If ever you find yourself strolling through a picturesque Tennessee field, keep an eye on the ground lest you trip over a Comb.
Every region and culture has a habit or two unique to them, largely unknown by the rest of the world. These secluded habits are often forgotten by the passing of our ancestors. However, all is not always lost. Remnants can still be found...if you know where to look.
To the west of the Cumberland Plateau, spanning several counties, lies a number of eerie remnants of Tennessee culture. My husband, a born and raised White County, Tennessee native, took his mother and I to explore a few of his ancestral cemeteries. I was not quite prepared for what I saw.
|Map of the Tennessee Comb Graves.|
|Comb Graves: Photo by Author, Shayna Matthews.|
A cedar grove towered over the little cemetery, 100+ year old trees shielding those long-ago laid to rest below. Sunlight filtered through the foliage, casting rays of golden dust upon the graves. And yet, the feeling I had while picking my way around the graves was anything but tranquil. The graves, some of them so old the inscriptions are no longer there, (or perhaps not inscribed at all) look like pup tent shaped vaults. Sandstone slabs at least as long as the grave lean against each other, like an inverted "V". Sometimes they have head-markers, often the identity of the deceased is erased by the passing of time. The old trees seem to remember, for they embrace the strange graves, their trunks growing around the stones, ever so slowly swallowing the tombs.
The design of these sandstone crypts were so foreign, so strange, and yet my husband could not comprehend my intrigue. "They're everywhere," he told me. "Aren't they?" No. Most assuredly, no.
These "tent-graves" are actually called combs, probably named for the peak of a gable-house roof. Digging a bit deeper into the realm of the Comb graves, I discovered that the Combs are indeed isolated to a strip of counties which seem to follow the extreme western borders of the Cumberland Plateau. This, of course, leads to the obvious question--why? Why are Combs scattered throughout this one region, and why the strange tent-shaped slabs? One theory is to protect grazing livestock from sinking into the soft-grave earth. Naturally, no one wants their cattle bogged down in a tomb. The Combs do not seem to follow patterns of religious beliefs, as families buried in the same cemetery may have a normal marker vs. a stone tent. The style of Combs also differ throughout the region. While most are sandstone, others may be based on a wooden frame, with stone or metal sheeting. Some "newer" graves from the early 1900s are even erected from metal roofing.
A smattering of Combs can also be found in Kentucky, Alabama, and Arkansas. Interestingly, the rarest Comb recorded, made of marble, sits in Texas. The inscription reads NANCY YEATS, Born Feb. 19, 1831 - Died Feb. 19, 1910. Although Nancy Yeats expired in Texas, she rests in one of the most elegant forms of Comb graves in the books. Oh, did I mention, Nancy was a native of Tennessee? Tradition, it seems, sometimes carries on even through death.
Contrasting the Tennessee Valley Combs, a walk through my own native land and its cemeteries will show you a much different form of heritage carved in stone. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is home to a plethora of rich Penna-Dutch folklore and traditions. My favorite? The hex sign. Pennsylvania Dutch consists of a group of people who are descendants from German immigrants. They arrived sometime before the 1800's and settled in the pristine farmlands of southeastern Pennsylvania. Confusing as it sounds, this group is not Dutch, but German. "Deutsch" is the German word for, well, "German". This is also where our English word "Dutch" derived. The Pennsylvania Deutsch carried with them a flair for artistic folklore. Their belief in Hex Signs--those colorful and intricately painted designs, began showing up on the barns they built. Now, if you know German, you know that "hex" means "witch". It is often said that the original belief in the hex signs is that they are painted at the top of a barn--the farmer's livelihood--to ward off evil spirits and witches. Others say the signs are merely for decoration.
|Pennsylvania Deutsch Barn decorated with Hex Signs.|
|Tulips and hearts are popular designs.|
Whatever the reason for the origin, hex signs have enriched the culture. They are on our barns and in our pottery, in our paintings and even printed on the plastic wrappers on our loaves of bread. But, like my husbands' ancestors and their isolated cultures scattered throughout the fields and cedar groves, my isolated heritage can be found amongst the graves, as well. A walk through the pre-Civil War section of the German side of my family showed me a few final resting places nearly as unique as the Combs. One stone in particular caught my attention; "decorated" with an hourglass, a skull and a sickle, it reminds me of something you might stumble across late at night in a Stephen King novel. The stone is called Memento Mori, and is quite rare for a Pennsylvania German tombstone for the reason that "Death's attributes" were not popular with the culture. The Memento Mori design died out (pun intended) completely between 1740-1800 in the region, and only three stone cutters used this motif on their stones. Use of the sickle is the only known example of the grisly instrument in Pennsylvania German gravestone art. It is inscribed in German tongue, translated to read:
"So rest my friend in your grave
until that day when Jesus shall
unite the body with the soul and bring together the "brotherhood"
with our chorus of children in that great year of Jubilee.
Put your house in order
for you too must die."
This morbid gravestone sits, dark and foreboding, among the pleasantly carved arches with intricate flowers, moons and stars, birds and hearts so colored throughout the culture. Most stone markers, perhaps unimpressive in shape compared to the Combs, were (and still are) engraved with the telltale art of the hex sign. In contrast to Momento Mori, weeping flowers, distlefinks (birds modeled after a goldfinch which bring good luck in the culture), and a number of various designs can be found carved in stone; forever granting wishes of love, prayer and good luck to the beloved resting below.
The next time you are passing by a secluded cemetery, perhaps you will take the time to stop and look around. What remnants of isolated traditions will you find carved in stone within your own region?
--By Shayna Matthews, Author of "The Legend of Venture Canyon" and "A Spot in the Woods", a non-fiction short within the "Memories From Maple Street, U.S.A. Leaving Childhood Behind" anthology.
|The Memento Mori Grave in Lancaster, PA. |
Skull, hourglass & sickle rarity.
|German inscription: see blog text for |
translation. Photographs by Author,
|Two more examples of PA German gravestones. |
These graves are neighbors to the Memento Mori stone.