The Grave of Floyd Collins 8/6-7/2005
The photographs in this series were taken by my wife, Karen Singer Jabbour, during our visit to Mammoth Cave National Park in
western Kentucky on August 7-8, 2005.  They are part of a larger project we have undertaken to document cemetery decoration
in that region and elsewhere in the Upper South.

Reproduction of the photographs in this series requires our prior permission.

FIELDNOTES FROM A VISIT TO MAMMOTH CAVE, KY Aug. 6-7, 2005

[NOTE: I included these fieldnotes in an e-mail letter written on August 9, 2005, to my colleagues Ted Coyle and Paul Webb,
with whom I had been working during 2004-05 on the North Shore Cemetery Decoration Project in the Great Smoky Mountains
(described elsewhere on this website).  Hence the comparisons in these fieldnotes to our experiences in the Smokies.]

Mammoth Cave was very interesting, and Karen and I took time to visit and photograph several cemeteries within the
park.There were many similarities, but also some striking differences, between Mammoth Cave area cemeteries and
cemeteries in the Smokies. The churches in the area are mostly Missionary Baptist, but with some "Hardshell Baptists" and
some Methodists as well. Some cemeteries are community cemeteries, but more are affiliated with rural churches. The graves
all face eastward -- with one notable exception in the park, created by a doctor and owner of Mammoth Cave for his tuberculosis
patients (the cave was an experimental treatment that failed) from all over the country. Gravestones are similar to the Smokies
range of styles, from unmarked rocks to fairly elaborate markers. All the cemeteries in the park, and so far as I was able to
observe in the entire region, are flat and grassy -- mounding is only for new burials.

Decoration Day is observed by all the park churches on modern Memorial Day. This may represent a regional consensus, too.
The park cemeteries are maintained (mainly mowed) by the park staff but decorated by local community people. The
cemeteries are still actively used for new burials, and there are also many new stones for old graves. In addition to
Decoration/Memorial Day, the park seems to have developed, in collaboration with the local community, a tradition of
"Homecoming" on July Fourth, when people with roots in the region return to visit local relatives -- and local cemeteries as well.

We got to take part in a wonderful tour by a park ranger named Janet Smith, focusing on the story of Floyd Collins, who was a
local man who was exploring a cave (ca. 1925) and, as he exited through a pipe-like orifice, dislodged a rock that pinned his
leg. His agony for the next two weeks or so became an early example of a national media frenzy. For a while he was able to
receive food and drink, but then the rescue efforts caused additional rockslides, and by the time they reached him, he had died
a day or two before. His body was later displayed as a tourist attraction -- then stolen and partially dismembered -- then finally
recovered and buried in a cemetery now in the park. "The Death of Floyd Collins" became a celebrated early hillbilly 78-rpm
record by Rev. Andrew Jenkins (of TN, I believe), which I had heard and maybe even played for classes once as an example of a
modern ballad.

We got to see Floyd Collins's grave, of course, and of course Karen photographed it. It was striking that it had an extraordinary
array of tokens on it -- coins, sunflower seeds, stones, other objects. We had heard earlier that cave explorers visiting any of the
caves Floyd Collins had explored now go to his grave first to ask his permission. There are stories (our guide confided) of bad
consequences for failing to ask his permission. So it seemed clear that the tokens were not from family and friends, but rather
from the cave explorers and others for whom Floyd Collins was a legendary symbol.

Then we went down the road to document another cemetery. On driving back down the road later, I noticed a pickup truck
stopping and discharging two elderly women, one with a bundle of artificial flowers. They walked over to Floyd Collins's grave,
and I hit the brakes, backed up, and went over to meet them. It was Floyd Collins's niece, and she was busily removing the
tokens Karen had just photographed a half hour earlier. They clearly vexed and perplexed her -- who were these unknown
people? she seemed to say. I tried to explain, but in truth it was only gradually becoming clear to me that we were face-to-face
with an astonishing bit of contemporary folklore. I had nothing to record with, but at least Karen had photographed her in front of
her uncle's grave, so we bid her and her companion farewell and rushed back to the Visitor Center for an appointment with Janet
Smith, who had promised to photocopy the original sheet music of "The Death of Floyd Collins" for me.

There are several books on Floyd Collins in the park giftshop. Janet Smith gives a great Floyd Collins tour and is a caver herself
who spoke of caving traditions with an insider's authority. But she refers me to the Park Historian for further information on the
sixty or so park cemeteries, which they have apparently surveyed at some point.
Floyd Collins home, Mammoth Cave National Park, 8-7-05
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Dogtrot house on same property as the home of Floyd Collins, Mammoth
Cave National Park. 8-7-05
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Mammoth Cave Baptist Church and Cemetery, 8-7-05
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Floyd Collins gravestone, Mammoth Cave Church Cemetery, 8-7-05
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Tokens on the base of the gravestone of Floyd Collins, Mammoth Cave
Church Cemetery, 8-7-05
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Coin, seed, and stone tokens on top of gravestone of Floyd Collins, Mammoth
Cave Church Cemetery, 8-7-05
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
Mildred Collins Passmore decorating the grave of Floyd Collins, Mammoth
Cave Church Cemetery, 8-7-05
Photo by Karen Singer Jabbour
For more photos of Floyd Collins’s Grave taken April 4, 2006, click here.