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.”Read more...
Life in the Great Smoky Mountains of Southern Appalachia was never easy. Before the establishment of the park, many families lived a hard scrabble existence, working close to the land to make a life. In times of plenty and in times of want the specter of death was ever present. Disease and accident claimed the lives of mountaineers regularly. Limited medical knowledge and access to doctors resulted in stillborn babies or mother and child perishing during childbirth. While these losses were devastating for the families, the communities where these families lived suffered as well. In communal suffering, families, friends, and neighbors came together in order to help and heal.Read more...