The Necrogeography of Melungeon Cemeteries in Central Appalachia
Tejada, Sherry Lynn
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Previous historical and cultural geographic studies of the cemetery suggest that gravemarkers are surrogates for ethnicity and cultural assimilation. While studies of this type among single ethnic groups are common, examination of the multiethnic cemetery has largely been ignored. This study focuses on the necrogeography (regional burial practices) of the Melungeons, an understudied and underrepresented minority group. Their diverse ancestry purportedly includes a mixture of European, Native American, and African heritage. They have settled primarily in the Central Appalachian region, and more specifically within Hancock County, Tennessee. Their traditional burial practices include the construction of a unique gravehouse. I conducted personal interviews with Melungeons, religious leaders, and cemetery workers to determine the social meanings attached to these unique gravemarkers. I inspected 116 cemeteries located within Hancock County. A Melungeon Burial Index (MBI) was calculated based on the number and type of gravemarkers in individual cemeteries. The MBI acts a cultural inventory to measure varying degrees of Melungeon burial assimilation. Next, I interpreted the spatial patterns of assimilation to describe qualities of material cultural diffusion in the area. My findings show that traditional gravehouses are gradually being abandoned by the residents and over 93% of cemeteries exhibit complete burial assimilation. This suggests that gravehouse construction, a material and cultural practice of a U.S. minority group, has ended.
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