Unfortunately, death was no stranger to the families who once scratched a living from the rocky ground of the Great Smoky Mountains. A trip to any park cemetery will quickly reveal that death struck most families often, and at any age.
In those days gone by, most deaths were handled without the aid of physicians, embalming, or a professional undertaker. The rule of thumb was to get the deceased into the ground within 24 hours. The other rule was to make sure the person was really dead before you buried them.
This could be more difficult than it sounds. In rural Appalachian during the 19th century, there was widespread fear of being buried alive. The Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee features a glass-topped coffin. It was presumably designed to facilitate viewing the deceased so mourners could have a last glimpse of the loved one, but it also allowed them to double check and make sure the deceased was truly dead. Elsewhere there are reports of coffins equipped with strings tied to bells above ground or special latches for opening the coffin from the inside.
One of the most gruesome tales of premature burial was reported in The New York Times in early 1885. The incident occurred in the mountains of North Carolina in Buncombe County.
“... A young man by the name of Jenkins, who had been sick with fever for several weeks, was thought to have died. He became speechless, his flesh was cold and clammy, and he could not be aroused, and there appeared to be no action of the pulse and heart. He was thought to be dead and was prepared for burial, and was noticed at the time that there was no stiffness in any of the limbs. He was buried after his supposed death, and when put in the coffin it was remarked that he was as limber as a live man. There was much talk in the neighborhood about the case and the opinion was frequently expressed that Jenkins had been buried alive. Nothing was done about the matter until the 10th inst., when the coffin was taken up for the purpose of removal and internment in the family burying ground in Henderson County. The coffin being wood, it was suggested that it be opened in order to see if the body was in such condition that it could be hauled 20 miles without being put in a metallic casket. The coffin was opened, and to the great astonishment and horror of his relatives the body was lying face downward, and the hair had been pulled from the head in great quantities, and there was scratches of the finger nails on the inside of the lid and sides of the coffin.”
One burial custom observed in the Great Smoky Mountains was likely practised, at least in part, to help avoid such tragedies. When a person died, friends and family always sat with the deceased through the first night. It was considered poor form to doze off during this ritual, so it is assumed that if the loved one was simply in a comma or “trance,” it would be revealed during the night. The deceased was placed on a special board and elevated to the eye level of a sitting person, also encouraging close observation of the corpse. When the casket was buried, it was always within an 18” “vault” excavated at the bottom of the six-foot deep grave.
Dr. Ed Conner of the Smokemont area was the subject of one of the most remarkable Smoky Mountain burial stories. As Charles Maynard reports in the book Churches of the Smokies:
In 1921, “after a stroke, Dr. Connor thought that he would soon die of another stroke. He had a casket made of walnut from a tree that he planted himself. When Connor improved, he decided to go ahead and have his funeral while he could enjoy it. On December 28, 1921, Dr. Connor, wearing a white linen burial suit, stood on a large Bible to lead the singing at his own funeral. He lived 16 more years, until May 18, 1937, at which time he was buried in the old linen suit and the walnut casket.”