Studying Life Through Death

While it is true that cemeteries are places of death, they can also tell us a lot about how people lived. Through the examination of different elements of the grave markers at Calvary Cemetery (such as size, material, and decorative elements) I was able to better understand the people who were buried there and the times in which they lived.

I chose to do a seriation frequency on decorative motifs in Calvary Cemetery. Through this exercise I learned how decoration changed overtime and I was able to make inferences about the people who were buried there. It is clear that crosses have been a popular decorative element at Calvary Cemetery almost since its beginning, but they were most popular between 1925 and 1950. The importance of religion has remained constant over time, but perhaps increases during and after times of war.

 Spacing of graves can also tell us a lot about relationships and gender roles. For example, one set of graves that I recorded were all part of a family plot and were remarkably similar. They were all the same size, shape, and had virtually the same decoration and inscription, only differing to distinguish between “wife and mother” or “husband and father.” Alternatively, there were burials that suggested very different status for men and women. One example of this can be found in the St. Raphael section of Calvary Cemetery. One man’s gravestone is large, metal, and has an inscription that refers to his military service, as well as other religious decoration. Next to this is his wife’s grave, which consists of only a small, plain stone with her name, date of birth and death, and a small cross.

In addition to design difference, the number of burials every year can tell us a lot about what was going on in society at any given time. At Calvary Cemetery, burials increased after major wars, such as World War I and World War II. After WWII there was a decline in burials until the Vietnam War, when we see another, smaller spike.

In all, while it is true that a cemetery’s main function is to be a resting place for the dead and a place or remembrance for the living, they can also be a repository of information for those who want to learn more about the past.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *