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Grave markers spark lady's interest
April 24, 2007
By Celia DeWoody, Times Staff
Tiny, gingerbread-trimmed Victorian houses. Tall, hollow metal structures shaped to mimic carved stone, some complete with hinged doors. Lichen-covered stones shaped like human silhouettes. Etched in rock for generations to read, lurid stories that give details of long-ago murders.
Abby Burnett.
Freelance writer Abby Burnett of Kingston gives a talk at the Boone County Heritage Museum
about unusual grave markers in the Arkansas Ozarks. (Staff Photo/Celia DeWoody)
All of these unusual grave markers, and more, can be found in cemeteries in the Arkansas Ozarks, according to writer Abby Burnett of Kingston.
"Shut in the Silent City of the Dead: Rare and Distinctive Grave Markers of the Arkansas Ozarks" was the name of the talk Burnett gave at the Boone County Historical Museum on Thursday afternoon, sponsored by the Twentieth Century Club.
Burnett, freelance journalist and co-author, along with Ellen Compton and John D. Little, of When the Presbyterians Came to Kingston, is currently writing a book about burial customs in the Arkansas Ozarks from 1850 to 1950.
She gave a slide presentation at the museum focusing on some of the oldest and rarest examples of grave markers found in the Arkansas Ozarks.
Her talk centered around grave markers she considers "folk art," such as grave houses and anthropomorphic stones, as well as commercially made zinc markers. She also discussed markers that tell stories, particularly those that include the cause of death.
"Grave houses," according to Burnett, "are little buildings built on top of graves. They're not crypts or mausoleums. They're a Tennessee-North Carolina-Kentucky tradition that was brought to the Ozarks by settlers. We're not sure why they were built."
Some of the grave house photos she showed were rustic wooden structures with tin roofs, but others were more elaborate painted buildings, with Victorian detail work. One looked like an elaborate garden gazebo.
Burnett said she doesn't know of any grave houses in Boone County.
The writer said she also considers "anthropomorphic stones" to be a form of folk art. These are stones with a vaguely human shape, with a rudimentary head and torso, and sometimes a neck and shoulders.
"These are generally pre-Civil War," Burnett said. "Most of these stones have dates from the 1840s and 1850s. This was a Tennessee-North Carolina tradition."
Although one tombstone expert has told her these stones were not meant to represent people, but Celtic crosses, Burnett disagrees.
"I think they were put there as a reminder of the afterlife," she said. "They look like little people sitting up in their graves."
The third category of grave markers Burnett discussed was metal markers made of zinc, which are often large and elaborate. "There are very few in northwest Arkansas," she said. "This metal was made to look like other substances. Sometimes it looks like carved stone."
She said the zinc markers invented in the mid 1870s, and were only produced until World War I. "None were erected after 1914," she said.
"You could do anything you wanted with these metal markers," she said. "You could have them made to look like an angel, a century plant or a basket of flowers."
The zinc markers often included a metal plate with the name and dates of the person or people whose graves it marked.
She showed several examples of these, some in Eureka Springs and Fayetteville.
One unusual zinc marker in the Wesley Cemetery in Madison County has a small hinged door. When Burnett pulled the knob to open it, under the door she found a mildewed photo and obituary of five-year-old Mary Ollie Whitlow, who died in 1900.
The writer closed her talk by talking about grave markers that tell stories. She said she is particularly interested in markers that explain how the person died. She gave some examples:
"Accidentally burned to death."
"Struck by lightning while plowing corn."
"Killed while blasting in a well in Springdale."
"His life was taken in the service of electricity."
"Came to his death by being willfully murdered by his cousin John Hines."
Families sometimes put the name of the murderer on their loved one's tombstone, she said, especially when the family felt like justice had not been done.
Burnett said she would love to hear from anyone who has information about unusual tombstones in the Arkansas Ozarks, particularly those with grave houses, human-shaped stones, zinc markers or those that tell a story of how the person died. Email her at
Victorian grave houses.
These two Victorian-style grave houses were built in a Hasty cemetery circa 1914 over
two small childrens graves by the childrens grandfather, a Civil War veteran.
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