The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 4, 2012

Frankie Meyer: Grave houses built in cemeteries worldwide

By Frankie Meyer
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — As your family research takes you to cemeteries, you might be surprised to see an unusual burial custom, known as grave houses or grave shelters.

The structures are built by various cultures around the world. Some Native American tribes build them and call them spirit houses.

Among those cultures, the house is purified as part of the funeral rites. A few cultures believe that a grave house should be built before sunset on the day of the funeral.

In some regions the structures are more often found above the grave of a mother, child, soldier or other person who died a tragic death. In the Southern and Eastern states of our nation, the houses were built to protect unfenced graves from the weather and from damage by livestock or wild animals. In the Appalachian Mountains, the graves and the houses above them are often located on the east side of the mountains with the front facing the east.

Most grave houses have picket fence-like walls with a gabled roof made of shingles or tin. Some have solid wood walls, while others are made of concrete or have stone walls with a flat, stone roof. In Alaska and western Canada, totemic carvings of animals such as a wolf, bear, otter or whale can often be seen at the front of a grave house or on top of the roof.

Unlike mausoleums, grave houses do not contain any bodies. They are built over one grave or several graves. Headstones are still placed on the graves, either inside the house or in front of the house. Many of the structures have a triangular window in the front wall.

Large grave houses usually have a door so the family can go inside to visit with the spirits and leave flowers, photographs and other remembrances. Such buildings may have a bench inside with a nearby Bible.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 protects graves and grave houses. In all states, it is illegal to dig in a burial site, whether it is on private property or not. The act states that museums and federal agencies must return human remains and funerary objects to culturally affiliated tribes.

Anyone knowingly selling, purchasing or transporting objects that have been taken from a grave is in violation of the law and will be fined.

Suggestions or queries? Write to Frankie Meyer, 509 N. Center St., Plainfield, IN 46168 or email frankiemeyer@