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Archaeologists excavating the Terrill Cemetery

Terrill Cemetery

Site ID: 15Ma424

Kentucky Archaeological Survey
Unless specified, we cannot provide site location information.


​​​​​​​​​​​The Terrill Cemetery is a nineteenth-century family cemetery perched on a ridgetop south of Richmond in Madison County. In 2007, archaeologists investigated the cemetery prior to an expansion of the Richmond Industrial Park. 

After clearing the cemetery area of trees and other vegetation and removing the topsoil, archaeologists found 16 grave shafts. These shafts held the remains of 18 individuals​.

​Investigations identified the organization and growth of the cemetery. They also documented changes in coffin manufacture that highlighted changes in mortuary​ practices, reflecting how the Terrill Family participated in the nineteenth century's “Beautification of Death” movement.

Map of the Terrill Cemetery. It shows interment dates and differences in grave shaft orientation.


Historic documents research, together with analysis of the artifacts found with those buried within the Terrill Cemetery, indicated that these individuals most likely died sometime between 1830 and 1876.  Eight were adults and 10 were infants or children 12 years and younger.  The large number of infants and children reflects the high​​​ child mortality rates of the nineteenth century. These high rates are often attributed to poor nutrition, poor sanitation, a lack of medical knowledge concerning common diseases, and a lack of antibiotics.

​Almost all of the individuals were arranged in one of three rows. Heads were oriented toward the west. 

The exceptions were Burial 1 (a young adolescent), Burial 2 (an infant/child), and Burial 21 (an infant). These individuals were buried in the southernmost portion of the cemetery. Along with their spatial separation, these graves were oriented differently: heads pointed to the northwest. These differences could indicate that these people were not family members. They may have been the children of household employees or the enslaved.

Everyone was buried in a coffin. Over the course of the cemetery's use, coffin hardware became more elaborate. Viewing plates and decorative handles became more common.  

One individual was buried in a torpedo-shaped, cast-iron coffin decorated with floral designs.  The elaborate features of this coffin suggested that it held a person of means. 

Archaeologist exposes the torpedo-shaped cast-iron coffin. 

One of six decorative metal handles shaped to look like hands holding metal bars.

What's Cool?

More Elaborate Headstones

In the mid- to late nineteenth century, American attitudes toward death changed. The Puritan view of death (a time of judgment) gave way to a more romantic view of death (part of God’s natural design). People came to idealize death. Funerals became more elaborate, and mourning periods lengthened. These changes are part of the​ "Beautification of Death" movement.

Items associated with death, such as gravemarkers and coffins, became more elaborate, incorporating Christian symbols of beauty and peace. Coffins began to function not only as receptacles for the body, but also as the means for presenting the deceased. 

Zerelda Terrill's headstone can be viewed as a product of this "Beautification of Death" movement​. Its weeping willow symbol suggests grief and sorrow but also can suggest immortality. In Christian belief, the weeping willow is associated with the gospel of Christ, which says that the tree will flourish and remain whole, no matter how many branches are cut off. 

An unusual feature of Zerelda Terrill’s grave was the presence of mussel shell beneath the grave marker and in the grave shaft. Hers was the only grave in the cemetery in which investigators found mussel shell.​ The use of shell in burial practices has been documented for many cultures, but its meaning in this instance is not understood.

Engraved headstone of Zerelda E. <Br>Terrill. Note the weeping willow motif at the top.

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