April A to Z Challenge 2020: It’s that time of year! Every April, bloggers around the world make posts for each letter of the alphabet. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to make friends online. Here’s my post for today:
[The following is an adapted excerpt from my book, Understanding Cemetery Symbols. I hope you enjoy it! Also, full disclosure: that’s an Amazon affiliate link. If you buy stuff after clicking it, I make a few pennies at no additional cost to you.]
Grave Houses, Grave Shelters, Spirit Houses
People sometimes erect house-like buildings and other structures at gravesites. Throughout Louisiana and other parts of the South, Catholics tend to call these little buildings Grave Houses, while Protestants tend to call them Grave Shelters. When erected by Native Americans, however, they are usually referred to as Spirit Houses.
Istre Cemetery Cajun Catholic Grave Houses
In Louisiana, Istre Cemetery features numerous Grave Houses that were built by Cajun Catholics. These don’t just look like miniature houses, they were actually constructed like regular houses. Historians aren’t quite sure why, but theories abound.
What purpose do Grave Houses serve?
So what is the purpose for building miniature houses at a gravesite? Stories passed down about these structures often say something like, “He didn’t want rain to fall on his grave.” My research, so far, has not come up anything conclusive.
On a practical level, Grave Houses might keep livestock from grazing on or trampling a grave. However, if that were the case why would people only do this on a few graves in a cemetery and not all of them? And wouldn’t it be simpler to fence in the entire burial ground?
Maybe it’s a biblical reference?
Another theory, and one that seems more likely to me, at least for Christians, is that these miniature houses are a reference to the biblical verse John 14:2, which says, “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.”
Fashion and personal desire
Then again, cemetery customs are just as susceptible to the whims of fashion and personal desires as any other aspect of humanity. These grave houses may have been erected simply because the loved ones and their family liked the idea.
Chain link “circus tent” style
From time to time, I see other types of buildings at gravesites besides grave houses. For instance, I came across the chain-link “circus tent” in Palestine, Texas. Have you ever seen one like that? I think it’s quite pretty!
Draped in Spanish moss
Down in Biloxi, Mississippi, I noticed that many of the older graves were surrounded by iron tubing. Eventually, I learned that up until the early 1900s, it had been a local custom to drape Spanish moss over these structures in order to create a grave shelter.
So once again, there is the desire to cover a gravesite. I wish I could see what those graves looked like when they were covered with moss. I bet it was pretty, and maybe a little eerie, too!
The first time I visited Old City Cemetery in Biloxi, it started raining heavily. By darting from one modern grave shelter to the next, I was able to take photos and enjoy the beautiful burial ground without getting drenched.
Mini Zoroastrian temple
Lastly, here’s a miniature temple I saw in a Zoroastrian cemetery. I’ve included it to show that it isn’t only Christians who sometimes erect miniature buildings on their gravesites. I don’t know much more about this practice, however. Maybe I will by the time we get to Z! Thanks again for visiting my blog!
Did you hear this?
Did you catch my recent radio show? Mark Olson and I discussed how and why he created several meaningful monuments on the next episode of Tombstone Tuesday, my 30-minute podcast about exploring historic cemeteries. If the topic interests you, I invite you to catch the replay – or maybe even call into the next show! (Click here to listen to the show and see the graphic below for more info.)
Learn more at my Historic Cemetery Podcast & Facebook Page:
Do you have questions about symbols you’ve seen on headstones? Drop by Exploring Historic Cemeteries on Facebook and let me know! And tune in to my 30-minute historic cemetery podcast on the first Tuesday of each month: Tombstone Tuesday with Tui Snider.
READ MY BOOK: If you enjoy historic cemeteries and want to learn more, check out my book: Understanding Cemetery Symbols. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and ebook form.