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Home School Life Journal ................................................................................................................painting by Katie Bergenholtz

Hands-On History: Cemeteries

One of the richest and yet most neglected history resources you can probably find in your own town -cemeteries! Be a historical detective, for they are full of clues:
  • about the people who have lived in that community
  • about the important events in the history of the area
  • about the events of the whole country
  • about the social values of the time
  • about the social customs of a particular area

A Site Map and General Observations

Once you have decided on the cemetery for your historical study, you will first want to make a site map.  This forces students to look closely at how the cemetery is laid out. 
  • How many graves are in the cemetery?
  • What is the oldest tombstone? The newest?
  • How  many tombstones bear the same last name?
  • Can you identify family plots? How?

You can then use this to refer to as you make a further study. You can also use this time to make some general observations about the cemetery:
  • Do you know how the cemetery was founded? Can you figure it out by looking at it? 
    • Was it a church, family or community cemetery? 
    • Was the cemetery planned out entirely from the beginning, or was it added onto as it went along?  
  • Can you tell how valued the cemetery was/is?
    • Is the cemetery in good condition? 
    • Does it have walkways, walls and benches?
    • Are the gravestones in good condition?
  • Can you determine the community's wealth from the tombstones? Can you compare a tombstone from a rich person from that of a poorer person? 
  • Is there anyone famous or important to your community's history buried there?

Reading Gravestones

  • Your students might want to take a quick look at the gravestones to find ones that may have interesting epitaphs. Have your students record them in their notebooks. You might want to tell your students about how fancy s's used to look like f's sometimes.
  • As they are looking, have your students pick a couple of gravestones to do a more detailed study. Have them record in their notebooks:
    • the name of the deceased, their birthdate and death date
    • determine the age of the person at their death by doing the math
    • how long ago did they live?
    • who erected the tombstone?
    • does it have an epitaph, and if so, does it tell us anything about the person? Was she a mother or a child or a sister, for example? Was the person married? Was there any mention of the cause of death?
    • Are other family  members nearby?

Cemetery Census

What can you learn about the community in general by taking a census of the cemetery?
  • the ethic origins of the families
  • the relationship between the first and middle names to other names on other tombstones (parents names, for example)
  • the popularity of first and middle names.
  • was there a lot of deaths around the same time (a illness that went around the community, perhaps)?
  • Can you draw any conclusions about the life expectancy of the community members at different times?  For example, if you have tombstones dating before 1900 and after 1900, can you compare the ages at death ad the causes of death to make any conclusions about the differences of life expectency in those two time periods? You can even graph the results of this.

Collecting Tombstone Rubbings

Rubbings can be made by the students to use as historical documentation and for further study. What are some of the common symbols?
  • How to Make a Gravestone Rubbing
  • Try using jumbo crayons, but  if you are still having trouble getting the rubbing you like, a cake of rubbing wax is sometimes easier to handle and to apply with even pressure. If you have an art store in your town, you might find cakes of rubbing wax there for about $4 to $6 each, or you can buy these Rubbing Crayon online. They come in hard and soft varieties.

sources and further inspiration: 

8 comments:

  1. We love cemeteries!! It might make us odd but my girls are as into them as I am.

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  2. What a great idea! I love old cemeteries. This would be so interesting to do.

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  3. I love it! We love visiting grave yard (old and still used). This would be a wonderful study.
    Blessings, Dawn

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  4. I agree graveyards are such a great learning opportunity, next time we go to one I might have the kids try making a rubbing.

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  5. I always wanted to do this, only with my family genealogy. Someday, when I find the time!

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  6. We love cemeteries! The best ones I've come across were in England and had headstones dating back to the 1400s...such a great way to experience history!

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  7. I am always amazed by your gift to being history alive! This is perfect and a great way for my children to really understand cemeteries. I will be using this post as a resource. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  8. I remember after I took my 4 year old at the time daughter with me to find a great, great, great grandma riding in the car with my mom. Ceesa looked out the window and said, "Look Momma it is a grave yard. Can we go there?" My mom thought it was hysterical!

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