Family Stories

Grave Houses – Not Only In Appalachia – Calloway County

Almost every cemetery we visit has something unusual – perhaps a particular stone, or brick-covered above-ground graves.  Perhaps it is very unusual names, or the cemetery is laid out differently.  Miller Cemetery in Calloway County is no exception.  This was one of Ritchey’s finds via geocaching.  Titled ‘Three in a Row at Miller’ the cache was located just outside Miller Cemetery, in the woods behind the grave sites.

This cemetery has three grave houses – a feature I have never seen before.  These were erected over the graves of three members of the Purdom family, John Reid Purdom and Frances Futrell Purdom, and their son, Alvin Purdom.

A grave house is a structure erected over or near a grave.  This was to protect the grave from the elements and animals.  From an online article by Candid Slice, ‘The practice of constructing grave houses has also been long associated with Melungeons on Newman’s Ridge in Hancock County, Tennessee.  These were linked to the Appalachian superstition that if a grave site is not well maintained, a mythical creature entered the grave and disturbed the deceased.’  Many of these looked like tiny houses, as in our photos, many including picket fences.  Although generally found in the Appalachian counties of Tennessee, Calloway County is located in far western county on the Tennessee border.  Grave houses are more typically found in small or family cemeteries.  Perhaps these three are the only ones in the western section of Kentucky, I cannot say for sure.

John Reid Purdom, born July 6, 1844, in Calloway County, was the son of Sandy H. Purdom and Elizabeth Holman.  He was one of eight children that included Benjamin, William, Keziah, Elizabeth, Nancy J., Martha A. and Albertus.

John married Frances Futrell, daughter of Cullen Futrell and Martha Elizabeth Griffin.  They married in the late 1860’s, their first child Alvin C. was born in November of 1867.  Three daughters were born in the ensuing years – Martha Luella, Ada and Edna.

Alvin C. Purdom, son of J. R. & F. Purdom, born November 12, 1867, married to Ida Wells November 4, 1896, died November 10, 1896.  Miller Cemetery, Calloway County, Kentucky.  ‘Our darling one hath gone before, to greet us on the blissful shore.’

Son Alvin died in 1896, less than 30 years of age – after six days of marriage.  How devastated his wife must have been, as well as his parents and sisters.  He was the first of the three to be buried in Miller Cemetery.  Perhaps his grave was the first to be covered by a ‘house’ as his looks to have more deterioration.

In the 1920 census of Calloway County daughter Edna and her husband Little V. Clark lived with John and Frances.

J. R. Purdom, born July 6, 1844, died May 22, 1927.  Frances F. Purdom, born August 14, 1845, died February 2, 1930.

John Reid Purdom died May 22, 1927, of heart problems.  Frances Futrell Purdom died three years later of pneumonia.

5 replies »

  1. I am a retired Civil Engineer who did highway design in Eastern Kentucky. We had a project in Magoffin County that had a Grave House that was rather large covering 3 or 4 gravesites, and the sides were covered with lattice work and just a tin roof. There was an opening like a window where people had put stuffed animals for children. Our project would have taken the grave house so the FHWA made us move the line to avoid the grave house. The owner got mad because we were not going on his property so he burned-down the grave house. He wanted the roadway on his property so he could make some money. The small cemetery was at the top of a steep hill which was not good for farming. I have heard of the Melungeons in Eastern Kentucky and some of their traits. Mike Sullivan Lexington


  2. My friend, Abby Burnett, has taken photos of grave houses in Arkansas and I’m collecting memorials for a Findagrave virtual cemetery called “Grave Shelters.” Abby wrote an article about them in the defunct Ozark Mountaineer magazine. Since then, she has been featured in a PBS documentary about cemeteries and has written a book about Ozark funeral customs. I found the documentary on YouTube and collected it together with several interview videos and a speech she gave in a playlist if you are interested. =

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