Anticipation and Agency in an Analysis of Grave Markers

Calvary Cemetery, St. Michael marker

While examining the aggregate class data from our trip to Calvary Cemetery, I feel that in some ways I found less than expected and yet more than hoped. Not that I knew exactly what I would find during my walk around the cemetery. Differences correlated with gender were of immediate interest to me, though in hindsight I feel that I may have been trying too hard to locate such differences where they might not have occurred or been meaningful. A larger sample per section and consequently a larger overall sample would have provided a better basis for determining if such differences occurred and were indeed significant. Nevertheless, I would not be deterred! I found that a few of the trends I extracted from the data may yet provide insights.

gravestone imagery chart

My first examination concerned the relative consistency of the use of religious imagery on women’s grave markers compared to the use of such imagery on men’s grave markers. Whereas men’s graves tended to feature religious motifs (including crucifixes, religious figures, angels, and bibles) from 1927-1970, women’s graves displayed such images in smaller but more consistently occurring amounts from 1883-2014. My second examination focused on the use of kinship terms as epitaphs; these results revealed a tendency for women’s epitaphs to feature kinship terms more than did men’s epitaphs. And yet, this was not the only point of interest I drew from the data. Despite that women’s graves, like men’s, featured non-kinship and even full-phrased epitaphs, many of these appeared to be religious titles such as “Mother” and “Sister.”

Overall, women’s graves tended to demonstrate strong associations with religion and religious institutions. By contrast, men’s graves begin to shift from religious representation to non-religious, sometimes occupational, representations toward the end of the 19th century. This at first stood out to me as a trend indicative of a tendency to highlight women’s religious affiliations at the expense of their other, possibly occupational, attributes.

However, as recent class discussions have advised: we cannot ignore the potential for agency. It is likely that those interred in Calvary Cemetery, women included, had a say in how they are presented, and remembered, in death. Thus, it is possible that women themselves chose to represent themselves and their religious affiliations in such a way. That is not to say that such a choice was made outside a larger sociocultural context, but it does speak to the potential for women’s active involvement in their own representation.

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