Liza Martz (lizamartz) wrote,
Liza Martz

The Cemetery in the Cow Pasture and Other Grave Tales

Where I grew up, cemeteries were formal affairs with wrought iron gates, a mausoleum or two, and an office in which to make one's arrangements. Without giving it any thought, I'd assumed this is how it was everywhere, until my friend Ann told me there is a cemetery in her cow pasture. 

"Who owns it?" I asked.
Ann shrugged. "No one."
"Who can use it?"
"Whoever wants to. It's free."
Visions of black garbed men digging dank holes in the moonlight danced across my eyes,"You mean anyone can go up there an bury someone?"
"No. Um, yes. But you have to get approval first."

From what I can gather, families near the cemetery are the record keepers of who has and who intends to make their final journey to the cow pasture. Even though the free cemeteries are, well, free, there are unwritten rules that must be followed to use them and not just any-old-body can be interred there.  

Needless to say, my interest was piqued and I demanded an outing. We started out on a one-lane road that winds through the cows and up the hills and around a bend. This road is maintained by the county and when a funeral is planned, the county spreads fresh gravel all the way up. (to the tune of about $1200 but that cost is not passed on to the bereaved.)

The cemetery is kept clean and mowed by whomever.

Families of the deceased adorn the graves with floral arrangements that are changed with the seasons. The flowers, whether real or artificial, are a very important local custom signifying respect and honor for those who have "passed."

The life spans of this cemetery's inhabitants cover a broad range in time. Beneath some headstones lie people who were born during the Civil War. These are wind-worn and covered with lichen instead of flowers.

The headstones of other, more recent arrivals look spanking new. Look carefully at the upper left corner of picture above. Those rocks piled outside of the fence are humble grave markers for slaves who were buried nearby but never inside.  

From the pasture cemetery we took to the mountains to the sparsely populated Farmer Cemetery. It's in the woods, easily accessed by a local road. 

The wood-burned sign and a few freshly cut trees are the only indication someone is keeping an eye on things there. 

The grave of Sallie Nakis is in the Farmer cemetery. I don't know who she was but she certainly has a pretty headstone with a poignant poem. The fallen leaves struck the right note of remembrance for this child who lived but one day. 

Our next stop was a cemetery hidden deep in the woods. The dense foliage surrounding these hallowed grounds did not creep up and overtake it, the cemetery was deliberately placed there to protect a stillborn baby from grave robbers.  

Mary and Martha Jordan were conjoined  twins who were born and died on May 16, 1902. They are known locally as, "the two-headed baby." News of their birth spread quickly through the community and to places beyond. The grieving parents feared their child's body would be dug up and put on display in a circus. So Mary and Martha were laid to rest in a spot where it was unlikely they would be found. 

The oldest grave by far was the most difficult to reach.  We took a four-wheeler across a horse pasture, scootched on our backs under an electric fence, and battled shoulder high brambles. It was well worth it.

"Our Mother"  Lucinda Atkins born October 8, 1803 died July 26, 1858  rests in a sun-dappled clearing inside a circle of ancient Cedar trees. In lieu of family members honoring her life, periwinkles, known as graveyard vines,  blanket her grave with shiny green leaves and dainty blue flowers. 

Ann and I were too tired to go to our last stop of the day, a free cemetery near a main road with an interesting tale. The story involves a girl who grew up in the county with her mother and brother but lost contact with them when she moved to a Big City up north. The girl's mother hadn't spoken to her daughter for several years when she (the mother) got a phone call from up north telling her the daughter's partially decomposed body had recently been discovered - murdered! The caller wanted to know where to ship the body for burial.

As you can well imagine, the arrival of the sealed coffin was greeted with much sorrow and grieving.  The prodigal daughter was given a proper Baptist funeral and her body was laid to rest in the cemetery by the main drag. This almost was the end of the story except...

A law enforcement officer from the Big City arrived in the county a few weeks later with a court order to exhume the body. The still fresh grave was opened up and the coffin was carried away. Upon inspecting the remains the law enforcement officer declared it was not the daughter who had moved away and the body was shipped back to wherever it had come from.

Soon thereafter, the daughter's brother died and with much sorrow and grieving, he was buried in the hole that had briefly held the non-daughter.  Somehow the real daughter got wind of this and called her mother to announce she was still alive.

The details of their reunion are unknown. The mother died and the daughter moved back to this county, got married and passed on, this time for real. She is now buried beside her brother  with her mother nearby and someone makes sure there are flowers on all three graves.  

Tags: claiborne county tennessee, country lore, tennessee history
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