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Local Geologist’s Studies Indicate Comb Graves Originated in White County

/ The Upper Cumberland's News Leader
Local Geologist’s Studies Indicate Comb Graves Originated in White County

Geologist Ric Finch said the Upper Cumberland has both the oldest comb graves and the largest quantity, making it the most likely origin of these graves.

Finch said the graves were properly referred to as comb graves by the “old-timers” he has interviewed for the past 40 years. He said the name likely came from an archaic architectural term describing a roof. He said the structure looks much like a pup tent, which often leads people to call them tent graves.

“It’s something that gives our region something special,” Finch said. “It’s our custom. It was invented here. It’s interesting. People come to Tennessee specifically to look at cemeteries known to have good displays of comb graves.”

Finch said the comb graves are something we should take pride in. He said White County contains the oldest dated comb graves dated between 1816 and 1818.  He said as you travel outside of White County you will find comb graves a few decades younger, indicating that White County is the location of the first comb graves.

Finch said the comb grave custom likely spread from White County north and south along the front of the Cumberland Plateau.  He said the sandstone most suited to the comb graves is exposed along the front of the plateau.

“I will argue again that the starting point was in White County and it spread rapidly for two decades north and south along the front of  the Cumberland Plateau,” Finch said. “And then began to be carried by Tennesseans moving west and south into other states.”

Finch said theories for the comb grave construction range from keeping the rain off the grave to protecting the grave from animals. He said he had spoken to an Overton man who said his mother wanted a box grave, which is much bigger and more complex than a comb grave.

“His mother said that if the graveyard became abandoned and not maintained, the cows wouldn’t want to walk on her,” Finch said.

Finch said this sort of reasoning could explain the comb grave design. He said regardless of the thoughts behind that original design, the comb grave is an important part of local history.

“It’s 200 years of custom,” Finch said. “And this custom was meant to honor the deceased by the people who loved them.”

You can read more from Finches research at

as well as the Tennessee Virtual Archives:



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