The Cemeteries of Yoknapatawpha

The fourteen conventional burial sites in Yoknapatawpha are either cemeteries, churchyards or graveyards. Jefferson's cemetery is public: buried there are upper class Episcopalians like the Sartorises, middle class Presbyterians like Mrs. Hightower, and soldiers from both armies in the Civil War. But while it's non-denominational, the town cemetery is not color blind: the grave of Simon, lifelong slave-turned-servant of the Sartoris family, lies in "the colored ground" outside the "cemetery proper" (Flags in the Dust, 396). The African American cemetery where "Pantaloon in Black" begins, the only other place in the fictions where blacks are buried, may be similarly adjacent to a white cemetery - the text does not say. Or it may be associated with a church, in which case it would be a churchyard like four other burial sites in the fictions. Burying members of a particular parish or congregation in land immediately next to the church where they worshipped was a centuries-old tradition by the time Yoknapatawpha was settled, and common practice in the real South, especially in rural areas, as is the case with Faulkner's churchyards. Graveyards are smaller enclosed areas where the dead are members of the same family. The two largest plantation owners in Yoknapatawpha - Grenier and Sutpen - have their own family plots. (And the fact that all five people buried in the latter are Sutpens is a major element in the familial plot of Absalom, Absalom!) But other, less aristocratic old county families like the McCallums and the Hoakes also bury their kin on their own property. This was also a common practice in the South.

The Burden family has its own graveyard too, but with this site we move into Faulkner's representations of unconventional burial sites. To keep other whites from violating the graves, and perhaps mutilating the bodies, the Burdens' graveyard is hidden, which adds to the dread that four-year-old Joanna Burden feels when her father takes her there, "into the cedars" that grow around the resting places of her relatives (Light in August, 252). In The Sound and the Fury, the dead Compsons lie in Jefferson's public cemetery, but there is also a symbolic cemetery on the last piece of the Compson plantation: Benjy's "graveyard," as both Dilsey and Luster call the "small mound of earth" under "a clump of cedars" where two empty bottles "that once contained poison" are maintained by Benjy apparently as a kind of memorial to the members of his family who are gone (55-56, 315, 314). The huge mounds of earth constructed by the aboriginal inhabitants of the region appear in several fictions, but not as burial sites (though historically that was one of their most likely purposes). Instead, both Issetibbeha, a Chickasaw chief, and Sam Fathers, the mixed race descendant of a Chickasaw chief, are buried in the ground. But along with Issetibbeha are buried his horse and dog and slave (a funeral custom that Faulkner invented rather than one the Chickasaw nation ever actually practiced), and Sam's grave is not only next to the remains of a dog and a bear, but is symbolically defined as the grave of the wilderness itself: the one small piece of the big woods that will remain after the rest is clear cut by a logging company. Probably the most unconventional burial site in the fictions, however, is the final resting place of Homer Barron: a locked room inside the "big, squarish frame house . . . decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies" that belongs to Emily Grierson, a tomb that is also a "bridal" chamber (Collected Stories, 119, 129). The last descendant of the Old Frenchman, the county's first large plantation- and slave-owner, is 'buried' twice: the second time in a churchyard, but the first time in the river, impaled on a fishhook.  Though it's not on our map, Sutpen's big mansion also becomes a cemetery of sorts when the last two of his children are effectively cremated in the fire that burns it down. The way wilderness, plantations and mansions end up as cemeteries reveals a lot about Faulkner's tragic sensibility - and of course about the human condition.

Altogether there are twenty-two burial sites of one kind or another in Yoknapatawpha; more if you count the references to cemeteries that don't explicitly appear (in "The Tall Men," for example, or Go Down, Moses), and still more if you count each time Jack Houston (in "The Hound"), or Vinson Gowrie and Jake Montgomery (in Intruder in the Dust) are interred, disinterred, and reburied in new places. Given that over ten times as many deaths as births are narrated in the fictions, that number is perhaps not surprising. Yet while the cemeteries of Yoknapatawpha occupy a large part of the physical landscape, they occupy a still larger space, thematically and structurally, in the fictions as narratives. Repeatedly stories begin or end (sometimes both) inside or on the way to the various burial sites. There are over a dozen funerals described in some detail, but characters also visit or are taken to cemeteries for other reasons, often imaginatively (and sometimes physically) to resurrect rather than bury the dead who lie there. Take just the "cedar bemused" Jefferson cemetery (Collected Stories, 119). It appears in eight novels and four short stories. Both his first Yoknapatawpha novel, Flags in the Dust, and (almost three decades later) the second volume in the Snopes Trilogy, The Town, basically end there. This is the cemetery to which (the living) Benjy Compson is being taken - though he does not get there - at the end of Faulkner's second Yoknapatawpha novel, The Sound and the Fury, and to which the Bundren family are taking the body of Addie through most of the third one, As I Lay Dying.

Almost all art is deeply engaged with the theme of death. And almost all artists, at least the strong ones, are seeking some kind of immortality through their acts of creation. There are two written texts interpolated into the text of Absalom, Absalom! One is Mr. Compson's account of Rosa Coldfield's funeral. The other is the letter that Charles Bon sends Judith Sutpen, and that Judith gives to Compson's mother right after Bon's death, as a way "to make that scratch, that undying mark on the blank face of the oblivion to which we are all doomed" (102). Judith herself links this textual "scratch" to the marble "block of stone with scratches on it" on a grave (101). Tombstone epitaphs are the most common way we seek something to outlast the decomposing bodies that lie beneath them. Faulkner himself often talked about his writing as his means of making "that scratch." For example, in 1957 he told an audience at Virginia that the writer "knows he has a short span of life, that the day will come when he must pass through the wall of oblivion, and he wants to leave a scratch on that wall . . . that somebody a hundred or a thousand years later will see" (

But the universal anxiety about death is not the only way to understand Faulkner's particular obsession with cemeteries. The title of one of his late novels, Intruder in the Dust, suggests another way into them. In Yoknapatawpha 'dead and buried' is rarely the end of the story. Characters as different as Thomas Sutpen and Rider's wife Mannie rise from the grave to haunt the living. At least four graves are literally violated - five if we include the way Luster mistreats Benjy's graveyard. "The past is never dead," says Gavin Stevens in a phrase that is invariably attributed to Faulkner (Requiem for a Nun, 73). By giving cemeteries such a central position in his mythical county, Faulkner has a vivid means of dramatizing how the dead are never past. Dust and tombstones simultaneously bury and preserve what is gone forever and yet remains, what is absent and nonetheless always present. The act of returning repeatedly to the sites that embody that paradox - whether to remember or even dig up or try to re-bury the dead, or just to read the epitaphs or tend the plots, or even just to put the living in the literal presence of the past that is both gone and still here - this is one of Faulkner's most significant tropes for his project as an artist.

      Citing this source:
Bingler, Robbie, Worthy Martin and Stephen Railton, "The Cemeteries of Yoknapatawpha," Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, (Date added to project: 2018)