What Virginia Cemeteries Tell US

An unusual periodical for searching cemeteries is Markers published annually by the Association for Gravestone Studies located at Greenfield Corporate Center, 101 Munson Street-Suite 108-Greenfield MA 01301.   Two Virginia cemetery articles include some special information for your genealogy education:

  1. Elizabeth A Crowell and Norman Vardney Mackie III.  “The Funerary Monuments and Burial Patterns of Colonial Tidewater Virginia, 1607-1776,”  Markers VII (1990):  103-38;  with a second article on “Charles Miller Walsh:  A Master Carver of Gravestones in Virginia, 1865-1901 ” by Martha Wren Briggs.
  2. Lynn Rainville, “Home at Last: Mortuary Commemoration in Virginia Slave Cemeteries,”  MarkersXXVI (2009):  55-83.   Mostly Albemarle County examples.

Both articles include photographs and drawings of stones and graveyard settings.  They are also well referenced with numerous other studies of stones and inscriptions from a variety of Virginia burial grounds–in other words, many footnotes to follow-up on.

The authors consider the usual aspects of time and form, with changes over  time indicated and size and format with funeral art and plantings also discussed.  They also include the distribution of similarities from one place to another. 

Burial of the dead in Virginia was first around or in proximity of the church, although the site may not be a specific churchyard.  Then as the plantation system grew and spread up river valleys, burials were made in designated sections of the plantation.  Owners, tenants, and slaves were buried together, although in separate sections.

As sons and daughters set up their own plantations, they followed this same burial pattern.  Much to the distress of the English authorities who sought the traditional churchyard burial pattern.

Because the parishes were large and the church buildings spread far apart, transporting the dead to the church for burial was impractical:

But it is a common thing all over the country (what thro’ want of ministers,what by their great distance and the heat of the weather, and the smelling of the corps), both to bury at other places than Church yards and to employ Laicks to read the funeral service; which till our circumstances and laws are altered, we know not how to address.  Letter to James Blair to Governor Alexander Spotswood, 1719. 

Conclusions of Crowell and Mackie– 

In Virginia there was a dearth of stone for building floors, steps of houses and public buildings, and for gravestones.  The stone had to be imported from England–and wills, as well as account books, include the importing of stones.  Such notations in account books, when dated, can serve as death and burial dates.  Crowell and Mackie give pages of specific examples.

These stones memorialize the dead, mark the final resting place, and state the position in society of your family members.  Size and elaborate carvings were considered an indication of wealth, connection, and place in the community.

Headstone, ledger (flat slab directly on the ground), chest-tomb, table-tomb, and obelisk were used in Colonial cemeteries of Virginia.  The latter three were raised above the ground and were considered as evidence of upper society burials.

The chest-tomb was a stone box with a ledger on the top.  The table-tomb is a ledger raised on four legs–often carved with elaborate decorations.

Two obelisks are found in the Tidewater area of Virginia–on the graves of William Byrd II (1744) and David Bray (1731).  Both stones were imported from England. 

Burials within the church itself, were reserved for persons of high social position and wealth.  Ledger stones were used,both flat and wall-mounted because they fit better into the smaller church structures found in Virginia.  Coats of  arms, as well as soul imagery motifs, were carved directly on the stones.

An interesting find by Crowell and Mackie is the use of the word “gentleman” in the deeds and wills correlated to the coat of arms on the tombstone for that man. 

The term “mister” is correlated to persons above the status of “yeoman.”

Stones written in Latin matched those persons who had a coat of arms or used a title in the inscription, including the use of “Honorable.”

Women of high status are listed as daughters of gentlemen; women not of high status in their own right and married to a man of status are listed as “wife” of the gentleman. 

Places of residence or birth are used for those of high status.  And statements of “ancient and worthy family” are also included.  Class, ancestry, and family ties are associated with these same persons.

Status indicated by Places of burial: 

  1. within the church or in the churchyard with a chest-tomb–highest social status
  2. under a ledger in the church yard–of community prestige, although not entitled to a coat of arms
  3. memorialized only with a headstone, lower segments of society
  4. lacking a gravemarker all together, lowest social class.

When names are compared with documents, the same designations appear on their documents and legal papers.  These trappings of social position differentiate between men, and women, of the same name living in the same place.

Watch for the next episode where I will summarize the slave burials–you will be rqther amazed!  Your favorite Virginia genealogist, Arlene Eakle   http://arleneeakle.com

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