MURRAYVILLE — As Tom Kunesh steps beside a pile of flat, carved stones, you can hear the passion in his voice.
The stones, he says, have shifted over time, and the original structure they created — a “slot-and-tab” tomb, he calls it — has disintegrated into a pile of rubble.
But, there’s hope.
With a little help from a stranger in the cemetery at Wahoo Baptist Church, Kunesh is able to shore up the sides and slide the front and back pieces into place. It’s not perfect, but the result of the rebuilding effort is a raised stone box, marking the grave of a church member who died more than 100 years ago.
Wahoo Baptist is one of several small churches across north Hall and southern White and Lumpkin counties with these unique grave markers. They are constructed of soapstone — a soft stone flecked with mica, easily quarried in these parts — and cut so that the sides are raised from the ground in a box shape. The front and the back of the markers slide through a wide hole in the top; once in place, the monuments are virtually indestructible.
“They don’t fall down; you see how long these things last? One hundred sixty years — they last,” said Kunesh, who has been driving across North Georgia for close to a decade seeking out these unique markers. “Unless there’s erosion. I think this one is slipping because of erosion.”
Kunesh, of Chattanooga, Tenn., has taught religious studies at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and, more recently, served on the state’s Board of Indian Affairs. But the discovery of his first slot-and-tab tomb in 2003 sparked a unique interest. Since that discovery, he’s taken dozens of daytrips to North Georgia with his thee daughters — he’s now a stay-at-home dad — to find more grave markers.
He’s found 166 so far, in places he calls “upland South folk cemeteries” around Wahoo Baptist. They are of Scotch-Irish origin and predominantly found at Baptist cemeteries. There are 38 at Wahoo Baptist, but they also can be found at Shoal Creek Baptist in White County, Concord Baptist in Clermont and Mount Gilead Baptist in Lumpkin County.
Most were built between 1848 and 1889.
The graves mark a time when local tradesmen bartered for services. Based on the cuts in the stone, many were created by carpenters.
“I’m amazed at the carvers ... and the team of horses that would pull this stuff out and the number of guys and the strength of those guys to pick up these pieces and set them in,” he said. “Imagine, look at the height someone has to get — four guys are holding this massive stone above here, and somebody’s figuring out how to set it down just right.”
“Between the horses and the carvers, and almost all cemeteries are on hills. So, it’s a heck of an effort.”
Wahoo Baptist member Mark Wheeler, who can trace his family’s roots with the church several generations, said he’s always been fascinated with the unusual grave markers.
He’s seen them, too, at other local churches and was curious about their origins.
“I’m going to do my doctorate thesis on the history of this church,” he said, standing among the hundred-year-old graves at Wahoo Baptist.
The church’s history dates to before the founding of the Chattahoochee Baptist Association — which was founded in 1826 — but Wheeler said the first pastor there, William Christopher, went on to found several churches in the area, including Shoal Creek Baptist Church.
Many of these churches also have slot-and-tab tombs in their cemeteries.
They were built like that out of necessity, Kunesh said. Wahoo Baptist was founded Oct. 31, 1819. At the time, the graveyard was also a pasture.
“One of the biggest problems with regular stones, in an area like this that would be grazed by cows, they get an itch and they go over to that thing,” he said, pointing at a traditional, monolith-type gravestone, “and use it to scratch.”
“So, these things are almost forces of nature. They’re solid pieces.”
In places at the Wahoo cemetery, you also can see the evolution of stones and types of grave markers.
The original ones were wood, Kunesh said, but those hardly lasted. Then, locals moved to simple fieldstones that turned up as the space was cleared. Then, they moved to locally quarried stones, and finally marble and granite.
“Here’s another evolution,” he said, pointing to the side panels in a slot-and-tab tomb. “These side panels get bigger and bigger, they get thicker and thicker, and they get worked finer so you can feel the carpentry — the tongue-and-groove,” he said. “This one, you can see the sheen of the soapstone, the high mica content.”
Kunesh has found other indigenous markers in Tennessee, but nothing quite as plentiful — and, in places, well preserved — as the slot-and-tab tombs in North Georgia.
Dahlonega, he added, has some of the most interesting shapes carved out of the headstones. Others, like graves at Bethlehem Baptist or Shoal Creek, look like someone had their own slot-and-tab business going.
“You can tell which ones have a flat ledger stone, which have one slot, which have two, and how well-formed they are,” he said. “Whoever was doing it had an industry going.”