Tombstone as Landscape Feature



Continuing our theme of burial sites, there’s one in a small Alabama town that’s making national news.

Patty Davis knew just where she wanted to be buried – just off his front porch, and that’s just what her devoted husband of 48 years did.  Trouble is, he asked permission (his first mistake), was turned down, and did it anyway.  After a four-year legal battle that he lost at the Alabama Supreme Court, he’s being ordered to dig her up and move her to a regular cemetery.  But he’s refusing, and Patty remains in the front yard, along with an outhouse and a large sign demanding that his wife be allowed to rest in peace.

According to the story in the Times, the neighbors don’t seem to mind and have gotten used to the grave site: “It’s his wife,” said Margaret Garner, 56. “He’s got the right.”

But that’s a small town in  Southern Appalachia, where landscaping norms may be different from the ones in your neighborhood or mine.  How would YOU react if you were a neighbor?  (The outhouse would be the deal-breaker for me, not the gravesite.)  And what happens when the house is eventually sold?


  1. He’s got the best Halloween decorations on the block.

    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. I don’t think a front yard is really the appropriate burial site, but a spot in a backyard garden could be fine. Although I imagine the resale value/freakiness for owners in 20+ years to be a bit rough.

  2. I wouldn’t be happy with it, if he was my neighbor. However … the article I read stated there may already be a law on the town’s books allowing for family burial plots on private property. If that’s the case, the woman should be allowed to rest where she was buried.

    And my experience with small Alabama/southern towns is that landscaping is not something everyone does, much less does well. Mostly it’s about mowing the grass, keeping the kudzu & cowitch at bay, and making sure the rain drains well away from the basement/foundation.

  3. My mother lives in a 175-year-old farmhouse on 30 acres in rural South Carolina. There is an acre plot set aside from all the adjacent properties which is the family burial ground for the family that has owned and farmed the land for the last two centuries. There are ancient camellias, huge magnolias, a Victorian iron fence. As “neighbors”, for us it is a treasure. For descendants – who have mostly moved “away”- it is an irreplaceable touchstone with their forebears; and, not incidentally, it is a refuge in this now distant country for returning to enjoy some of the rural pleasures and pursuits denied them in their new urban surrounds. Washing dishes at her sink, one can gaze out on the old moldering grave markers and the beautiful tiny-flowered striped pink camellias, the tiny flags fluttering at the graves.

    My sister’s house across the road, of roughly the same vintage, has a tiny graveyard a few steps from her back porch. This, too, is shaded by an ancient tree, is enclosed with an iron fence, and protects the burial place of the humble farmers who lived on the land and made it productive and suffered when it wasn’t productive. Her children grew up using and enjoying and protecting this land – including the grave plot.

    That soil, which made those families and kept them for so many years, that soil is the soil to which we will all return. For some of us, it is an honor and a tribute to be able to be placed to rest in eternity where we belong. For others, it is distasteful. Screw ’em.

  4. Beautifully put William. I envy you the special connection you have with the past.

    It wouldn’t bother me to have a neighbor buried in their yard, but I live in a rural area. I do think in more populated areas there could be an issue.

    I love graveyards, and think they are a very special kind of open space.

    • That reminds me … when I was growing up there was a walled graveyard not far from my parents’ house in a cow pasture. It held the remains of a family that had owned a plantation in those parts. Over the years it was looted & vandalized. When the pasture was sold to a developer for a golf course community, the original plans called for the removal of the gravestones (NOT the remains, mind you) and any trace of the cemetery – after all, the cemetery was on a prime homesite. The local historic society was in an uproar & flew to work. They soon discovered that while the graves inside the walls were locally significant, those on the outside were perhaps more regionally important. In unmarked graves, a wall away from the owners, were the slaves. Two of them were the grandparents of W C Handy, Father of the Blues. Given that the area hosts a big music festival every year in honor of Handy, the developer gave in to the pressure to preserve the graves. ALL of the graves. These days you can drive within 20 feet of the cemetery. You’ll find it flanked by red brick McMansions fairly close on either side, & a fairway around back. And the graves outside the wall are now roped off, with a historical marker that explains the site.

  5. Shrug. Wouldn’t be a problem for me if we were neighbors. If the outhouse is still in use then it’s the kind of neighborhood where it would be appropriate – does his plumbing provide water from a well on his property. It was probably hand-pumped thirty years ago, if so, putting in a septic tank would be a major expense and likely isn’t yet universal in those parts.

    As for privacy, judging from the photo,he may not have all that much in the back.

    The grave would make it harder to sell, but I’m more than half done replacing my yard with garden, complete with cobblestone paths and terraced sections. Gardening isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and this lot might be difficult to sell if my daughter doesn’t claim it when it’s time for me to be composted. Speaking of which, my wife and I both are giving our bodies to medical schools for the students to dissect. If we weren’t doing that, we’d probably have our bodies buried in a forest and a tree planted on top. Something like this:

    • Coming from this general area, I’d be willing to bet he has septic or sewer service. My family was poor, but they still managed to have a septic system. It’s an incorporated city, and if they have sanitation laws re: cemeteries & burials, it’s pretty safe to say they’d require homes to have some sort of waste removal system. I’m inclined to believe the outhouse is more decorative than functional.

  6. Wouldn’t mind the burial site, but I feel large granite tombstones are just morbid. Hide it as a statue or a bit of garden art and I’d be all for it. Who care’s what is under the ground?

  7. I think the biggest issue if what happens when the house is sold. I’ve thought a lot about this because a branch of my family does have a family cemetery of sorts – mostly everyone has been scattered – but there are memorial stones, and a bench for meditation. I asked what happened when the place was sold? The answer, it would never be sold. And it is likely that some member of the family will always want to live in that area so it would be OK. A cemetery is so much easier – if some relative wanted to visit or plant flowers. I know the beloved is not there, but having a place to visit is oddly comforting.

  8. I’m surprised that people have a problem with this, considering that we don’t really know what is buried beneath or in front of our homes anyway. Is it a problem because it is a human and not an animal? In some communities, especially tight-knit ones of ethnic origins, a front yard burial site with a marker allows for the friends and neighbors to pay respects on a daily basis. It isn’t morbid, it is a way of honoring our dead. In this society, we take the elderly and shuffle them out of sight, and then when they die, let’s make certain they are far away in a cemetery that looks like a park. I miss the old cemeteries with dramatic funereal sculpture in areas close to the city center. In older towns, one often sees family burial sites just off the front yard. I find it quite honorable and lovely.

  9. I’ve always liked well kept burial sites. Some of the best gardeners and landscapers work full-time at burial sites. There’s so much thought and dedication into making it a beautiful place to visit. (sometimes!)

    As for this story, the outhouse certainly is the deal-breaker to me! I don’t think I would mind having a nice burial plot in the house I purchase. I may remove the tombstone (it will creep out children and some adults) but I’d leave his dear wife in the ground. No need to move her at all.

    Leave the man alone, and take away his outhouse. 😉

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