Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Burying the Dead

In his book, Paradise Lost, An Oral History of Portsmouth Island, James E. White, III has this to say about island burials:

"Lionel Gilgo [1915-1983] lived on the Island long enough to see and experience numerous burials on the Island first hand. 'At low tide, the water was about two and a half feet deep when you dig. Now here on this hill you might dig three feet. Up around the cemetery you can't go over three feet. If you do, you're going to come to water. We had to bury them and stand on the casket.'"

Portsmouth Island Graves

Lionel Gilgo goes on the say about one burial that "Four of us had to stand on the casket to keep it down in the hole until we don't get enough sand piled on top of it to hold it down. And then it washed out partially.... That's another thing that caused some people to leave here. They detested that. They didn't want to be buried in that water."

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is a reprint of a 1948 article about the Mail Boat Aleta, "Boat Hauls Mail, More." You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous8:31 AM

    VERY interesting observations, Philip.

    Any insights into ground water on Ocracoke? Clearly it would vary by location/elevation, but in the area of the Village Craftsmen, for instance, how far down can you dig before you hit ground water?

    And are there any implications for island burials these days, at the community cemetery in the neighborhood back behind the Ocracoke Coffee Company, for instance?

    For example, I recently wrote about a "green-certified" cemetery here in Pennsylvania that practices all-natural burials--no embalming, no concrete vaults to house caskets, and only biodegradable caskets or shrouds.

    Based on the ground water levels on Ocracoke (as per the historical account from Portsmouth), I wouldn't presume that graves could be dug deep enough to accommodate a concrete vault.

    As always, you certainly make things interesting here.

    Keep up the good work!


    1. Thanks for the questions. I will answer your first question (how far down can you dig before you hit ground water?) in tomorrow's post.

      Re. burials on Ocracoke: You are correct that graves cannot be dug very deep...but some burials do use vaults. At the Community Cemetery, graves can be dug just deep enough to accommodate a concrete vault.

      I think it was during hurricane Gloria in 1985 that a recently buried casket popped out of the ground and floated some distance away when the tide came in. That's the only time I can remember that happening.