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By John Oliver, President, Historical Society

Our topic for the month of September is cemeteries, and the old Hartsville Cemetery in particular.

As county historian, I get at least one phone call or email a week about our county cemeteries – and I get some pretty interesting comments!

To clear up a few things, first, Trousdale County has a lot of cemeteries!

Next, you can’t legally dig up, plow under, pave over or destroy an old cemetery – and the state doesn’t care if you own the land. The dead were there first!

That includes Native American burial grounds!

Submitted photo
This is one of the oldest tombstones in the Hartsville Cemetery. The shape is typical of early tombstones.

And you are not obligated to maintain a cemetery on your property, but you do have to allow access to any graves by visiting family members, and those relations have a right to maintain any graves.

My most frequent requests are, “Can you tell me where my great-grandmother Jones is buried? “

The answer is that I usually can.

That is because several years ago, the late Walter Buckingham and the late Betty Scott, helped by many others, including Vernon Roddy, searched the county and wrote down all the cemeteries that they could find. They then put that information down in a book and published it.

I am lucky in that the Historical Society has a copy of that book, since it is out of print. Don’t call me for a copy!

I can look up a person’s name, and if they are buried in Trousdale County and if they have a tombstone, and if that tombstone was legible 20 years ago, I can tell them where the grave is.

Don’t call me and ask me where the “Jones Cemetery” is because the cemeteries are not always listed by the name of your ancestor. That is, your family may refer to it as the “Jones Cemetery” because your Jones ancestor is buried there, but the Smith family may refer to it as the “Smith Cemetery” because their Smith ancestors are buried there.

The cemetery may be listed in the book as the “Andrews Cemetery” because there are Andrews buried there.

There are a lot of small family cemeteries in Trousdale County!

Some of the larger cemeteries do have names, and some are located close to old churches and named for them. So you can see some of the confusion around cemeteries.

But all of that is no help if Granny Jones didn’t have a tombstone!

Early settlers didn’t always get stones. Slaves rarely got stones. Tombstones get broken, fall over and are covered and forgotten. Poor people couldn’t afford stones. And people who died at the county poor house didn’t get tombstones!

But let’s backtrack a little.

The tradition of having a tombstone goes back to ancient Europe when people believed in ghosts and demons and witches.

To keep the ghost of a departed person from coming out of the grave and causing havoc with the living, a large stone was placed on the burial site. The stone would be too heavy for the ghost to lift and he or she would stay in their grave.

By the way, to keep the ghost of a dead man from lingering around the grave during the funeral, his wife would wear black to confuse him and keep him from pestering her. As if she didn’t have enough troubles as it was! That is where we get our tradition of a widow wearing black, and sometime wearing black for a year in case the old geezer found his way out of the grave despite the heavy stone!

It was only after many centuries that it became the custom to carve the deceased’s name on the large rock and that led to the sometimes fancy tombstones we find in cemeteries today.

Now, for my most unusual question.

A few years ago, a woman called me to ask if she had a dead man buried under her house.

It seems that she had hired a plumber to do some repairs and while crawling under the older home, the plumber chanced upon a tombstone under her bathroom floor!

He pulled the tombstone out and showed it to her and she quickly called the county historian for an answer.

I grabbed my copy of the Trousdale County cemetery book and found the man in question was indeed buried in the old Hartsville Cemetery, not under her house.

My research showed that the man in question was buried and his tombstone erected. But years later when his wife died, the family ordered a joint tombstone that included both parents. So the original stone was taken down and replaced by the larger stone with both names.

Now, what do you do with an old tombstone? Well, I guess tossing it under your house was the solution!