Gone to the Grave

Gone to the Grave: Burial Customs of the Arkansas Ozarks, 1850-1950

Abby Burnett
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Gone to the Grave
    Book Description:

    Before there was a death care industry where professional funeral directors offered embalming and other services, residents of the Arkansas Ozarks--and, for that matter, people throughout the South--buried their own dead. Every part of the complicated, labor-intensive process was handled within the deceased's community. This process included preparation of the body for burial, making a wooden coffin, digging the grave, and overseeing the burial ceremony, as well as observing a wide variety of customs and superstitions.

    These traditions, especially in rural communities, remained the norm up through the end of World War II, after which a variety of factors, primarily the loss of manpower and the rise of the funeral industry, brought about the end of most customs.

    Gone to the Grave, a meticulous autopsy of this now vanished way of life and death, documents mourning and practical rituals through interviews, diaries and reminiscences, obituaries, and a wide variety of other sources. Abby Burnett covers attempts to stave off death; passings that, for various reasons, could not be mourned according to tradition; factors contributing to high maternal and infant mortality; and the ways in which loss was expressed though obituaries and epitaphs. A concluding chapter examines early undertaking practices and the many angles funeral industry professionals worked to convince the public of the need for their services.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-062-4
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Abby Burnett
    (pp. xv-2)
  5. CHAPTER ONE Keeping Death at Bay
    (pp. 3-24)

    There are so many ways to die.

    Consider the fate of Rich McDonald, decapitated by a flying grindstone when his gristmill blew up (Washington County, 1900),¹ or Zoni Harvey (Carroll County, 1900), who heated her curling iron in the chimney of an oil lamp, which exploded, burning her to death.² Otis Hoskins’s end was almost as unusual. Found hanging upside down in the reins beneath a horse-drawn mowing machine, the boy’s death was ruled accidental because he was too well liked for it to have been foul play.³

    Any number of people died from being crushed between or beneath railroad...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Sitting up with the Sick and Dying
    (pp. 25-42)

    Deaths caused by a bolt of lightning or a tornado, from drowning or a misstep around machinery, came without warning and often without witnesses. But in the Arkansas Ozarks someone suffering from a chronic illness or the gradual decline of old age died surrounded by family and neighbors, all of whom had been in attendance throughout the days and nights leading up to the death. Members of the community stepped in to do whatever was needed. As William Erwin Halbrook wrote, describing the customs of his boyhood (Van Buren County, 1880s), “Neighbors were readily at one another’s services in need....

  7. CHAPTER THREE Laying out the Body
    (pp. 43-60)

    As the dying body released its final breath it would be reasonable to assume that friends and neighbors, so long in attendance at the deathbed, were heaving sighs of their own—ones of relief. However, the minute death occurred those same members of the community now had to begin work on a variety of jobs that demanded their labor, materials, skill, and speed.

    Burial within twenty-four hours is frequently cited as the norm, but even when delayed it was imperative to wash, dress, and position the body immediately, tasks collectively known as “laying out.” Those doing this job had to...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Sitting up with the Body
    (pp. 61-81)

    The morning after a neighbor died in Spring Valley (Washington County, 1931) Matilda Kelly saw something from her front porch that troubled her. “Isn’t that a shame,” Kelly remarked to great-grandson Bruce Vaughan, “Addie Holmesley has done a washing, and Tom Means is waiting to be buried.” Holmesley’s laundry, flapping on the clothesline, provided visible proof that she had put her own needs ahead of those of the deceased’s family.

    According to Vaughan, “When a neighbor died, you stopped whatever you were doing. You didn’t do a washing, or celebrate or have a party or go to work. You honored...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Coffins and Caskets
    (pp. 82-106)

    Deep in a remote hollow in the mountains, far from the nearest dwelling, young Columbus Vaughn sat alone, his back to a big, empty wooden coffin (Newton County, 1930s). The light was fading, owls and animals had begun to stir, but what terrified the boy was his memory of the relative for whom the coffin was intended, “gasping for her last breath.” Vaughn and his uncle had walked a long way into the woods to where a stack of rough-sawn sweet gum lumber was stored. Using rudimentary tools, they constructed the big, hexagonal box and solid lid, then discovered that...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Notification, Transportation, and Farewell
    (pp. 107-127)

    Farmer A. V. Hicks’s sons had to think up an excuse to give their father the morning he asked them to do some plowing. Hicks had forgotten that the day was his seventy-second birthday, but his boys had not, and they had planned a celebration. Soon friends and neighbors, laden with baskets of food, began arriving and at noon a meal was served to fifty guests (Washington County, 1906). The surprised honoree was delighted. His front yard, filled with people, attracted the notice of a passing stranger, who drew the obvious conclusion. He asked who had died.¹

    The stranger’s mistake...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Creating Graves and Graveyards
    (pp. 128-146)

    One evening, not long after dark, a man stopped at one of the stores in Kingston to ask what was going on in the town’s cemetery (Madison County, 1968). As he was passing by he’d noticed lights shining in a far corner of the graveyard, beyond the oldest burials. None of the men present knew what was happening, so they all went to investigate. There they discovered two men digging a grave by the light of their car’s headlights. These were the brothers of Sidney Ray (“Bud”) Henson, a relative newcomer to the small town, who had arrived after their...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Marking the Graves
    (pp. 147-168)

    Picking out a loved one’s tombstone was more involved than just giving the deceased’s name and dates to a carver. It also meant choosing from among the popular mourning motifs of the day that included doves, lambs, flowers, anchors, draperies, and hands. Occasionally the family chose a motif that was both literal and redundant: a tiny representation of a tombstone carvedonthe tombstone. In one example a bearded man points at a tiny obelisk labeled “My wife,” in another, a woman bows her head beside a little tablet inscribed “In Memory.” Even some epitaphs, verses on a stone expressing...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Funerals and Decoration Day
    (pp. 169-189)

    As he aged, “Uncle Fate” Firestone began to dwell on his impending death and to prepare for it. He had a casket specially built, storing it in a back room of the Hensleys’ general store, in Marshall (Searcy County, 1940s), so he could sleep in it when he made overnight visits to town.¹ Once Firestone, an itinerant preacher, decided he wanted to be buried in Canaan Cemetery, he had a grave dug there, one lined with concrete and marked with a tombstone.² Then, at the next Decoration Day, he stood beside the empty grave and preached his own funeral.


  14. CHAPTER TEN Childbirth, Children, and Death
    (pp. 190-211)

    Dwain Cook, just learning to walk, loved helping his grandfather do chores. “Daddy would cut stove wood out in the yard for Mother to cook with, little sticks. And that little old thing, he’d want to get that and carry it and lay it on the porch for Mother…. He was so sweet,” Flossie Cook Smith said of her nephew.¹

    The toddler had barely passed his first birthday when whooping cough broke out in the Short Cove community where Dwain’s mother, Roxie, had grown up (Madison County, 1934). Knowing this, she stayed away from a Mother’s Day program at the...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Disenfranchised Death
    (pp. 212-235)

    In 1867 the Arkansas State Penitentiary, adopting a practice common across the South, began leasing convicts to various industries. The owners of plantations, railroads, and coalmines housed the men and paid the state generously for their labor. There was little oversight, and not until the “Coal Hill Horrors” came to light (Johnson County, 1888) did it become known that many of these prisoners had been worked, beaten, and starved to death.¹ By the time the penitentiary’s commissioners investigated the camp, sixty to seventy convicts had died, their bodies “taken about a half-mile from the stockade and buried in a marshy...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE Early Undertaking
    (pp. 236-256)

    Thirty restless undertakers sat in a Searcy lecture hall (White County, 1891), waiting to hear Professor Lutz, a New York City embalmer, present an illustrated lecture on “the art restorative.” The problem was that no corpse was available on which Lutz could demonstrate his techniques. Undertaker John H. Neal, an event organizer, had the task of procuring a body and knew of a female prisoner who lay dying in the city jail. He feared that she might rally.

    Finally, however, Neal entered the lecture hall to make the happy announcement, “She is dead!” Soon the professor was able to proceed...

  17. CONCLUSION Walking the Buckeye Log
    (pp. 257-260)

    No matter how many customs, superstitions, medicines, remedies, and therapies were employed in an attempt to keep death at bay, eventually the inevitable had to occur. Members of the community managed the burial process, but once the funeral rites had been observed the deceased’s dependents were left to carry on. Lacking social welfare programs, charities, and insurance, only the poor farm provided a safety net, a dreaded one at that. This gave men a real incentive to join fraternal lodges, such as the Masons, Odd Fellows, Ancient Order of United Workmen (A.O.U.W.), Knights of Pythias, Woodmen of the World, Red...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 261-290)
    (pp. 291-314)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 315-327)