Studying the Past through Stones

Cemeteries are a fascinating way to view the changes in a city, cultures, and belief systems. As the focus of our class project, Calvary Cemetery in Seattle is not only a peaceful and beautifully kept place, but also a wealth of information from an academic perspective. While it certainly doesn’t reflect the entire story of Seattle from the late 19th century to the present, recording information from nearly 200 graves out of thousands still presented patterns in the cemetery’s history.

Focusing on the number of burials per year within our records, this information could represent a number of events in Seattle’s history. The numbers of burials rose after the Great War and in the early 1920’s, spiking from 1925-1930 and again in 1945-1950. While the rise in deaths could be associated with the WWI or II, the Stock Market crash of 1929, or the subsequent Great Depression, it also could reflect the rising population of Seattle in these periods. The layout and numbers of burials in the cemetery could also reflect this rising population, and the tapering off of burials in the latter half of the 20th century more as a question of limited space. I did find it interesting that large portions of the cemetery did not adhere to east-facing gravestones, which can be found in some Christian burials.

On the other hand, the data collection could also be more suggestive of stylistic elements of the gravestones chosen for recording. Inscriptions, unusual design features, age, or intricate carvings on markers could have all influenced the recorders’ choices. Like many aspects of cemeteries, sometimes burials and our continued interest in them is more telling of the living than it is of the dead.

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