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  How to Read a Graveyard


Not all writing is on paper and not all written documents are found in libraries or attics. History abounds in graveyards. Peoples who buried their dead said much about themselves and those who had died. Once again, acute observation with the eye of a detective will yield evidence: the names of people buried here, their familial relationships, their religious beliefs, their social standings, their technological knowledge, their cultural symbols, and their artistic ideals.

Here are some steps to take when trying to find graveyard evidence that would be useful to your research. These steps do not have to be followed in any particular order. In fact, you will probably move back and forth between them as you explore.

Be prepared.
Look at the graveyard in its surroundings.
Analyze the geography of the space.
Focus on the markers.
Gather evidence about the people buried here.
Search for supporting documentation.
Put it together.



Important Note:

Get permission to go onto private land. Observe without altering. Make photographs, sketches, and notes. Take nothing. Leave everything exactly as you found it. Remember that you tread on sacred ground.

Be prepared.

  • Bring materials to make a record of what you find. This inclucdes pencil, paper, camera, and clipboard.
  • Make a map of the graveyard if you need to record particular data and its placement. Use graph paper or draw a grid to scale. Letter an axis along the bottom, one letter to a square, and number a vertical axis along the left-hand side, one number to a square. This will make each square identifiable by a unique number-letter combination. Make a corresponding grid on the site using string laid out in squares. Draw or refer to information according to the grid squares where it is found.
  • Decide what specific data you need from the site and make thorough notes. For instance, if you are studying the design of gravestones, you will want to include measurements of each stone; where in the grid the stone appears; photos, rubbings, or sketches of engravings; and notes about dating.

Look at the graveyard in its surroundings.

  • Observe where the graveyard is located in relation to the landscape as a whole. Is it on a hilltop by itself, looking out across an expanse of mountains? Is it tucked away in a beautiful spot? Is it on land that is considered valuable or on land that is considered expendable in that society ÷ for example, in a choice spot with good soil or on nonarable ground between fields? How would the natural landscape have looked at the time of burial, and how does that differ from how the site looks today? What conclusions can be drawn about the relationship of the graveyard to the landscape as a whole?
  • Observe where the graveyard is located in relation to other manmade spaces. Is it next to a meeting house and limited to people of that religion? Is it secluded? Is it by a frequently traveled roadway? Can it be seen from the house where the deceased's family lived? Is there a division between holy ground and unholy ground? How would the manmade landscape have looked at the time of burial, and how does that differ from how the site looks today? What conclusions can be drawn about the relationship of the graveyard to the rest of the manmade landscape?

Analyze the geography of the space.

  • Observe how the graveyard is defined as a space. What kinds of walls are there and of what are they made ÷ are they fancy or plain, made of local or imported materials, of crude or of fine craftsmanship? What kinds of gates are there and of what are they made? Is there any apparent distinction between the sacred graveyard and space used for everyday activities? Is the ground public or private? Is this the graveyard of a family, neighborhood, religious sect, or community?
  • Observe the overall design of the space. Are there paths? What is the layout of paths? Is there seating? Is there an area for contemplation? Are there artificially created features such as promontories and ponds? What does one see from different spots on the site? What is the overall intention? Stop for a moment and be quiet -- what is the feeling of the place?
  • See if different parts of the graveyard are used for different purposes. Are there roadways between sections with ruts made by horse-drawn vehicles? Is there a tomb for use in the winter when the ground is frozen? What marks boundaries between sections?
  • Look at the plantings. Identify the flowers, herbs, shrubs, and trees. Even in an overgrown graveyard, some of the landscaping might still survive around the gate. Which plants are native and which have been imported? Which were planted and which are volunteers? Which are characteristic of practices during particular time periods? For instance, during the nineteenth century, exotics such as wisteria were popular. Do the plants have symbolism? For example, mulberries were associated with the silkworm, which was associated with the image of resurrection.

Focus on the markers.

  • Observe the dates on the markers. What is the range of dates represented? How do these dates compare with the dates of other manmade structures in the surrounding area? What conclusions can be drawn about the graveyardÔs beginning and periods of active use? Did a group of people die at around the same time, perhaps indicating an epidemic or disaster? Were these people of similar or different ages? What did they have in common?
  • Observe the general arrangement of markers. What kinds of people got large markers and whay kinds got medium and small markers? Is there a section with higher or more elaborate stones where the more prominent people are buried? Are there sections with no markers, where paupers or servants might have been buried with wooden markers that have rotted away? Are markers arranged in family clusters, perhaps several smaller ones around a larger marker enclosed by curbing? Is there a West-East orientation to the graveyard, reflecting the Christian belief that when the body sits up at the sunrise of resurrection, it will face east?
  • Observe the types of markers used. Of what are the markers made? Are the markers of local or imported materials? Are they simple, ornamental, crude, finely worked? Do designs and materials vary according to the status of the person buried there? Do designs and materials vary according to the dates of burials?
  • Consider how changes in the markers reflect changes in technology. What tools were used to make the markers? Were they made by hand or by machine? Were they factory-produced? Are the materials used in the markers manmade? For instance, in the late nineteenth century, there were cast aluminum markers. At the end of the twentieth century, there was a revival of personal imagery through photographs of the deceased etched into stone.
  • Observe the designs of the markers and their writing. What shapes are used? What symbols are used and what are their meanings? What styles of lettering are used? What decorative elements are used? How do all of these vary with time? Do any of these seem to follow particular styles tied to particular periods?

Gather evidence about the people buried here.

  • Determine the languages of the individual markers. In what languages are the markers written? What conclusions can you draw?
  • Try to figure out the ethnicities of the deceased. Use the language, names, and design elements as hints. Are certain dates and time periods associated with particular ethnicities? Do these dates represent the arrival or departure of certain groups from the area?
  • Observe the epitaphs. Are there few or many words? Usually carvers charge by the letter. Do the markers of more prominent people have more writing, to show that they could afford to pay for more? What is the content of the epitaphs? What are the sources of verses quoted? What beliefs about life or death do the epitaphs indicate? What do the epitaphs say about the lives of the deceased?
  • Gather genealogical information from the markers. At least some information such as date of birth, date of death, family relationships, and status in life can usually be found.
  • Observe who is buried with whom. Who is buried near whom and who is buried far away? (In some Connecticut graveyards, for instance, women are buried with their mothers rather than their husbands.) Who is buried with their in-laws? Are slaves and servants buried near their masters? Where are children buried? What does this say about social and family ties in these peoplesÔ times? Are there any animals buried here? What is the significance of their presence and placement?
  • Look for special markers indicating military service or perhaps group memberships. To what military branch did people belong? In what wars did people fight? To what fraternal organizations (e.g., Odd fellows, Masons, Elks) did they belong?
  • Look for graves just outside the main enclosure. The remains of slaves, suicides, or people professing a different religion were sometimes buried outside the main graveyard. How do these graves compare with graves inside the enclosure?
  • Look for evidence of mourning rituals. What objects are left at the graves ÷ flowers, toys for children, food? Are the graves well-kept? Who tends the graves? Are there people visiting the site? What are they doing?

Search for supporting documentation.

  • Find documents that can verify what you have found or give you more information. Most cemeteries now have records of who is buried and where. These might be found at the town clerk's or the graveyard office. Detailed information might be found in the register of deeds and probates, in church records, or in clerics' records. Private diaries and letters or family papers might yield information about private family plots. Town histories give information about people and times that can be linked to those buried.
  • Make good notes or copies of what you find while you are on site. You might not be able to return later for more information.

Put it together.

  • Write a summary of your findings and conclusions based on the entire body of evidence. Some conclusions may be possible only in the light of all the evidence. Likewise, a single discovery can cause you to rethink your previous conclusions. Use your imagination and see what links you can make in this puzzle!
  • Share what you find with others interested in the subjects of your search. You may help them, they may help you, and you will trade ideas.
  • Organize your documents, notes, and conclusions. Copy them so you have a second set. Package them all archivally. Store the sets in two different, safe places.

Many thanks to Dr. David Watters, Department of English, University of New Hampshire.


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