Quilts and mourning have long been associated with each other ~ there’s the custom of viewing the deceased laid out on a quilt or of burying bodies in quilts when wooden coffins were unavailable. And you may have heard of the Kentucky Graveyard Quilt, or Coffin Quilt, a pre-Civil War quilt created to memorialize deaths in Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell’s family.
Ms. Mitchell initiated this tradition when her two year-old son, John, died and was buried in Monroe County, Ohio, in 1836. Shortly after, her husband moved the family to Kentucky and, not wanting to forget John, she began a quilt that featured a fairly accurate appliqué of the graveyard where he was laid.
Surrounding her “graveyard” are eight-pointed star blocks alternating with directional calico fabric blocks. For the outer fence border, she created dark coffin shapes and embroidered on them the names and birthdates of the members of her family, placing these around the outside of the quilt. To John’s coffin she added the date of his death and appliqued it inside the graveyard. Later, a second son’s coffin and the coffins from two other relatives were moved to the center. Today, both a practice quilt top and the finished graveyard quilt are located in Kentucky museums.
Though an unusual method, the Kentucky Graveyard Quilt was Ms. Mitchell’s way of dealing with her grief. After a pretty serious illness in my family, I was looking for a quilt-related way process my own feelings and decided to build on the idea of a coffin quilt while at the same time laugh in the face of death.
I created a modern version, with blocks and layout influenced by the original, but in contemporary colors and fabrics. Instead of family, the names on my coffins were of TV characters who died on some of my favorite shows.
Even though they were on the small screen, many of these deaths touched me deeply. As the meme says…
There are certain fictional characters whose deaths I will never recover from. Ever.
Each of the names was machine embroidered by my friend, Shirley W., at Embroidery by Shirley. I cut the coffins and machine appliquéd them in similar places to the original. The surrounding fence is also machine appliquéd (although I cheated a bit and used black Quick Bias for the fence chain.)
The eight-pointed stars are done in scrappy purple fabrics with a single grey or single black depending on placement. I’m not sure if Ms. Mitchell meant to have the stars on varying light and dark backgrounds or if some of the fabrics have faded over time, but I went with layout as it now appears. My setting squares are a striped fabric, which I also carefully placed to get the same directionality as hers.
I’ve not been able to visit the Kentucky museum where the original Graveyard Quilt is located and online photos only show portions of the quilting. So I contacted Barbara Brackman, quilt historian and author. She is literally one of the most famous quilt historians on earth and I knew my chances of actually getting a reply were slim. But I did have an in – she lives in my old hometown of Lawrence, KS.
To my surprise, she graciously did respond! Although she said she hadn’t seen the quilt in person, she sent a link to a blog post she wrote about Ms. Mitchell’s quilts and suggested that, since I was doing a modern take on the old piecing to go twenty-first century with the quilting, too.
So I did. My version has double batting so the outline quilting around the coffins and stars makes them pouf up nicely. In the setting squares I matchstick quilted diamond shapes (the center of the diamond poufs up, too.) In the graveyard and the outside border, I did my classic stipple quilting – it wouldn’t be a Whimzie quilt if I left that technique out!
Even blown up, some of the names are difficult to read in these pictures, so if you are wondering, here’s the list of characters clockwise from the top left corner (see if you can guess the shows in the comments!) ~
- Trudy Monk
- Amy & Rory Pond
- Snowball I
- Snowball II
- Snowball III
- Snowball IV
- Bleeding Gums Murphy
- Mr. Hooper
- Bill McNeal
- Jadzia Dax
- Jock Ewing
- Professor Proton
- Richard Bay
- Henry Blake
- Lenny Briscoe
- Chuckles the Clown
- Susan Ross
- Joyce Summers
and in the graveyard center ~
- Tasha Yar
- Eddie LeBec
- Frank Grimes
- Sister Mary Duvall