ALABAMA CEMETERY TOUR
University of Alabama.  The residency culminated in the annual meeting of the Alabama Folklife Association,
during which we made a presentation about our Cemetery Decoration study in North Carolina’s Great Smoky
Mountains.  After two more days in Birmingham, Karen and I set off on a field excursion for over a week through
parts of central, western, and northern Alabama.  Our object was to learn as much we could in the time allotted
about the rural and small-town cemeteries of Alabama, and we also wanted to compare Decoration Day in
Alabama with the Decoration Day practices we had observed in the Smokies. Although we did a bit of
documentation in neighboring Mississippi and Georgia, virtually the entire time was spent in Alabama.  Before
the trip was over, we had visited dozens of cemeteries and Karen had taken hundreds of photographs.  When
we finally arrived in Atlanta for Thanksgiving with family and friends, we were so deeply immersed in cemeteries
that we couldn’t stop, so we documented three additional cemeteries there (see the separate series on this
website).

The rural cemeteries of Alabama are in many respects like cemeteries we have documented in the Great Smoky
Mountains in western North Carolina or the cemeteries of the Mammoth Cave area of western Kentucky.  Yet
there were certain special features that we had not yet encountered in other areas, or that appeared in different
proportions or combinations.  Our Alabama colleague Joey Brackner led us to the only cemetery we saw
(Spring Hill Cemetery in Hale County) that was predominantly tended in the old style.  The earth was scraped
and clean-swept, creating a backdrop of sandy earth throughout most of the cemetery (see #6 in the photo
series).  Most individual graves were mounded from head to toe, and flowers were often inserted into the
mounded earth as well as at the headstones and foot markers (see #7).

All the other cemeteries we saw have been making a transition to a new mode of managing cemeteries, in which
the key change is sowing grass and maintaining the cemetery with power mowers.  Most of the cemeteries have
made this transition completely – some several decades ago, others in the last ten or fifteen years.  But in many
of them the transition is incomplete, and one discovers cultural holdouts – families who still scrape and mound
their graves (#9, 10, 12, 23).  That these procedures are still contested is made clear by various signs posted at
cemeteries by the cemetery association (usually a community volunteer effort).  The signs frequently forbid
mounding, flowers on the ground, plantings, “copings” (that is, wood, stone, or concrete borders setting off an
individual or family plot), and above-ground foot  markers for the graves – all to make mowing more convenient.  
The rules set forth on the signs are an excellent guide to the older tradition, in what they forbid, and to the newer
style, in what they encourage (#18, 22, 29).

The photos also offer a few examples of other salient features of cemeteries, such as grave shelters and crypt-
like structures lying along the grave above the ground.  Grave shelters are an old tradition that had seemed to
be dying out in recent decades, though a few examples have been carefully maintained and survive into the
modern era (#11-12, 20-21).  But in a few cemeteries along Sand Mountain we discovered a renaissance of newly
built grave shelters constructed with modern materials sold to build sheds, carports, or other outdoor
structures (#24, 25, 26).  As for the crypt-like grave structures, they are stone or concrete and lie horizontally
above the grave in various configurations.  Some seem like boxed structures with interior space, while others
are more like coverings lying on or raised up above the ground.  The older ones date from the mid-19th century
and are sometimes clustered near large old red cedars marking the oldest parts of a cemetery (#2-4, 13-17, 28).

Plantings are interesting to note in cemeteries, and their use is not random but generally subject to customary
standards.  Many older Alabama cemeteries have venerable red cedars (
Juniperus virginiana, Virginia junipers)
planted in the oldest areas of the cemetery (#1-3, 14).  Other traditional plantings include yuccas (#20),
boxwoods (#28), and roses.  Occasionally a large oak spreads over part of the cemetery.  These plantings – as
well as other evergreen trees and shrubs – can be found throughout the Upland South from Virginia to the
Ozarks.

Certain other structures are also commonly associated with cemeteries in Alabama and throughout the Upland
South.  One of the most common is the outdoor pavilion with tables for serving “dinner on the ground” (#5, 6).  
One also encounters benches placed near graves for rest and quiet contemplation (#24, 25).  Finally, regarding
the headstones on the graves themselves, one finds a range of religious expression and sentiment, as well as
various expressions of the pain of losing parents, spouses, and children.  But a significant trend in current
burials is the inclusion of objects on the graves and inscriptions on the stones that evoke the life,
accomplishments, and passions of the deceased – from football teams (#8) to fighting cocks (#27).

Finally, in our cemetery visits we occasionally came upon other visitors, usually to decorate family graves (#19).  
We were at the wrong season for observing Decoration Day celebrations, but we hope we can be back
someday for Decoration Day in Alabama.

Alan Jabbour
December 2006
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
1. Entrance to Spring Hill Cemetery, Tuscaloosa Co., AL, 11-16-06
3. Guin family graves, Spring Hill Cemetery, Tuscaloosa Co., AL, 11-16-06
4. Grave, Spring Hill Cemetery, Tuscaloosa Co., AL, 11-16-06
2. Panorama, Spring Hill Cemetery, Tuscaloosa Co., AL, 11-16-06
8. Averette grave, Spring Hill Cemetery, Hale Co., AL, 11-15-06
7. Mounded graves, Spring Hill Cemetery, Hale Co., AL, 11-10-06
5. Dinner pavilion, Spring Hill Baptist Church and Cemetery, Tuscaloosa Co., AL, 11-16-06
6. Spring Hill Church, dinner pavilion, Spring Hill Cemetery, Hale Co., AL, 11-10-06
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour