Grave Site Fences

I’ve wondered, and maybe you have too, why people put little fences around graves.

I understand fences around the cemetery itself. You’ve got to define the property somehow. But what’s up with the little grave-yards?

I’ve never seen them in the Northeast or Midwestern United States, but they’re common when you travel south and west.

The closest things I’ve come across in the Midwest are these symbolic front steps leading into a family plot.

Β  I’ve seen gorgeous iron work, beautifully laid stone, concrete, wood, brick, and even humble piles of rocks.Β Is the pointΒ to keep something out or keep something in?

Or is it just a need to fully claim the space?

Sometimes the fence is more substantial than the grave marker.

Virginia City, Nevada

Do you live somewhere where it’s traditional to fence in the family plot? I assume the practice was brought over from Europe or maybe up from Central America. Any ideas?

 

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98 thoughts on “Grave Site Fences

  1. I think the practice has fallen out of favour here, but seems to have been fairly common in Victorian graveyards – from simple rails around the plot to more elaborate iron work.

    • I’ve only been to one modern, active cemetery that still put up fences. It’s the colorful one in Genoa, Nevada – second photo on the blog. Even the lowliest graves had fences made of piles of rocks obviously gathered up from around the area. People go to a lot of trouble, with the Victorian ones a lot of expense, for something that’s clearly only symbolic. Interesting.

  2. Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve never seen fences around graves before. Are the fences consistent for a particular timeframe? That might help answer the question, as well. Superstition or, like you suggest, the possibility of tradition may be the answer. Hopefully someone knows for sure and can provide the answer here!

    • I see most fences in older cemeteries, mid 19th century, but I’ve seen them in modern ones too. The second picture on the blog, the colorful one in Genoa, Nevada, is a “living” cemetery. Thanks for stopping to comment.

  3. Wow — some people really put a lot of time and money into these fences. Perhaps they know something that the rest of us don’t know???

    Fascinating subject … and gorgeous photos! πŸ™‚

    • Thanks, Mikalee! The amount of time, money and artistry put into all kinds of burial monuments is incredible! You should see some of the mausoleums. They’re nice enough to live in.

    • I see more and more little ones the further west I go. Older cemeteries in Nevada and Colorado are full of them. Thanks for you input. They’re still a mystery.

  4. Beautiful fence w/blossoms pic. Congrats on being FP. I’m fascinated by your question. I’ve never noticed such fences at the IA & IL graveyards I’ve visited. The way we grieve is certainly reflected by our burial behaviors/ rituals. Maybe the fences symbolize the living protecting their loved ones who haved passed on. Or maybe keeping others visiting the cemetary from stepping on the grave is the goal. I’ll check out your blog – you have an interesting perspective I’d like to read more about. Take care and please keep asking thought-provoking questions.

    • I’m not surprised you haven’t seen fences in your area. They’re most common further south and west. I really can’t pin down where the tradition started or even if it’s faith based or just a regional thing. Thanks for stopping to comment.

  5. What a lovely meditation on graves and fences. Like death, fences are where one thing ends and something else begins, a physical embodiment of the circle of life. πŸ™‚

    • Queens, New York? Are there fences there? That totally blows my theory that it’s a southwestern tradition. I’ll definitely put Queens on my “Gotta go there” list. Thanks!

    • I’m sure it does. Though why some cultures are concerned about that and others aren’t is part of the mystery. In some graveyards I get the sense that fences are there to protect a loved one. In others it feels more like fences mark family territory, protect property. It’s probably some of both. Thanks for stopping to comment.

  6. In Serbia we don’t have fences but it is meant to be a sign of disrespect if you walk over the grave, but then I thought this was the case everywhere? We also compensate with unbelievably large statues of the person in the grave , and the statues very rarely have any resemblance to the person in the grave.

    • Thanks for commenting. I love hearing a little about Serbian traditions. Have you ever tried to walk through an American cemetery without stepping on a grave? It’s very difficult. They’re just not laid out right. I’ve never felt like I was being disrespectful, though I must admit, I steer clear of the newer ones. They have a vibe I can’t explain.
      You’re right, I’m sure statues rarely resemble the people in the graves. They’re my favorite monuments though. I wish people could still afford to have them made here in the U.S.! Thanks again for stopping by.

    • I’ve wondered about that. There are a lot of traditions, Navajo for one, that are very concerned about where a ghost travels or hangs out after death. We need a spiritual historian to chime in here.

  7. That is unusual! I’ve never seen any like that here in the UK, except really old graveyards, but even those don’t have railings in my experience – they usually just have a stone tomb or slab covering the full plot. I always presumed it was a grand form of decoration that sort of helps keep the grave intact for longer. Very interesting, though.

    • Thanks, Emilie. I’ve spent some time in the UK and I’ve never seen them either. It’s a little surprising actually. You’d think that in the older cemeteries, the ones in churchyards that tended to get kind of crowded over time, that the fences would come in handy to keep the neighbors from encroaching on the family plot. Maybe that’s the purpose of the slabs. The absence of fences in cemeteries like those is what makes me wonder if the tradition has some more spiritual significance. You’re right, interesting.

  8. This is an interesting question, and one that I haven’t found the definitive answer to yet. Seems to be mostly aesthetic from what I’ve read. I’ll keep digging (pun intended). πŸ™‚

    • Hey Judy, good luck with the digging. Maybe if I get enough comments from folks, we can at least get a sense of where the tradition’s practiced and where it isn’t. Thanks for pitching in!

  9. Not common in New England, thought there are fences around family plots, just not individual graves. Interesting question. Are there gates in the fences so people can enter or is it more like a cage – no one in, no one out. Since none of these is tall enough to keep a human from climbing in, I have to imagine it marks territory Or has some superstitious background. Can’t imagine that a cemetary that offers perpetual care as they do in New England, would allow it. What a maintenance nightmare! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, wonderful photos. I esp. like the one with the series of wire fences in one shot.

    • Oh no, I don’t see fences in many modern graveyards. There are a few though. That second shot, the colorful one in Genoa, is a “living,” active cemetery. It’s in high, dessert country though. No mowing. Some have gates, some don’t. Fences high enough to actually keep someone out are very rare. I’ve had exactly the same questions about them as you do. It’s a puzzle. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the compliment.

  10. I think it’s to mark the outline of the plot. In old cemeteries I think families treated grave plots as a pieces of land they had purchased and they were marking the boundries of their property line so to speak. That has always been my thought. Also in cemeteries where the family are the only ones doing upkeep they clearly have marked what area is theirs to keep tidy. Very prevalent here in Texas.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think that’s the most logical explanation. I still wonder why we only see it in the southwest. You’re right about the tidying. The one modern cemetery I came across still allowing fences also had the most elaborately decorated graves. Gorgeous, homemade stuff that people would definitely feel like protecting. The fact that visitors respect those little, symbolic fences is interesting too.

  11. Well I live in the North East and have seen many a grave site fenced. The actual reason I do not know, however, I find them a poignant reminder of the love one had for another at the time of death. A way maybe to protect them still, to mark yet further the final resting place of a cherished person. To make it elaborate, delicate, striking or whatever would be suitable to his/her personality or a personal and final tribute.
    I find them quite pleasing and always wonder who these people were that have come to this spot in the past to mourn and in some ways continue to pay respects to those whom they loved so much.
    Just my take.

    • You’re the second person from the North East to say you’ve got fences. So maybe the tradition is prevalent in the NE and the SW, not so much in the big, wide middle. Its origins might be something I’m just not going to pin down. You’re right, they can be incredibly beautiful. I’ve seem some that are rather harsh and chilling too. Thanks for commenting!

    • Yep, we just don’t seem to have the impulse to mark our graves’ territory quite that specifically in the Midwest. I wonder why others did? Thanks for checking out my site.

      • True, a version of a practical practice watered down by time. These fences wouldn’t really keep anybody out. I like VLS’s thought that they started as a way to keep livestock and wildlife off the graves. That’d explain why we see them most in the Southwest where the cattle roam.

  12. Very common in the south – moreso in family plots that are not part of a public cemetery. My maternal grandparents are buried in a little plot that was a part of an ancestral farm. It is fenced and has a tree or two inside – surrounded by farmland. In the church cemeteries you don’t see them much at all. In the public or fraternal cemeteries they are more like stone curbs separating families.

    Congrats on FP! Love the photos and love history – clicking the follow button:)

    • That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of the private vs public aspect of the thing. I’ll have to pay closer attention to that when I’m roaming. Your family’s plot sounds beautiful. I love those little, tucked-away cemeteries. I’ve seen more than one of them with cities grown up all around. Now, they’re quaint, family cemeteries in the middle of a parking lot or surrounded by suburban backyards. They still feel like peaceful oases. Thanks for following. I’ll check your blog out too.

      • Have you ever geocached? Almost every church cemetery in the south seems to have one. At first I wondered if it was disrespectful – but living in the south cemeteries are alive places where people gather for picnics or to hike. A geocache takes you to a place that is special to someone.

      • That’s my mission, to get people into their local cemeteries so they’re more “alive places.” Our ancestors went to a lot of trouble to erect all those monuments. They want us to experience them!

        I haven’t geocached…yet. I took an intro class on it at our public library a while ago. Sounds amazing. Are there cemetery themed geocache hunts?

      • I totally agree. I ride my bike in our local Victorian cemetery. I just use my iPhone whenever I am near a country cemetery and see if there is a cache – there almost always is. Sometimes they are historical, or sentimental, or odd – One guy had coords. engraved on his tombstone so cachers would visit:)

      • I wish there were, but the fences are all in the oldest part of the graveyard. My only guess would be that the fences may be put up by wealthier families and they want to clearly mark there family plots.

      • Sounds about right. The territorial impulse is definitely part of it. Especially in parts of the country where they didn’t need to worry about the livestock knocking over their headstones. That’s a very practical reason to put up a fence.

  13. never thought about that before?…………but i suppose its instincive for humans to be territorial………..perhaps its this………why do we fence our homes and fields and cities?…….protection mostly……….come to think of it why dont we ask the same question as to why we feel the need to erect gravestones?…………

    • Gravestones, I understand. Even if they’re just brass plates stamped in the ground, they remind us of the life lived. It’s too bad we can’t afford to erect statues and carve long epitaphs in our stones anymore. Maybe if we went to that kind of expense, we’d start putting up fences again. Protection, like you said. I’ve heard about new stones with QR codes on them that lead visitors to the deceased’s website. Sounds pretty cool.
      Thanks for stopping to comment!

  14. In May we took a trip around Turkey and saw quite a few graveyards where the plots had small fences around them. However, I have not seen this in English cemeteries or come to think of it in Irish ones either!

    • In Turkey, huh? That’s interesting. Not in the UK and not in the Midwestern US. I wonder why the territorial instinct comes to some and not to others. I’d expect more fences in crowded, churchyard cemeteries and fewer in wide, open plains, but the opposite seems to be true. Thanks for taking a look at my blog and joining in.

  15. These photos are beautiful! I always thought the fences were to keep people from walking over the graves. My parents were always so stern about me walking between the graves and not over them. It made me look at the grass and wonder if the people beneath got irritated if my foot went over the plot-line.

    I wonder if the fences are what the people who died preferred or what the loved ones who buried them preferred? I will be cremated, and if I’m lucky I’ll land somewhere that people can walk and even picnic on top of me if they like. Maybe a dog will come along and find the place decent enough to relieve himself! That would be okay with me. πŸ™‚

    I love graveyards, and once took my kids to visit one near our house. When my third-born asked why some of them have a birthdate but no death date, I told him because they weren’t dead yet. His eyes got the size of saucers and he stared at the ground! He thought they were buried alive!

    Of course I quickly explained, but it is a good reminder that what we may say to our children is not always what is heard. And yes, I did not let them walk over the graves . . . even though there were no fences.

    • Thanks for your comments. Your poor child! We really do have to watch what we say. I’m glad to hear you shared a graveyard with them. My boys have gotten used to Mom screeching on the brakes to pull off at some little, tucked away cemetery.

      One person commented that fences might have been more prevalent when families did their own upkeep on the site. That makes sense. If you’re doing the tidying, you’d want to mark your territory.

      I’ve got to admit, I do walk on the graves. Some cemeteries just aren’t set up to allow easy passage. It would become several acres of hop-scotch trying to avoid a misstep. And I’ve picnicked on folks too. Respectfully, of course. I don’t think they mind. πŸ˜‰

  16. I understood that the original reason for fences around gravestones was to protect the site and the stone from being disturbed by wandering animals, both wild and livestock. Back in the day, burials were on the family property, near woods and farm animals. I imagine after a time it simply became habit or tradition to mark off your personal family space in a larger lot with a fence.
    Whatever the original purpose, like so many things, people just kept doing it because ‘that’s the way it’s done’. It seems we are creatures of habit. It takes a long time for us to stop perpetuating traditions that are no longer useful.

    • THANK YOU!! That is the best, most logical explanation I’ve heard yet. Wildlife and livestock barriers make perfect sense. And as you say, as people kept building them just because that’s the way it was done, the fences became less and less practical. You’re a genius!

  17. wow, stunning images. although..honestly, i’ve never seen a fenced graveyard!!!!!! there’s a couple tiny old cemetaries in my hometown but none of them had little fences. i find it odd too. i do think those steps are really interesting though

    • Yes, I liked the steps too. One of the posts actually had something along the lines of, “Welcome to our new home,” carved into it. People’s attitudes about death are so intriguing. Thanks for stopping to comment!

  18. Great post. Honestly I think fences have a number of reasons. First, fences around graveyards (not necessarily individual graves) are a tradition from long past when the belief in the supernatural wasn’t considered Sci-fi or fantasy but real. In other words, to help keep restless souls in. Fences are used in some grave sites (such as those at famous plots) to keep grave diggers out. Some fences are used as decoration. Some are used so that the disrespectful don’t walk all over the buried dead. If not for any of these reasons.. then I don’t know. πŸ™‚ Congrats on getting freshly pressed.

    • Thanks so much. I think the bottom line with the fences is that there are a lot of reasons for them, practical, spiritual and aesthetic. I’m glad they’re around to make us ponder.

  19. Beautiful. The practice seems somehow comforting to me; could it be a way to create a sacred space when one comes to pay respect. It all fits with the livestock barrier also–tough to contemplate and commune with the dear departed with a heifer pushing you out of the way to eat the daisies.

  20. I know this is an old post, but felt I must comment that I live in Illinois and have seen a lot of fenced graves. They’re mostly seen in old abandoned graveyards. I think it’s probably not that they weren’t popular in the midwest, but perhaps that more of them have been removed in living cemeteries. Also, another thing to keep in mind about the midwest is that there are hidden abandoned graveyards scattered all over the place in the woods or on defunct roads. The midwest not a densely populated area when these fences were common (frankly still not densely populated in comparison to the edges of the country), and did not have large cemeteries. Fenced graves are around the midwest. You just have to know where to look for them.

    • Thanks for commenting. I think you’re right. Fenced graves are just a little harder to find in the midwest. I’ll be travelling east this fall. It’ll be interesting to see if I find as many there.

  21. Growing up, I lived on a dead-end street in SW PA that had an old family plot (graves from the 1800’s) at the dead-end (no pun intended). The plot is in the woods at the top of a cliff. It’s a very eerie place that is overgrown and most of the graves have sunken. One grave that has a white picket fence (about 4 ft tall) around it. Local lure says that the woman was a witch and that the fence was there to keep her soul in. I’ve searched the internet to find anything I can about this person and the story, but come up empty. I’ve even found a picture of her grave on Find A Grave, but it doesn’t look like there is a fence around the grave in the picture.

    • It’s amazing the legends that bubble up around graveyards. Your neighborhood plot seems like a perfect setting for some great ones! The best explanation anybody came up with for the fences was that they used them to keep grazing cows away from headstones. People put a lot of time and money into those markers and didn’t want the local herd knocking them over. Makes sense. But, your lore is much more fun.

  22. Hi..googled this and your site came up. Yes. Am from the West,and including Genoa we have a lot of them. Bodie , CA. also has a lot of them. The explanation of the critters and wildlife seems to be right on, weather or not there are cattle, there are always them pesky coyotes. If folks were not buried that deep, coyotes would and could be a real problem. Notice it especially on baby and children’s graves, regardless of the socio-economic status of the family. Somehow, they always managed to put them around children’s graves. You never see them, in the West, around say, a Person of ill repute or theif or criminal. So the fence seems maybe to have served several purposes, both symbolic and practical. To Not put a protective structure around the grave would be a way of saying ‘we don’t care if the coyotes come and drag your self away’. They for sure would not keep out your human grave robber..if there were any in the old West. Very curious about these, too. Thank you for your site and comments!

    • Cattle and coyotes! Good thought about fences symbolizing how much the ones left behind cared. I’ve seen some great cemeteries in less affluent communities where graves or family plots are fenced in with rows of stones. Genoa’s one of my favorites. Obviously not meant to keep anything out. I wonder a little about the superstition of keeping something in too. Thanks for stopping by the site. I really need to get back to posting more often.

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