An excerpt from the forthcoming White County cemetery book.
in The Past Finder, Vol. IX, No. 3/July-September 2002, p 17
Genealogical-Historical Society, White County, Tennessee
PO Box 721, Sparta TN 38583-0721
White County, Tennessee

the comb grave, illustration from The Past Finder, July-September 2002. p 17, Genealogical-Historical Society, White County, Tennessee

The Comb Grave

The comb grave, popularly known as a "tent-style grave," is most commonly found in a geographic band along the western foot of the Cumberland Plateau, including the lowland portions of White County. Here it is found in nearly every graveyard containing burials before 1920. There are relatively few comb graves in the eastern highland portion of White County, but elsewhere they are found atop the Cumberland Plateau, mostly to the western side of the plateau, rarely to the eastern side.

Old graves always settled to some degree, leaving a depression at the surface, Burial vaults were unknown, and coffins were hand-made of local wood. Eventually the coffin decomposed, allowing the soil above to subside. To compensate for this, the spoil left after the grave was filled could be heaped on top. A stone enclosure was fashioned to protect the grave with its spoil heap. Flat slabs of stone, usually sandstone but occasionally limestone, two to three inches thick were used, quarried from the Hartselle Formation, one of the strata of the plateau overlying its limestone foundation. Two triangular pieces were placed at the head and foot of the grave, forming the "gables" of the roof. Two rectangular slabs were then laid on the gables, overlapping at the "ridge" to form the roof. This enclosure was thus self-supporting, even after the spoil heap subsided. Occasionally the roof or gable slabs were inscribed with burial information, but more commonly a separate headstone was provided with the name and birth and death dates of the deceased.

The exact purpose of the grave cover is subject to speculation. It obviously served an aesthetic purpose. It may have been intended to prevent exhumation by dogs or wild animals, but a much simpler layer of stone would have served this purpose as well. It seems more likely that its function involved farm animals. In the days before power mowers, the easiest way to keep a cemetery mowed was to allow livestock to graze it. The cover protected the new grave from erosion by rain and by trampling. It prevented nuts from germinating on the grave. It also would have prevented livestock from becoming mired in the soft earth of the subsiding grave.