Graveyard Dirt in Appalachian Hoodoo

Old graveyard in New York. Photos take by me.

The Appalachian mountains, oldest on earth, harbor more life forms in one space than anywhere else on earth (we have over 25,000 species of flora thriving here, not sure on the figure for fauna.)

The Cherokee lived here for centuries, maybe even millennia; and before them there was another people, Ancestors to the Cherokee, Iroquois, and Chickasaw before the people split up. After that, the white man settled. Then the slave trade began. People and cultures mixed and sifted in the bowl of the mountains. This is still happening today.

Out of all these cultures, we shared one thing in common: our relationship to these Mountains. Most of the families weren’t native, but Mother Appalachia took them in with care and gave of Her fruits. At times, this wasn’t always a friendly relationship, as winters here are hard and unpredictable. It’ll snow four feet in two days, and come next Wednesday it’s 60 degrees out. Many died in the winter, especially youngins and elderly folk. This created the environment for the Appalachian people to develop an odd relationship with death, unique compared to the rest of Western Society. Others were afraid of growing old, while our grannies could careless. Make a smart remark about they’re agin’ and you’d have your ass handed to you.

They’d been piss-poor through the Depression and both World Wars. These hills know plenty of Death. But that didn’t stop the Granny folk from speaking to their mamas and daddies, some long 50+ years after they’d passed. If there’s anything these mountains have taught my people, is that there’s always life. Sometimes there’s death. Oh, but there’s always life. They’d continue to speak to the dead like ain’t nothing wrong. And there ain’t. They’restill here.

A lot of folks hear of working with grave dirt, and the benefits of it in the works it’s utilized with in Conjure. But ain’t no one ever tell you the dangers of it.

Growing up in Tennessee and in the mountains of North Carolina, folk paid close attention to the graves of their families. They are dressed with flowers and other things monthly or yearly. Graves are visited by the whole family on birthdays, graduations, holidays (except in the winter as these mountains can get furious), and after family reunions.

In Appalachian culture, one always stays close to the kin. Which may be why all of my ancestors who came to the New World chose to lay their bones in these hills. We’ve been here ever since.

Now death in these hills is grieved and somewhat feared. But everybody’s gotta die at some point. The majority of these folk are Baptists and Pentecostal. Their passing is celebrated with Bible versus’ and hymns, talking bout the gold city and rivers of diamonds. But when the funeral home empties and people go on home, everybody knows the dead still here. They go Home but they return too.

Growing up, I always felt the peace of the graveyard. It seems have the feeling of a kindergarten class during nap time. Well, except everybody’s sleeping for good. I never liked that term for the deceased “sleeping”. Or even resting for that matter. I’m sure they still got some work to do over there just like we do here. If you’ve met my family, I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a whole job for ’em in and of itself.

Graveyard work seems to be a shared concept in every tradition of American Folk magic, leading over to Ireland and down toward Africa. Graveyard work is the core of “Conjure”. You’re conjuring up assistance from the Spirits, most commonly an Ancestor. Very few folk work with unfamiliar spirits, unless you need the assistance from someone such as a police officer, and if none of your Ancestors (to your knowledge) worked in that occupation. Most of my immediate Ancestors were in the U.S. Army, fighting in the civil war, Vietnam or WWII.

The way I was taught, there are always precautions to take when you plan on buying dirt from a grave, regardless if it’s from family or not. Very few families have family cemeteries anymore, which makes for more dangers, generally from other dead folk in the same yard.

Graveyard dirt or dust (there is a difference which I’ll explain soon), is used in Rootwork for multiple purposes, such as love, protection, cursing… anything that the Spirits are willing to help you with.
The reason behind this post is that surprisingly most folk ain’t been told on what to do and what not to do when doing this work. Which surprised me, as this should be common knowledge for folks, for personal protection.

Now, one should always, always, always be hesitant on working with graveyard dirt. Whether you’re petitioning Grandmaw or the sheriff who passed two years ago, you gotta be on your toes about this work. When you go to buy the dirt you need to feel the place. Cause you ain’t never alone in the graveyard. Never.

Contrary to popular belief, just cause you call on mamaw, that don’t mean it’s always her who’s showin’ up. There are trickster spirits, whether they’re haints or other dead folk, who come through. Their reason is they crave life. They crave any kind of life energy directed their way, either through veneration or offerings.

To get around this, folk would go to the person in town, or one closest, who could speak to the dead. If there wasn’t one around, they’d “arm” themselves with protective charms and sachets; or they would consult the cards (mostly playing cards cause tarot wasn’t readily available then). Most folk here have some degree of sense when it comes to the spirits, so most folk are fine with their “seeing” in the graveyard.

Now the difference between dirt and dust is simple. The dirt is the soil beneath the lawn, the dust in the top-most layer of soil or the dirt that gets caked into the name on the stone. Now the effectiveness and uses are basically the same, but the dust seems to be more effective in crossing work and protecting work. The dust is a bit more potent for certain reasons. It’s experienced the weather of the cemetery and all that energy collected by the rain falling through the air of the yard and splashing around seems to condense into the soil here. Dirt is just worn down stone, but it still works the same way. Stones remember.

For some odd reason, (the answer to which I was never taught), it’s recommended to get the dust at midnight on a Sunday, and the dirt anytime it’s needed. Sounds cliché, but basically everything practiced in rootwork is some type of cliché coming from somewhere.

Now, starting three days prior to getting the dirt, pray to your Ancestors asking for guidance and protection. Pray continuously each day. Should the grave belong to a Beloved One of yours, pray primarily to them. Tell them what the work is for, how it will be used and what the desired outcome is. When going to the cemetery be sure to take an offering for the Spirit and for the “Keeper”, who is thought to be the first person buried there. There was never a specific name designated for this person.

Offerings for the Keeper include cornbread, elderberries and coins (usually pennies, odd number). This isn’t done because they’re a god or lwa, don’t mix the traditions here. It’s simply done because, being the first buried there they are the elder of the “household,” and it’s mannerly. The eldest person of a home has always had a special role in our formulas, simply because of their grace and age.

You’ll also need a spoon, gloves and a container to hold the dirt in. Treat this with respect, it’s the dirt of someone’s grave. And if you’re getting it for a specific work, don’t keep the dirt that’s not used. Bring it back to the grave with another offering. Common sense will take you far if you use what you need and return what you don’t.

Greet the Keeper with respect and ask that as you enter and leave, you will be protected from those who wish you harm. Simply call them us like this, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit I ask you of the first grave here to protect me from others that wish me ill while I am here.” Leave your offering and go to the grave in mind. Some folk divine for a grave using dowsing rods or pendulums, while others “feel” for a grave; both of which to me seems very wrong and unpredictable, as well as disrespectful to the one residing there. Your answers may just be that: you’re own which makes it rude and intruding to the spirit there. Unless you know for sure and have your wits about you that it ain’t your mind talking, go for it.

Should you decide to do the latter, I recommend you have your guards up and your senses out. When meeting a new Spirit, build a relationship with them first, over the course of a few months before asking for anything. Which is why most folk help care for the whole cemetery a few times a year, so the dead know you. At the end of the day each worker will have their own way of doing things, this is just the precautions I’as taught.

Now when you’re fixin’ to get the dirt, there are some ways and places to get it, depending on what spirit leads you to do. Now you don’t want no grass it in, so you’ll just take the spoon and raise up the lawn and get the dirt from under that. Pick out all the stones and sticks as well. Some folk get it dirt from the left hand and foot of the grave, while other times you’ll get it from the heart. Situations in which you would get it from the heart include protection work, harming someone threatening the family etc.

The left hand and foot is when some banework is needed. The head and right hand is when strong assistance is needed. These may seem like they blend in, and they do, but in that moment you’ll know which way is right. And Spirit does change this method up often.

Now in this pocket of earth is where you’ll leave the payment. If it won’t fit, place it by the head stone or over the heart. One thing you also need to find out prior to buying the dirt is if the person is buried in front or behind the headstone. Otherwise, the position you get it from won’t matter if there’s no body down there. Possible ways of payment are coins such as dimes or pennies, liquor (not recommended for those who died of alcoholism), tobacco (not recommended for those you died of lung cancer), food, and flowers. Flowers are more so a disguise for the payment. Walking through a graveyard with a pint of whiskey just seem right to some people.

Now the gloves are a precaution to keep it from getting under your nails, especially if it is from a spirit being petitioned for harm (criminal, murderer etc. which I will not be speaking about). Keep your hands from coming in contact with it if this is the case, and especially don’t drop any inside your house!!! These spirits are iffy to work with and sometimes go rogue or take things too far.

Folks leave the payment where they took the dirt from. Sometimes you can put the payment on the headstone if it won’t fit. Sometimes if the lawn is mostly moss, I’ll pull back some moss near the hole and put the money in there and then leave other payment in the hole I dug.

Now, if you’re from here (by from here I mean it like Byron Ballard says it: if your great granddaddy ain’t from these hills, you ain’t either), but if you’re from here, it’s likely one of your grannies knew the folk customs well. Most have many who did. These would be the Ancestors to work with, as I always recommend you first build a relationship with your Ancestors before buying dirt from other spirits. Now days, until companies like Ancestry and 23andMe showed up, most folk don’t think twice about their roots, and if you don’t know your roots, well, who are you?

Appalachian folk magic works very close to the dead and other spirits of these hills. We are very cautious of the impact our actions make in this world and the world of Spirit. When you build a close relationship with ’em you’ll know if it’s them or not who show up when you go to the grave. Each person will get their own hints about it, after years of working with the dead. This relationship also gives them consent to guide you in your works, and even stop you from doing things you’d later on regret. A perfect example is given by Starr Casas in her book Working the Root, as to how they can interfere in the works you plan.

Now when you’ve got your dirt, after building the relationship and talking with em for a while before asking, there’s certain things the hillfolk do when leaving the cemetery. Walk towards the gate, thanking the Keeper for their assistance, and don’t look back till your home. You may also wear a head covering as I’ve heard a covered head keeps things from hopping on your back. Some folk walk backwards out of the yard, but if you’re clumsy like me, you’ll just bust your ass. So just walk on out as usual.

For more precaution, bring a small bottle and dish rag. In the bottle, make a mixture of ammonia, salt, black pepper, dirt from your homestead and creek water. You’ll use this to wipe off the bottoms of your shoes before getting in the car. This removes the cemetery dirt from your shoes, cause you don’t wana track that back in. Now when you’re leaving in the car, don’t look in any mirrors either or it “invites em in,” as mamaw said. Wait until you’ve passed the first cross road or over running water before doing so.

When you arrive home, kick your shoes off at the door cause your gonna need to deep cleanse them too. The ammonia mixture holds it off. Some workers either take them to the creek and submerge them the next morning or sprinkle them with holy water. The creek is my personal favorite, cause while you’re submerging them till sunrise you can put your feet in the creek and feel the minos nibble at your toes.

I’ve seen online where some folk are selling graveyard dirt. That is a huge no-no and usually a big red flag, unless you know and trust that person fully. It could either be their own lawn dirt and ineffective or it could be from the grave of someone you aught not be dealing with.

Don’t “stock up” on it either. The cemetery ain’t going no where. Now you can, however, gather dirt for protection from an Ancestor and keep that. But, I’d  replenish it every 6 months to a year. When you replenish, take the rest of the dirt back to the grave and leave it until after the next rain comes. Then go back and get more. Yes, you have to pay for it again. Try not to get the same dirt though.

Before you go to the grave of a stranger, do your research, spend time getting to know the spirit. Don’t use a pendulum or go by intuition. We’re human, it’s our nature to error. So talk with them and note your experiences. And don’t ask the spirits “who wants to help”, cause more often then not, the ones who pipe up first are the ones to avoid.

I speak from experience. I asked a friend to get graveyard dirt for me from the south quarter (not from a grave), but she failed to listen. She took the dirt from the grave of an old woman, as well as the plastic cross from the grave (still have no idea why).

Long story short, my salt and pepper barriers on the window seals and front door kept her out, as we only ever seen her outside the window, beckoning us to come to the window. My mother was asleep on the couch with her legs crossed one day, when something suddenly smacked her leg down; after that she saw the woman in the window. She only ever bothered my friend and my mother, the ones who went to the cemetery. That’s when I asked where the dirt came from and they told me.

The cemetery was four hours away and I was unable to return the dirt to the grave, but I made an offering of incense and the dirt to the spirit with my deepest apologies. I placed it beneath a tree, and she left immediately.

Now, this don’t mean you can go do whatever and think they’re gonna be that forgiving. You’re already fucking yourself there for thinking that. I was lucky she was a kind spirit, and thankful the spirit wasn’t sinister. Keep your sense about you, lay close to your roots, and follow your spirits directions. Don’t “follow your intuition”, unless you’ve spent allot of time fully developing it. Don’t go with what “feels right”, because they can and will have a sway over you. So keep your wits about you and use your head.

Next week, we’ll talk about Ancestor veneration, so don’t forget to subscribe below!!!


Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Buck) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable melungeon woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather, also Melungeon, who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia; Doctoring the Devil: Notebooks of an Appalachian Conjure Man; and the Conjure Cards deck, all available for order and preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below:

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