Cities of the Dead: Grave Houses

The following article is presented for entertainment purposes only. It is not intended as scholarly research and is not a final authority on the subject. 

Today we’ll talk about a dying tradition found in fewer and fewer southern cemeteries: grave houses. Yep. You read that right. We’re going to talk about grave houses. So buckle up and let’s get moving.

I got interested in this topic after catching the final few minutes of  documentary titled Little Houses: A Small Film About Death, which centered on the grave houses of Istre Cemetery in Acadia Parish, Louisiana. After I began researching, I realized the custom was not confined to Louisiana. Examples of grave houses have been found all over the American South.

What Are They?

Grave houses are small structures built over graves. It is important to note that they are neither crypts nor mausoleums. They are exactly what the name implies–a small structure, which closely resembles a house, built over a grave.

This tradition dates back hundreds of years and is thought to have been brought to America by European settlers. At least one grave house historian believes the American tradition of grave houses originated in Appalachia.

The structures can be found in at least seven states throughout the south, predominately–though not always–in Protestant cemeteries. They vary in building materials and styles. Building materials for grave houses generally mimic residences built in the same era.

Here are some regional variations:

  • South Louisiana examples are made of native cypress and feature gabled roofs and windows and latching doors.
  • Examples in North Louisiana range from low, enclosed structures built with hand split lumber (represented in the oldest grave houses) to taller open sheds whose interiors were decorated with shells, bulbs, and ceramics.
  • Examples in Tennessee look like a tiny, painted house over the grave.

Why Would Anybody Want To Do That?

The practical reason for building grave houses has been lost. However, it is speculated that the houses were built to protect graves from animals and weather. It is also theorized that the picket fences sometimes seen around older cemetery plots were built to keep grazing cattle at bay.

This might sound like odd reasoning, but during the era in which many of these structures were built, upkeep of graves was done by the families of the deceased.

Another theory on the grave houses is that they were intended to represent the mansions waiting for Christians in Heaven. This reference is taken from a verse found in the Holy Bible’s New Testament.

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. ~ John 14:2

Grave Houses and History

In many communities, grave houses were only built over the graves of those who died young, tragically, or under special circumstances. The stories of why a particular grave house existed are a fascinating example of oral history within communities.

One story I read while researching this post had to do a boy who died in a house fire. Because of the nature of his death, his grave was protected by a grave house. When fire swept the woods where his grave was, it left his grave house untouched.

This story and others like it would have been told at cemetery homecomings and passed down to younger generations. The stories often endured longer than the grave houses themselves.


Little Houses: A Small Film About Death

Grave House Legends (a companion book to the film Little Houses)

“Little Houses” (an article about the film)

In My Father’s House: North Louisiana Gravehouses as Art and Technology by Marcy Frantom

Man Locates Obscure Burial Grounds by Morgan Simmons

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