|Comb graves in Polk-Bilbrey Cemetery in Overton Co., Tenn. Picture taken in the 1970s.|
Comb graves, sometimes called tent graves, have slabs of rock (or other materials) that cover the length of the graves. The stones lean against each other to form inverted v-shapes, like the gables of a roof. The word “comb” is an old architectural term that refers to that part of a roof. Graves of this type started showing up in cemeteries around the 1820s and were popular until the mid-20th Century when their use declined. While many of these graves have no inscriptions, it is not unusual to see them inscribed or marked with separate headstones. While no one knows for sure why people began to cover the graves of their loved ones, one theory is that the stones were to protect the graves from weather or from animals.
|Comb graves in Roaring River Cemetery, Overton Co., Tenn.|
|Comb graves in Liberty Church Cemetery in Overton Co., Tenn.|
Dr. Richard Finch of Tennessee Tech has been investigating comb graves for several years and has discovered that while they can be made from anything from sheet metal to marble, the vast majority are made from sandstone. This sandstone is from the Hartselle rock formation, which is found in the area along the Cumberland Plateau where comb graves are prevalent.
Not much else is known about these graves, except that due to many factors, including weather and vandalism, they are slowly disappearing from cemeteries. To make information about comb graves accessible to the public, Dr. Finch has given a copy of his research and photographs to the State Library and Archives. This all-digital collection contains thousands of photographs, as well as his published articles and other research materials.
Comb grave of William Livingston in Oakley Cemetery in Overton Co., Tenn. Picture taken in the 1980s
|Comb graves in Highland Cemetery in Overton, Co., Tenn.|
To see a selection of comb grave photographs and to view an interactive map showing the locations of these graves, go to our Flickr account: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tsla. For more information on comb graves, visit the State Library and Archives website and use the finding aid for the Richard C. Finch Folk Graves Digital Photograph Collection: http://share.tn.gov/tsla/history/manuscripts/findingaids/2013-022.pdf
Text and research for this blog post contributed by Celeste Happeny, written while she worked as an intern with the State Library and Archives Digital Work Group. During her internship, Celeste attended the folk studies and historic preservation program at Western Kentucky University.
The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.