Don’t Trip on the Tent Graves

Photos courtesy of John and Retta Waggoner.

If you find yourself walking through a graveyard late one night on the western edge of the Appalachians, you should be careful not to trip. I mean watch for the usual graveyard ghouls and all too—they’ll snag you as fast there as anywhere—but also glance to the ground every few feet, because they have these strange markers, ones that will send you ass over tea kettle.

They go by a couple different names—tent graves and comb graves—the prior making perfect sense because they’re shaped like little tents, the latter a mystery because they don’t look at all like combs. Made from rough stone, sometimes paired with metal or brick, they’re just low enough to overlook and just high enough to send you sprawling atop the resting place of some Civil War veteran.

You can find tent graves in other areas too, but there’s a concentration in west Tennessee, where John and Retta Waggoner explore. Self described “grave walkers,” they started their macabre hobby while searching for the burial places of ancestors. By the time they covered all of the cemeteries near their Smith County home, they were hooked. They’ve walked through graves across Tennessee, up into Kentucky, down into Florida and Arkansas, all over.

When they share pictures of tent graves, everyone’s first question is, of course, why such an unusual shape?

The Waggoners say that the most common reason cited is livestock. While we have motorized mowers today, graveyard grass used to be clipped the old fashioned way, by goats, sheep, and cows. To keep animals from sinking into soft, grave-top soil (or being grabbed by a restless corpse) tent graves were built.

Lovelady_Cemetery_3

“In Overton County the sides are often supported by an iron rod,” the Waggoners say, explaining variations in the graves, “whereas in the White County area they are supported by a triangular end section of stone inserted underneath.”

This makes me wonder—have you ever run across these unusual markers? If so, how were they made? And, as importantly, did they send you sprawling during your graveyard stroll?

9 Comments

  • Harold Reed

    The “comb” grave markers may take the name from a device used on a loom when weaving, which may have a similar shape in the handle. Or, may get the name from the comb used by folks who wear an “afro” style hair-do, and store the comb sticking out of their hair.

  • Joe Shafer

    The comb of a roof is the peak. Main Entry: roof comb
    Variant(s): or roof crest
    Function: noun
    : a wall rising from the center line of a roof to give an appearance of greater height

  • Elizabeth Sherrington

    what a fascinating story. Re: the comb shape…they do look v.like combs we used back in the 70s ( thats the 1970s of course !)….I still have one somewhere.

  • Ben Banks

    We had grave structures at our family cemetery in
    east Ky. They were tin and wooden structures. They were
    open on the east side since Christ is to appear
    in the eastern sky. It was a boxed in structure.
    As a child, I remember crawling back in these grave
    structures. I was young and just playing around.
    I would say these were made to keep the dirt from washing
    away during storms. Anybody else know about
    these rectangular structures? Most have all rotted and gone
    by now.

  • Nancy

    The comb grave headstone is the identical shape of the hair pick specifically one used by blacks with Afro “dos”. Hair combs were originally Spanish, used by female flamenco dancers. Then stylized by the French ladies for “French Twists”. Hair combs were jeweled and ornate while picks are frequently made of bone or wood.

    Nancy from edge of Appalachian in East TN

  • Amy Whitehead

    We have a lot of tent graves here in Alabama in most of the old cemeteries! I love to walk thru old cemeteries but I’ve never tripped over one! I’ve always wondered what the history was behind the tent grave or comb grave! Thankyou for this article

  • Ric Finch

    COMB grave is the traditional and proper term. “Tent” graves is a commonly used term, for obvious reasons, but mainly by people who are unaware of the correct term. For beaucoup information on these graves go to http://www.graterutabaga.com or Google “The Tennessee Comb Grave Tradition”.

  • Donna White O'Brien

    There are two tent graves in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried in Grundy County, TN . I’ve heard many of the older generation refer to these as “tent graves,” but never comb graves. I think it might be more regional on what they were named. There are variations on how they were constructed too. I also have family in White County, TN and there they call them comb graves. As to why these were used, I don’t find it hard to believe it was to protect the graves from cattle. My grandfather is buried in Marion County, TN in a small family cemetery. It is in the middle of what is still a cow pasture. All the upright headstones have been pushed down by the cattle over the years. The cattle are very destructive and have even pushed down the iron fencing around the graves. The only stones that endure are the flat stones that were added much later.

  • Minnie Mae

    There are graves like this in Native American cemeteries on Lake Michigan where Father Baragas “Snowshoe Priest” made visits to the Apostle Lakeside.

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