Friday, December 4, 2015

Comb Graves of Tennessee

The Tennessee State Library and Archives recently processed a number of 'born' digital images of comb graves. (Born digital items are those originally created in a digital format, not converted from paper to digital.) Tennessee has the highest concentration of comb graves in the South. While they can be found in other states such as Kentucky and Alabama, Tennessee has the most, located mainly along the Cumberland Plateau. So what are comb graves and why are so many found in Tennessee?

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, go to our Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) at: 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:

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.


  1. Readers on our Facebook page have asked many questions about these "Comb Graves, and we're thrilled that readers are entranced by the images from the TSLA’s new Richard C. Finch Folk Graves Digital Photograph Collection.

    In an attempt to address some of the questions that are surfacing from our followers, we took a gander into research material Dr. Finch placed with his collection. Dr. Finch’s 53-page paper entitled, “The Tennessee Comb Graves Tradition” makes for fascinating reading and will also be available to the public through the Manuscripts Section at TSLA, along with the collection’s digital images, spreadsheets, and additional documentation.

    One reader asks, "I've heard that they were buried with the rock coverings on their graves to let people know not to disturb the soil because they had died of the bubonic plague?" Dr. Finch makes no mention of bubonic plague with regard to the comb grave tradition. No single reason is isolated by the researcher to explain the origin of this type of grave cover that is most likely indigenous to Tennessee, though existing in eight other Southern states.

    Protecting graves from the elements and from animals is put forth as the major rationale for the use of combs, but Finch also mentions the desire for a more permanent, visible grave structure and the fulfillment of emotional needs for protecting the site as motivations, as well. He even posits that, for some, the fashionable nature that the structures had obtained since their initial appearance around 1815-1820 in the White County area would have been sufficient reason for some to utilize these combs. Though the depth of the graves does not appear to be a facet of Finch’s survey of the 3158 comb graves he located in Tennessee in 404 cemeteries along the western front of the Cumberland Plateau, he does mention that the limiting nature of rocky terrain in depth of burial cannot serve as a general motivation, due to the variance in the soils throughout the comb areas.

    Comb graves are located in eight other Southern states, though Tennessee has the oldest examples, and the form most likely spread to the west and south from our state. Finch also writes that there are instances of combs being erected years after an actual burial; this would not provide the needed immediate protection a comb would supply a shallow grave.

    Finch’s collection supplies TSLA’s patrons researching the comb grave tradition with descriptions of materials and construction, inventorying, mapping, and a photographic record, along with the benefit of his years of experience exploring this mysterious topic.

  2. There are several of these in Whittaker Cemetery in Monterey, Tenn.