Hello readers, its been a minute! Since I last wrote a blog post, I have finished and passed my comprehensive exams, searched for and moved into a new apartment with my husband and our cats, and have spent the last 6 weeks working on my thesis proposal, writing my manuscript, and doing a bunch of other bits including a quick trip out to New Perlican for a little field visit.
Today, I wanted to talk about why cemeteries (and burial grounds, and graveyards) are worth visiting, in my opinion as a person who has always been fascinated with them as historic sites, and as an archaeologist who has focused the majority of my research career on death and burial as a part of human existence. I was inspired to write this post after attending a talk yesterday by my friend and colleague Lee Sulkowska, a PhD Candidate in history at Deakin University in Australia, whose research explores how cemeteries are a mirror of the society that created them through fascinating archival case studies. Her talk was in support of Ukraine (tickets were donated to humanitarian aid) through the Instytut Dobrej Śmierci, or the Institute of the Good Death in Poland. After the talk, author Loren Rhodes was telling us about her upcoming book, “Death’s Garden Revisited: Personal Relationships with Cemeteries” and it had me thinking about what stands out about burial spaces to me, both as a person and a researcher. This post is more of a personal essay than a research post, but I wanted to share it all the same.
I’m trying to think of when I first visited a historic cemetery. I think when my family was living in Savannah, Georgia, when I was in elementary school, we probably visited one or two (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, anyone?), but I can’t remember anything specific. In the early 2000s, my family traveled to Alaska by ferry and travelled through the Yukon and Northwest Territories. While we were camping in Skagway, Alaska after the ferry, at a campground near the railway tracks, we visited a few cemeteries where miners from the gold rush had been buried. There were worn wood tablets for the poorer miners who couldn’t afford larger monuments, often stating how they died. Wealthier men and women had small stone markers, but nothing as grand as we’re used to seeing in larger cities. The mossy Goldrush Cemetery in Skagway, and Slide Cemetery in Dyea, have stuck with me, and I remember my brother and I wandering around the Slide Cemetery in particular, reading inscriptions such as:
“E.T. Hutton / Portland / Oregon / Died / April 3rd, 1898 / In A Snowslide / On / the Trail “
“NOSCITUR / Shot in the / Mountains / May 1st, 1898”
The causes of death recorded on the wood markers stood out to us. They seemed too harsh and sudden, deaths of people who were trying to make their fortune in the mountains, often far from their homes and families. The sites were cared for, but even today photos show the toll that time and the damp coastal Alaskan weather have on the hundred+ year old grave markers. And yet it was a peaceful place, where visitors go to learn a bit more about those people involved in the gold rush. I don’t know if this was where my love of burial spaces started, but it certainly stands out in my memory.
I have wanted to be an archaeologist since elementary school. In grade 1, my friend Jessica and I decided we would both be archaeologists because we loved learning about history, and finding out that there was a whole job where you got to not only research, but get your hands dirty, was just too appealing! Jessica is a teacher today, and I wavered a few times but apparently my childhood self knew exactly what I wanted (archaeologist and author). At first, I intended to go into maritime archaeology, to study shipwrecks. Then, I was interested in Mesoamerica, a speciality at the University of Calgary’s archaeology department. But when it came time to pick a field school, I was more interested in traveling to the British Isles, and so chose a field school run by Prof. Harold Mytum through the Centre for Manx Studies at the University of Liverpool. The main focus was 2 weeks in Ireland studying burial grounds, and 4 weeks on the Isle of Man excavating an Iron Age roundhouse…and studying more history graves. It was raining, it was cold, and I was hooked.
There is something so special about getting to visit these spaces set aside years before to be the final resting place for the dead of a community. Loved ones, husbands, wives, children, friends, they all ended up in the ground together, or beneath the flagstones of the church floor, and even just walking through a burial ground recreationally is a special experience. You read the names of people who lived long before you, speak their names aloud again, maybe for the first time in decades, and learn a little bit about them. It’s a place of remembrance, and of peace.
At my field school, we were helping to record not only the text on the gravestones but the materials used to make the gravestone, the iconography, and the shape and style of the gravestone itself. These clues tell us so much about the person buried below, about their family, faith, social status, and sometimes personal details about their lives. You don’t have to be a cemetery researching expert to learn from them! A larger monument might mean someone was very important in the community, and/or that they were very wealthy. Sometimes gravestones with a simple shape but a long, detailed inscription, showed the accomplishments of a live well-lived, and the different types of scripts used displayed their economic accomplishment as well.
Something that remains interesting to me, however, are the gravestones for people who didn’t have the money to spend on a splashy monument, towering over the rows. I remember in Ireland that first summer, hunched on the wet grass in my water proofs under an umbrella, clipboard and Harold’s gravestone recording code sheet soggy in my hands, recording roughly shaped field stones that only had initials or a crude cross carved into the front. (This was followed by Harold walking by, and from under my umbrella I noticed that not only were his pressed pants beading the rain off them, but his dress shoes read ‘Gortex’ in blind embossing on the side). These stones, carved and placed just as carefully as the professionally carved ones, were just as important to study. I see them today across Newfoundland, selected from local outcrops of slate and shale, chipped into a rough ‘gravestone’ shape, typically without text but sometimes a local person will carve an inscription. Field stones, often overlooked, mark the graves of the average person in many communities without merchant wealth.
As an archaeologist who studies the burial landscapes of the 17th century in North America, where gravestones often don’t appear until the 1670s at the earliest in New England, and 18th century in Newfoundland (except for Ferryland, that’s another whole story), I am drawn to these sites where we see mostly depressions in the ground as the grave shaft and coffins settle into the subsoil, and lichen-covered field stones mark the ends of a grave, often overlooked by visitors. They mark not only the grave itself, but show the dedication that people have to their dead, and to preserving their memories. If they couldn’t afford a gravestone from town, or imported from away, they marked it with any stone they could find, roughly shaped. Maybe they made a wood cross that has long since rotted in the Atlantic air, or a simple tablet with a painted dedication which peeled away years ago. Even then, you can still tell. You can still tell that the tradition of preserving memory and honouring loved ones with a final resting place was important, and so it kept happening with materials available. The landscapes that came from these traditions are enduring.
So why should you visit cemeteries? I’d want to say, why aren’t you? Cemeteries aren’t just fields of dead bodies, they are places of recreation, to come and reflect, and a place to stand face to face with mortality and learn from it. They are places full of history and family, and of love, and we can learn so much from them.
March 22, 2022 at 6:56 pm
This is lovely, Robyn. It’s almost like I am standing there with you.
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March 22, 2022 at 7:03 pm
Thank you so much Loren, that means a lot!
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April 22, 2022 at 4:29 pm
Congratulations on the exams! Noscitur! Noscitur [deo soli], “s/he is known [but to God]”?