Death in the Harsh Light of Day

Visiting a graveyard is always a somber affair, the clouds in the sky lend an ominous cast to the environment and even the cawing of the crows sounds muted by the pall of death hanging over the landscape… At least, that’s how popular media says it’s supposed to feel, an irony that doesn’t escape me as I wander the Calvary Cemetery in the blinding sunlight bombarded by construction noises and the unintelligible shouting through a loud speaker from some event happening at the nearby University Village. Even the crows sound loud and cheerful and there’s a large, bright notice about an ongoing project to make more room in the graveyard. I am informed by the notice that this is “a wonderful opportunity for your family.” The tone of the notice causes me to feel that the person writing it had only barely restrained themselves from the use of an exclamation point at the end.

Over the past couple weeks our Historical Archaeology class has been looking at gravestone typologies and the way society views and interacts with death. The specific graveyard we chose to look at is connected to a Catholic church which means that the stones are decorated primarily with crosses and other religious insignia. Upon breaking down the gravestones by date and type I found that most of the stones over the last hundred years have been fairly simple, mostly flat with some classic tablet style stones mixed in. Not every stone fits this category but enough to make it significant when looking at how we view death. The earlier stones are bigger and often more elaborately decorated implying that we are now honoring our dead in different ways. This doesn’t mean we care less simply that it has taken a different form. I also found that the number of deaths shown in the graves we looked at increased dramatically during the early 1900’s, with the most deaths in the 30’s specifically. When I went went looking for a  reason for this I couldn’t find one in the historical record. Although this is within the Great Depression the sources I found actually indicated that mortality rates went down during that time and not up. This means that, rather than saying something about death rates, this likely says something about the rising and falling popularity of this specific church within the community as a place to bury loved ones. It would be interesting to do a further study and see if the number of graves at the nearest secular graveyard went up at the same rate the ones at this Catholic graveyard went down.

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