The traditional Christian method of positioning the coffin or shroud covered body
in the grave was to have the body with the head to the west, feet to the east. The body
was placed face up. When it was not practical to use the west-east position for the grave,
a north-south positioning was the next best option. There the body would then be laid on
its side, head to the north and facing east. Not all burials followed the tradition nor
did all cemeteries.
The reason for the east facing position is offered by tom kunesh:
Note that in Christianity, the star (of the Jewish astronomers from Iraq [Babylon]) comes
from the east. Then there is Matthew 24:27 (NKJ): For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the
west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be ... thus for the Christian believer in the resurrection
of the dead, placing the body facing east will allow the dead to see the Second Coming of Jesus.
When the West-east burial position was used, the graves hardly ever aligned with
the true east. The probable reason for that is true east could not be ascertained. Even
though the magnetic compass existed when the first settlers established James Town (Jamestown)
in 1607, its use was very limited. The earliest graves from Virginia are not aligned true east.
(See Martins Hundred Burial Ground.) The most
probable reason for misalignment is that the east was determined by position of the sun on
the eastern horizon at sunrise at the time of the establishment of the burial ground.
It was the perception of east that set the direction, not the compass.
Facing East Burials and Land Surveying
In the words of Louis Simpson:
In this America, this wilderness
Where the axe echoes with a lonely sound,
The generations labor to possess
And grave by grave we civilize the ground.
As the frontier settlers moved westward intruding on Indian lands, the need for grave sites became inevitable.
The family burial ground on the family farm was the first of the frontier cemeteries. The custom of family burial
grounds kept its strong hold on the rural south, especially in the
Appalachian and Cumberland Mountain areas. The local church cemetery came next, but while the
family farm and the local church cemeteries were frequently surveyed, the determination of true
east was not usually established. They simply did not have the luxury of good surveys, and it is
unlikey that even a compass was used later to determine true east for the graves. Undoubtedly, the east
direction was determined by sunrise and that changed every day of the year.
In early land records, we often find disparities between legal
descriptions and the actual surveys. The cause of this is declination,
which is the difference between true north and magnetic north.
(Longitude lines run true north - south, while the compass needle
points to the magnetic north - at least on our north side of the
equator.) Add to that, the early south used a survey system called
and bounds which was poor at best. Certainly we can not rely on the
old surveying methods to provide the precision of todays surveying systems. We must conclude
that the grave direction was almost always based on someones opinion and not science.
Potentially, the advent of city cemeteries, especially the later ones, may have allowed for more
accurate west-east positioning of the graves. Of course, not all cemeteries were designed with the direction in mind.
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