|F1. CEMETERY STUDY
Using cemeteries to teach local history provide many opportunities to
provide local context for national topics. Everything from the location
of the cemetery in relation to the larger town to the art of the
gravestones provides invaluable information about how members of that
community viewed death and life. How a cemetery is used in the
classroom is largely determined by what it is that is being studied.
Are you looking to see the impact of disease or mortality on the
make-up of the town? Do a survey of individual stones to see what
patterns develop. Are you looking at wealth distribution and social
status? Compare the complexity of stones within the same 10-20 year
period. If you are looking to see how the community’s perspective on
death has evolved over time, than take a look at several sections of
the cemetery and chart the changes in iconography, structure and
location of gravestones.
General Teaching Tips:
Provide information on the Cemetery you will visit with students: its
location, who owns it, runs it, role in community. Check it out ahead
of time so that you are comfortable leading the trip and your
activities are relevant. If you use the sheets on gravestone symbols
the students will locate, be sure there are good examples to find. If
you are dividing up the cemetery in sections so that detailed work can
be done on a specific area, find similar-sized areas that allow
comparisons. Modify the templates to the specifications of your
For many years, students and enthusiasts of gravestone art have taken
"rubbings" of favorite stones. While this seems like an easy project to
do with students, it is, in fact, quite controversial.. Repeated
rubbings degrade the stones and can cause damage if done improperly.
The following is an excerpt from the Association for Gravestone Studies
guide on the Dos and Don’ts of Gravestone Rubbings:
Check (with cemetery superintendent, cemetery
commissioners, town clerk, historical society, whoever is in charge) to
see if rubbing is allowed in the cemetery.
Get permission and/or a permit as required.
Rub only solid stones in good condition. Check for
any cracks, evidence of previous breaks and adhesive repairs,
defoliating stone with air pockets behind the face of the stone that
will collapse under pressure of rubbing, etc
Become educated; learn how to rub responsibly.
Use a soft brush and plain water to do any necessary
Make certain that your paper covers the entire face
of the stone; secure with masking tape.
Use the correct combination of paper and waxes or
inks; avoid magic marker-type pens or other permanent color materials.
Test paper and color before working on stone to be
certain that no color bleeds through.
Rub gently, carefully.
Leave the stone in better condition than you found
Take all trash with you; replace any grave site
materials that you may have disturbed.
Don't attempt to rub deteriorating marble or
sandstone, or any unsound or weakened stone (for example, a stone that
sounds hollow when gently tapped or a stone that is flaking, splitting,
blistered, cracked, or unstable on its base).
Don't use detergents, soaps, vinegar, bleach, or any
other cleaning solutions on the stone, no matter how mild!
Don't use shaving cream, chalk, graphite, dirt, or
other concoctions in an attempt to read worn inscriptions. Using a
large mirror to direct bright sunlight diagonally across the face of a
grave marker casts shadows in indentations and makes inscriptions more
Don't use stiff-bristled or wire brushes, putty
knives, nail files, or any metal object to clean or to remove lichen
from the stone; Soft natural bristled brushes, whisk brooms, or wooden
sticks are usually OK if used gently and carefully
Don't attempt to remove stubborn lichen. Soft lichen
may be thoroughly soaked with plain water and then loosened with a gum
eraser or a wooden popsicle stick. Be gentle. Stop if lichen does not
come off easily.
Don't use spray adhesives, scotch tape, or duct
tape. Use masking tape.
Don't use any rubbing method that you have not
actually practiced under supervision.
Don't leave masking tape, wastepaper, colors, etc.,
at the grave site
Source: "Gravestone Rubbing for Beginners," a leaflet available from
the Association for Gravestone Studies http://www.gravestonestudies.org
Cemetery Study : Basic Questions
What is the name of this cemetery? In what community
is it located?
Locate the cemetery on town map. Describe its
location, size and immediate neighbors. Why do you think this site was
selected? What does the location of the cemetery tell you about the
relationship between life and death in the community?
Who is buried here? Look for names that are found
throughout town (names of schools, streets, ponds, etc.).
What years are covered in this cemetery? List oldest
and most recent you find. Identify the oldest and newest stones in the
cemetery. How have they changed over time?
What kinds of gravestone shapes do you find and what
symbols are on them?
Find several gravestones that look very similar and
might be carved by the same carver. What were his favorite symbols and
inscriptions? List the name of the carver if found on the gravestones.
Read several epitaphs and write out your favorite.
Critical Thinking Questions
Can you determine when new ethnic groups arrive and
are their life expectancy rates different from community
contemporaries? Do you find causes of death specific to that group?
(Quarry worker, e.g.)
Read poetry or literature that relates to
graveyards, death and dying and write an epitaph for a poets or authors
you are reading. Or if you are studying the community, write epitaphs
for leading townsmen and women.
Identify stones representing different levels of
wealth and status in the community. How do these stones reflect the
economics of the community?
Do a survey of gravestones that have natural and
human damage. They might be broken, knocked over (human), eroded from
rain, wind or be affected by plant material, lichen (natural). Consider
the kind of stone used and determine which kind is most, least durable.
Comment on the different methods of writing inscriptions on the stone
Do a statistical study of life expectancies during a
particular period of time and note causes of death. Make comparisons
between different periods. Look for evidence of infant mortality, wars,
epidemics etc. What are the differences between male and female life
expectancy? What might account for this?
Massachusetts Studies Project
Templates for Local History: