The View from Puncheon Creek: Grave Houses

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By Col Randall Risner CKCS

If you frequent the cemeteries dotting Eastern Kentucky at some point you have seen structures somewhat resembling dog houses covering some graves. You probably wondered momentarily to what purpose they were built over the grave. Unlike mausoleums which house the body above ground, or crypts dug into a hillside to house the body, grave houses are built directly over the grave itself.  No one knows the origin of the practice though many theories abound. I personally doubt there is a single origin source. I feel it more plausible that the practice spontaneously arose many times throughout history. Even today the practice wax and wanes.
But why build them at all? Variously known as spirit houses, soul houses and grave sheds, grave houses were built to protect the grave from the elements and the elementary. Grave robbers, vermin, livestock and perhaps even evil spirits. While that may all be so, I believe in reality they are a testament to the regard and affection in which the departed were held. 
Like many other peculiarities of our mountain culture grave houses have a practical, a spiritual and a mysterious aspect. It is just one more example of the complexity of the peoples who propagated these wondrous valleys. I sometimes wonder what if I had been born elsewhere. Had it been so I might have had a very different life but on reflection I am satisfied to be a part of the rich tapestry of these hills.