While gravestones are created to memorialize the dead, they are also potent cultural symbols that reveal prevailing attitudes held by the living about death and the status of the deceased. During our recent visit to Calvary Cemetery in Seattle, my team recorded the shape, size, and inscription of approximately 30 gravestones. Using these data, we evaluated whether the sex of the interred individual translated into observable differences in gravestone morphology and volume.
The graph below illustrates average gravestone volume by sex of the interred individual. At first glance, the grave markers of females appear to be considerably larger than those of males. Indeed, the largest standard marker we recorded, obelisks, marked equal numbers of male and female graves yet were larger on average for those of females. If we interpret gravestone size as a measure of status, this difference may point to greater social standing for females among those represented in the cemetery. Given the small sample size, however, this conclusion remains tentative at best.
Perhaps status differences were expressed in terms of gravestone shape rather than size. The graph below illustrates differences in shape according to sex of the interred individual. Again, the small sample renders drawing concrete interpretations difficult, even for the greatest observed difference within the graph; namely, the graves of males were more often marked by horizontal slab than were those of females. Not represented by this graph is the date at which these markers were erected. Our data indicate that in recent years horizontal slabs have become the most popular gravestone shape at the cemetery. That our sample is biased toward female graves in earlier periods–which saw a more diverse range of gravestone types–and male graves in later periods is likely driving the disparate distribution of horizontal slabs.
Memorialization of the deceased through gravestones is a complex social process that reveals as much, if not more, about the living than the dead. While individuals’ sex certainly had implications for their status and role in life, our data do not reveal any obvious difference in the way they were memorialized in death. This is not to say such differences do not exist–I am sure they do–but these patterns are not apparent in our small data set.