Sickness and Death

Facing East, the Traditional Burial Position

Sun and Crosses

Facing East

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 Martin’s 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 “meets and bounds” which was poor at best. Certainly we can not rely on the old surveying methods to provide the precision of today’s surveying systems. We must conclude that the grave direction was almost always based on someone’s 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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