Houses of Spirits

Kentucky photographer and folklorist keeps grave houses alive.

HUMANITIES, March/April 2012, Volume 33, Number 2

Traversing southern Kentucky’s byways, an unsuspecting motorist may happen upon a country cemetery with gabled sheds over a gravesite and its tombstone. Other states have a few remaining grave houses, too, but many of Kentucky’s have been especially well maintained and have been recorded for posterity by Bowling Green’s peripatetic Jonathan Jeffrey.

Writing in the Fall 2011 issue of Kentucky Humanities, Jeffrey notes that the phenomenon may have its origins either in England or in American Indian tradition. What motivates the grieving to build the structures is, understandably, and according to Jeffrey, the concept of “posthumous exhibition of affection.” Mourning by another name, perhaps, but with a touch of veneration thrown in.

Another explanation may come from the fear of a mythical creature that was something of a cross between a weasel and an anteater that would burrow into the graves. More likely is the simple desire to protect the site from erosion and grazing livestock that may happen by. Far fewer of the sheds are built these days than had been the case in the early twentieth century, what with the “ground” rules imposed by many municipal cemeteries, but knowledge of the tradition hasn’t entirely passed, thanks to the, uh, undying curiosity and enthusiasm of folklorists like Jeffrey.