An Historical Graveyard Survey

Cemeteries provide a unique setting in which to examine social attitudes about death and remembrance over time, which may be tied to larger cultural themes. Over the past week, our class has been doing gravestone surveys at Calvary Cemetery and analyzing data regarding the size and shape of gravestones, their design and the content of their inscriptions.

Here I report on the frequency of internments over time, which I compiled to see if there were particular time periods that saw a rise in deaths. Frequency of internments by year from 1900 to 2016 is shown in the figure below. These include all the data from our class survey – data from 225 individuals and 185 grave markers – which is only a small portion of total internments in the cemetery. Right away I notice that the most burials occurred in the period from about 1920 to 1935, with another significant peak from about 1945 to 1955. After those periods, the number of internments tapered off before increasing a bit again in the past 10 years. Those two periods with the most burials immediately follow the First and Second World Wars, so perhaps these spikes represent the deaths of veterans. Alternatively, the trend could indicate that Seattle’s population grew in the post-war periods such that the cemetery was utilized by more families.

The idea of a growing client population fits in with the other data that I collected about changes in the shape and size of grave markers over time. The figure below shows a seriation of different gravestone shapes in five year increments. The wider the band at a particular year, the more prominent that shape during that period. Note the dominance of blocks after 1930 – these are smaller horizontal slabs that are flush with the grass. Before 1930, columns and crosses are present, which largely disappear after blocks become dominant. Tablets have a surge between 1915 and 1935, but then peter off, and monuments have a low, but consistent presence throughout the sequence. I suggest that those larger upright markers were once indicative of the social class of the deceased, an emphasis on monumentality that has decreased over time. Those markers also take up more space, so as the cemetery grew, people may have been encouraged to use more modest markers. Overall, this fits with my field observations at the cemetery, during which I noticed that the tallest and largest grave markers were concentrated in the oldest parts of the cemetery.

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