Help Satisfy Grandma's Curiosity About Front Yard Tombstones in NC
October 27, 2014 6:20 AM   Subscribe

What's up with private homes having small graveyards in the front yard and right up on a major road in northeastern North Carolina?

I recently took a trip down to the Outer Banks with my darling grandmama. On the way down, she kept noticing how small, private homes would have a few tombstones in the front yard right next to the state highway. It was mostly in northeastern NC on the drive down but she observed a few instances in the OBX as well, one on Roanoke island.

She speculated at first maybe these people are selling tombstones, then realized it was just too prevalent. She then wanted to know why people are burying (presumed) family members right next to a busy road in the front yard. I have no idea, but I'm curious with her.

Is anyone familiar with this practice and can you shed any light on it or provide information I can share with my curious little grandma? She really enjoyed when I read her the answers from my railroad question from about a year ago.

Thanks so much!
posted by letahl to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I've seen this for four reasons.

1. If former farmhouses, these might be family graveyards, though odd that they would be right by the street.
2. Pro-life protests.
3. Pets (though again, odd that they would be at the street if the person has land in the back).
4. Halloween decorations.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:31 AM on October 27, 2014

Sometimes highways are built over family graveyards, I wouldn't be surprised if the tombstones were there first.

Or, like my neighbors, the Outer Banks are really into realistic Halloween decorations...
posted by theweasel at 6:33 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a similar question on the CityData forums. Here's the most detailed answer:
The reason you see little cemeteries near homes or near roads is because long time ago, Eastern North Carolina was primarily rural, folks owned acres and acres of land, roads weren't paved, and so cemeteries were put closer to the big house. As people and families died, their land was sold into parcels and then developed, dirt roads became hwys, and the cemeteries remained, without all the huge fields surrounding the main houses anymore to indicate how come a cemetery is there, and even some without the houses long since torn down. You may have seen fairly recent headstones (altho 50 yrs old is not too recent) in those plots, probably because that was the last of that clan. As for not seeing too many cemeteries near churches, this is not exactly true, particularly old churches that have been preserved, and even today many newer churches will have a cemetery nearby. But in the last 100 years or so, since city cemeteries had to be established, plus homesteads were being sold off, this led to family members thruout a region coming together in a family section of the cemetery just outside the nearest larger town. Which that explains how come in a city you'll find a historic cemetery in an old part of town, becuz at one time that was just outside town. But anyhow, to sum up, way back when, the farming people all lived together in a group of nearby houses, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, to work the land, and when they were buried, they went into the family cemetery on a dirt road on that property. I hope this explains it to you. In most cities and a few counties, laws basically don't let you bury people, not even your dog (altho nobody pays attention to that part), in your yard, unless you can get a variance of some kind for children perhaps.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:43 AM on October 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

house was there first. before the highway. and that house is really old.
posted by sio42 at 6:43 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a mini-graveyard outside the Starbucks in Fairfax, VA.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:45 AM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I know the area OP is talking about --- the thirty/forty miles of Rt. 158 before you go over the bridge to OBX, right? --- and those are definitely NOT Halloween decorations, they're actual graves. And not all of them are at 'old farmhouse'-type properties, either: they're at old houses, new houses, mobile homes and everything in between. Some are on farms, some not. The one constant seems to be that none of those properties appear to be any kind of group-built subdivision; discounting the roadway to OBX, it's a pretty rural area.

I'll ask a couple people I know down there, but my guess is that NC law in Currituck county permits it.
posted by easily confused at 7:19 AM on October 27, 2014

It is common here for there to be lots of little family graveyards in people's yards. I would guess that NC law permits it in a way that other states don't (I'm not originally from here, so it was a shock to me too!). This is anecdotal - I don't have any actual info on graveyard laws, but I do live in a condo that was remodeled from an old one-room schoolhouse, and right outside my front door behind the rental office is a small family graveyard. Makes me wonder a bit about the school, but hey.
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:32 AM on October 27, 2014

There are tons of small cemeteries in the area - I drive through that region daily and pass probably a dozen or more. Many of them have been fenced with chain link to protect them; others are just sitting there.

As a point of interest, there are ongoing projects to document these small cemeteries - here's Pasquotank County's Small Cemeteries page, which is a bit west of the route you probably took but shows just how many of the things are around.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:34 AM on October 27, 2014

Just wanted to mention that I've seen a couple of these in Durham. They're definitely family graveyards - most/all the tombstones have the same last name - and I see them along major roads that used to have farms but have been developed since then.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:44 AM on October 27, 2014

Did a little digging after easily confused's post, and found:
"In NC, a family may bury their own dead. A death certificate is needed (see below) and you would need to check with your local health department to make sure the location that you have chosen poses no health risk such as possible contamination of a source of water. Some counties require a permit for the initiation of a cemetery or grave site to ensure that wells and sewage systems would not be impacted. Your local Planning and Zoning Department would be the contact for such a permit."
(From Full Circle Care NC)

So once the decision had been made by the families living in those houses that they wanted to bury themselves at home, 'near the road' may be the only place on the property that was not close to a well/septic tank/other utility.

Makes sense to me. I've always said I'd rather just be put out back with the cats if my first choice (being food for an endangered animal) was turned down for regulatory and PR reasons...
posted by theweasel at 7:44 AM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

The cemetery was likely there first, before the highway.

A similar situation up north: There is an old family cemetery within 5 feet of the northbound travel lanes of the Maine Turnpike (I-95), and this caused some controversy about 10 years ago when the highway was last widened.
posted by tckma at 8:02 AM on October 27, 2014

Pictures of front yard cemeteries from Tangier Island, VA.
Pic 1
Pic 2
posted by COD at 8:25 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

My dad's family had such a rural cemetery near to the farmhouse just off the old stage road near Buies Creek, NC. The old house was really just a two room place with no indoor facilities until after my parents were married and gone.

They were poor farmers back in the day... the deceased was "laid out" at the home and services graveside. Roads were difficult to maintain so it made sense to have everything nearby. Plus it was important to look after the graves and visit the site regularly. There didn't seem to be an ick factor or distancing surrounding a "normal" but sad event. Death was constant on the rural farm: from animals to kin to someone nearby.

Anyway, I digress. The old farmstead was significantly updated and a trailer home was added on a divided off parcel. The road was improved and turned into a highway. That is similar to your observations. I'm certain a nice new home would have been built there today if everything could have stayed in the family and things not changed

Eventually some of the old kin of my grandmother decided to disinter the remains for some reason and the cemetery is no more. There was much concern about getting "everything" (which was often just dark soil and small bits or items), since the "body" had to be whole for whatever version of resurrection they had in mind.
posted by mightshould at 10:32 AM on October 27, 2014

I was once at a mall in eastern NC where they had built the parking lot around a small (fenced-in) cemetery. It was explained to me (a California girl through-and-through) that indeed the cemetery had been that of the family who sold the land to the developer, and that it was common practice in that area to simply build around such plots rather than move them. It was quite small, just a few hundred square feet total.
posted by vignettist at 10:43 AM on October 27, 2014

There are family graveyards in Texas that are near the roads, too. A lot more on ranches and farms that didn't get parceled up and sold or Eminent Domain 'ed by the goverment. A lot of these were there decades or centuries before the road/city/what have you, and many are legally protected, too.
posted by Jacen at 12:31 PM on October 27, 2014

Went out to eat this past weekend with another couple-drove over to the next county. There were a lot of these small family cemeteries out there. It's a rural area.

For that matter, there's a small cemetery within walking distance of my home and I live about a mile or so from downtown. That's just how we roll in NC.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:12 PM on October 27, 2014

I would concur that it's a small family cemetery that predates the road or was actively used when the road was more like a wagon path. They were pretty common where I grew up in rural southern Tennessee, including on right up on the driveway to a friend's house.
posted by mibo at 1:15 PM on October 27, 2014

I've seen these on backroads in rural Virginia, too.
posted by deludingmyself at 1:44 PM on October 27, 2014

(@MrMoonPie: Thanks! I remember that graveyard from when I lived in Northern Virginia in the 80's but I could never find it on the map. I remembered the strip of land as being much smaller than it is and I thought it was in the median and not the side of the road. Is there another small graveyard like it down the road?)
posted by bentley at 2:52 PM on October 27, 2014

bentley, I thought so, too, and was looking for the smaller one down the road, actually. I'll keep a lookout next time I'm in that area.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:35 AM on October 30, 2014

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