gates gets transposed to the Upland South? Is the origin to be explained by diffusion from abroad or from acculturation by indigenous peoples in America? Or, is it possible that each group developed a house-form structure for their burials independent of one another? Certainly, immigrants from England, Wales, and Scotland would at least be familiar with the form and function of the lych-gate. Although the Scotch-Irish are not known to have built lych-gates in Ulster, it is not unheard of for church porches to have served the same purpose. The practice of building porches on churches in all of the British Isles dates to at least the 14th century, and the typical porch was a rectangular, gable-end, open-sided structure intended to provide protection from the weather. It is possible that yeoman farmers, desiring to protect the remains of their loved ones from elements or animals may have reverted to a common form with that specific function, having long forgotten any association with church ritual.

That Native Americans used house-form burial structures is not in question, although these were not always freestanding structures but specifically built to be later covered over with dirt to create burial mounds. Their existence is known from ethnographic descriptions and from archaeological investigations. Some excavated Indian burials appear similar to Iron Age burials in Britain, incorporating a house-form structure to cover the corpse prior to covering the burial with dirt and constructing a burial mound.

Which Indian groups practiced building graveshelters consistently enough during the early years of contact to attract the attention of white settlers? Jordan and Kaups place the core of American backwoods (Upland South) culture in a contact zone on the upper Chesapeake Bay, among the Delaware Indians specifically, and developed by Finnish (Karelian) emigrants (Jordan and Kaups, 1989). There is no evidence the Delaware built graveshelters. Additionally, had they done so, the early Karelians should have found the practice interesting enough to remark upon since their European ancestors also built "spirit houses" similar to those constructed by some Indians (Stora, 1971). The noted ethnographer and authority on Native American mortuary customs, David Bushnell (1920), places most tribes practicing graveshelter construction outside the main avenues of immigrant movement and well outside the South.

Further, accurate information on mortuary customs from Southern tribes is not readily available, either from secondary sources or from primary tribal sources. Written requests for information have been denied on the grounds that to share information with non-tribal peoples on sacred customs is taboo. In instances where some claim to house-form construction is offered, the information is anecdotal and often contradictory with regard to an Indian origin or resulting from Christianization from whites. The issue is not one of whether Native Americans influenced white culture; evidence is certainly abundant that they did in significant ways. If, however, as tribes claim, the sharing of mortuary customs is taboo, then there is difficulty accepting that the culture transfer was as pervasive as Jordan and Kaups suggest. When, for example, would most English, Scotch-Irish or other immigrants on the frontier have been exposed to Indian burial customs? Colonialists in the emerging urban core environments of the Atlantic coast apparently did not build graveshelters, but there is suggestion that some early Anglican churches in the Tidewater did construct lych-gates. By the time most immigrants settling the Upland South were making their way westward, after the mid-eighteenth century, Indians cultural influence was on the wane. Tribes had been significantly Anglicized, had turned hostile toward aggressive white expansion into their territories, or they had been largely driven if not entirely removed from their lands.

James Axtell makes an interesting argument that early missionaries attacked, among other things, Indian mortuary customs as a means of "civilizing" the Indian. The goal, through disruption of their mortuary practices among other ploys, "was to reduce Indians from cultural and political autonomy to dependence upon European institutions and authority" (1981: 112). Missionaries were largely unsuccessful in their efforts. Two major changes, however, did occur in mortuary customs as a consequence of European grave robbing violating the Indian sense of sanctity. Indians disguised graves by omitting telltale palisades, mounds, and other identifiers, in an effort to thwart robbery, and they practiced "democratization" of the exterior of graves by eliminating any signs of the wealth or social status of the deceased (Axtell 1981:119). Whether the changes occurred because of Indian desire to escape unscrupulous European acts or because of conversion to Christianity is unclear. However, the ultimate indignity to most Eastern Woodland tribes would have been reduction to an unmarked or uniformly crossed grave. Axtell believes this would have been the final step in the loss of an Indianís identity, precisely the goal sought by European missionaries (1981:120).

By contrast, I offer that many of the people who settled the Upland South between 1750-1830 would have been familiar with the form and function of the lych-gate by practice (as they were with house forms, barns, and field patterns) or through oral tradition. The frontier characteristic of fierce individualism, coupled with the need to "make do," may have found one expression in the transference of a culture trait formerly associated with the group, the lych-gate, to the domain of the individual, the graveshelter (Figure 7). It is possible that neither Jordan nor I am correct. The sanctity of the grave is emotionally driven, and it may well be that neither group had much influence upon the other; parallel origin rather than cultural adaptation may be more significant.

References Cited

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Ball, Donald. B. 1977. Observations on the Form and Function of Middle Tennessee Gravehouses. Tennessee Anthropologist  2:29-62.

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Cozzens, Arthur B. 1972. A Cherokee Graveyard. Pioneer America  4:8.

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Ellsworth, Lucius F. and Jane E. Dysart. 1981. West Floridaís Forgotten People: The Creek Indians from 1830 until 1970. Florida Historical Quarterly  59:422-439.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1911. 11th ed. s.v. "lich-gate."

Frantom, Marci. 1995. Gravehouses of North Louisiana: Culture History and Typology. Material Culture  27:21-48.

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Major, J. Kenneth. 1998. Letter to the author 31 August. Mr. Major is a noted authority on British industrial archaeology and historic architecture. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and served for many years with the Society for the protection of Ancient Buildings. Among other architectural structures he is responsible for having restored are lych-gates.

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Swanton, John R. Social organization and Social usages of the Indians of the Upper Creek Confederacy. Forty-second Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology,  1924-25. Washington, D.C.: GPO.

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Maintained by Dr. Gregory Jeane. Last updated: February 6, 2004