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Monday, 15 September 2014 21:00

Cemetery or Grave Scraping

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According to Terry Jordan in his book "Texas Cemeteries, A cultural legacy", there is a practice known it the Southern United States as "scraping" (as in scraping clean) of either a grave or an entire cemetery. The first glimpse of such a cemetery truly startles the unsuspecting visitor. Throughout the burial ground, the natural grasses and weeds have been laboriously chopped or "scraped" away, revealing an expanse of read-orange East Texas soil or somber black prairie earth, sometimes decorated with raked patterns, At each grave, this dirt is heaped in an elongated mound, oriented on an east-west and anchored by a head and foot stone. In his book, he has a map of all of the counties in Texas and he has marked all of the known counties that have entire cemeteries scraped along with other counties which have an occasional scraped grave. To quote from his book, "Perhaps no feature of the southern folk cemetery begs more for interpretation than the practice of scraping." He states that he interviewed several individuals when they were "working" the cemetery. The term "working" is another old term describing when a group of individuals went to their cemetery to clean it up. Many cemeteries were "worked" only once a year at the annual meeting of the association. Usually this was an all-day affair where everybody brought food and drinks along with chairs and tables and worked on the graveyard. Stones were attended to along with weeds and grass were removed as well as any fallen branches. At some of the cemetery association meetings, a preacher also preached to the crowd.

Mr. Jordan said that most likely, this particular practice may have its origin in Africa. Near equivalents to bare earth cemeteries can be found in the traditional practices of the West African slave coast...I believe the scraped wrath cemetery is an Africanism and goes hand-in-hand with the typically southern and African swept-earth yard surrounding dwellings. Indeed southern folks typically refer to their cemeteries as 'yards.' Grass, in Africa and the South, was an unwelcome intruder. Respectable people kept it chopped out of yards, fields, and burial grounds. Some rural Anglos in Texas even refer to scraping as "plowing." The Ultimate African reasons were possibly the danger posed by grassfires and the proverbial snake in the grass. Removal of the grass also kept loose livestock from grazing (and defecating) in yards and cemeteries. Or, perhaps, scraping came south across Africa to the slave coast long ago with Islam. In that case, the laborious scraped Texas graveyards could be an effort to re-create, in a humid climate, the long-forgotten desert desolation of the Sahara and Arabia, where Moslem dead lie beneath the bare sand. In Nigeria graves were covered with mud plaster and in the Ashanti hinterland in Ghana they erected conical mud mounds over their graves. Many times the dead were buried in the earthen floor of their house, in the swept-earth yards or in tilled gardens.

The Spaniards brought to the New World the practice of establishing a "blessed field" to establish a special sacredness. Burials could be in the church floor. Families of wealth and influence considered church burials as a status symbol. Camposantos were fine for the poor and converted Indians, but not for rico. (Terry Gordon book Texas Graveyards.) It could

He went on to write that when he interviewed one person at a cemetery "working," he asked the man exactly why he was doing this. The man replied, "Grandpaw killed himself keeping the weeds out of his cotton, and we're not about to let them grow on his grave now." Mr. Jordan also noted that some of the Native American groups practiced scraping, especially the Alabama-Coushatta. On Mr. Jordan's map, there are four counties all located along the west bank of the Trinity River where there isn't any known cemetery that practices the art of scraping. He also shows a few on the east bank down river and in Johnson County northwest of here. This may indicate that the settlers who migrated here came from certain areas of the eastern seaboard where this habit of scraping wasn't practiced.

The practice of scraping graves is dying and some of the old ones are now partially or wholly covered with grass.

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Nathan Zipfel

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