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A simple monument

By Glen Liford, Editor 1/28/2019


This grave house sits in the Trent Valley Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery in Hancock County.
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The white latticework structure sits silently beside the road in the church cemetery. It rises above the gray tombstones scattered throughout the yard. Trent Valley Missionary Baptist Church is just across the road.

The simple building is small, roughly 12-by-12-feet square and perhaps 8-feet high. It’s carefully constructed, its white paint a contrast to the somber setting of the cemetery. A sturdy metal roof shelters the consecrated ground beneath the structure.

Its purpose here is a bit of a mystery. The building seems intended to be more a comfort to bereaved family members than those who occupy the space below.

It captured my attention when I first saw it, and I tried to learn more about it. But the family who built it is long gone. Church members say that their relatives have moved away, though they do return from time to time to visit the graves.

Far from common, grave houses are found in cemeteries throughout Appalachia and parts of the South. I first learned of their existence when I read an stories about them in the Knoxville News-Sentinel by Fred Brown, who wrote many articles about the folklore and traditions of the region. It seems grave houses are considered a mountain phenomena, but they also appear in the South. There are some clusters of the buildings all across Tennessee. Sometimes they’re made of wood like this one. Others are built of rock or concrete and feature wide-ranging designs.

Their origins are murky, but researchers believe the grave houses stem from burial practices of the Scots-Irish settlers or perhaps Native American influences. They serve the practical purpose of protecting the grave from the elements, and some speculate they might have been designed to keep animals away from the graves. There’s also an inherent recognition of the deep grief and devotion behind the act of the construction, as family members honored their loved ones with the simple monument.

Scott Greene, who was raised in the Trent Valley community and still lives near the church, recalls that there were once many more in the county. One local cemetery had several of the grave houses, but they were destroyed when a tornado swept through the area several years ago. Another cemetery still contains multiple grave houses built in a cluster around family graves.

Scott couldn’t offer a definitive answer as to the grave house’s purpose, but he recalls helping dig a grave by hand next to one years ago and noting how the dirt covered by the structure over the adjacent grave was dry and crumbled easily.

The graves covered by the Trent Valley grave house presumably shelter a husband and wife buried in 1886 and 1900, respectively.

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