Death and Society in the Neighborhood

Beyond the names, dates, and epitaphs, grave markers contain coded social information in their material, shape, design motif, and location in the grounds. I analyzed the religious and secular design motifs noted in our class data collection––comparing crosses, rosaries, other Christian symbols against professional and military emblems, personal hobbies, and other non-religious imagery––and saw some trends appear. Religious motifs dominate in the 1920s to 1950s, but there is also a steady presence of secular motifs in that window which drops off after the 1950s. Thinking geographically, burials during that time window were primarily in the northeast and southeast areas of the cemetery. In contrast, burials before 1920 were almost exclusively in the southwest and center areas, and were evenly balanced with secular and religious design motifs. Though our data are only a fraction of the graves inside the cemetery, they do suggest patterns in how the cemetery grounds have been utilized and how the dead and their mourners decorated headstones across time.

Chart: Seriation of secular and religious design motifs in gravestones.

Fortunately for historical archaeologists, there are lines of evidence like historical texts and photographs to inform on the social and cultural contexts of graves, beyond just shape, design, and location of headstones.

Consider the charts below: could the increase of burials in the 1915-1920 window be connected to the Spanish Flu Pandemic? Is the rise in religious motifs during the height of the Depression years suggest people were turning more toward their religious communities and beliefs for strength? Does the decline in burials during the 1960s to 1980s reflect dissatisfaction among traditionalists after the controversial Second Vatican Council? Or did the Counterculture of the 1960s thin the church membership?

Chart: Number of burials per five year increment.

Chart: Geographic distribution of burials across time.

These questions about major social change may seem far removed from the placid stone markers in the cemetery, but historical archaeology can begin to trace the connections between the dead and their past worlds.

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