Archiver > KENTUCKY-LEGENDS > 2013-06 > 1371649328

From: "Sandra K. Gorin" <>
Subject: [KENTUCKY-LEGENDS] Grave Houses,the Appalachian Grave Robbers and Sin Eaters
Date: Wed, 19 Jun 2013 08:42:08 -0500


Before leaving on vacation, I attended a program
put on by Jonathan Jeffrey of Western Kentucky
Library dealing with grave houses.

Until moving to Kentucky, I had never heard of a
grave house and they are quite intriguing. I
don’t know how many still remain in Kentucky but
Jonathan has found 100; the greatest number can
be found in Wayne County (16) and in the
Appalachian area. There are two in Monroe County.
They have been found in Robertson and Calloway
Counties. None have been found in Barren,
Metcalfe or other surrounding counties.

A grave house is a structure that was built over
a grave. It served to protect the grave and/or
the stone from the elements or animals. Unlike a
crypt or a mausoleum, the body of the deceased is
buried underground in a normal grave. Then a
grave house is built around the grave. The houses
have roofs, walls; some have doors and windows.
Some just have the walls and no roofs and have
fencing. Those with doors allow the family to
walk inside. Families decorate inside the grave
houses. Jonathan showed photographs of many where
there were photos of the deceased, flowers,
messages from those who came and other
decorations. The house could be made of stone,
wood, brick or cast iron. The saddest are those
built over the graves of children.

Sadly, many of these grave houses have fallen
down over the years and have not been preserved
when the family died or moved from the area.
Today, burials in a municipal cemetery would not be allowed.

What is the Appalachian Grave Robber? Well, this
is a traditional belief in many Appalachian
areas. You’ve all heard of ghouls I’m sure. This
is a folklore creature believed in Arabian
countries. It is a creature that comes out at
night to eat the flesh from dead bodies. He was
the original shape shifter and often took on the
appearance of a wild animal – especially hyenas.
Ghouls are also called grave robbers. In the
Appalachian region – from North Carolina to West
Virginia many tales have been told of people
seeing grave robbers dressed in old ragged
clothing and having long curved fingernails and
toenails. The old folk in this area love to tell
tales of these grave robbers digging up the
corpses of the deceased in the remote graveyards.
They did this for seven days and then the body
was too decayed to be of interest.

Another individual that did exist in the
Appalachian Region was known as the Sin Eater.
Sounding strange to those of the 21st Century,
the Sin Eater was very important. When someone
died, the family could pay a Sin Eater to “eat”
the sins of the newly deceased. This existed up
into the 1940’s and it is rumored that in some
places, they still exist. By “eating” the sins of
the deceased, they take upon themselves the
individual’s sins and placed them on themselves,
thus giving atonement for the sins of the deceased.

It is believed that the tale of the grave robbers
and the Sin Eaters came from pagan beliefs of
immigrants who came to America from Ireland and
the Eastern European countries. Residents of the
mountainous areas of North Carolina were very
superstitious. Many believed in witchcraft and
believed that witches controlled whether a crop
failed or succeeded. Variations and tales from
the old country were added to over the years and
is likely where the belief in ghouls, grave robbers and Sin Eaters originated.

Sandi Gorin, Kentucky Colonel
President, South Central KY Historical & Genealogical Society
Sandi's Website:

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