Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


Ownership of the Grave: Who owns the Dead?

Some of you who are active in the archaeology twittersphere may have witnessed the incident that occurred last night / this morning / semi-ongoing. As it relates to burial archaeology specifically, I feel the need to expand on my original retweet.

Here is a breakdown: An archaeologist with a huge public platform, who is very well known for her branding of the term ‘space archaeology’ (this, in itself, it a whole other story), posted a request to her followers to help fund her latest archaeological investigations in Egypt, her primary study area.


Tweet posted on November 7th, 2019, since deleted. 

Let me start out by saying that fundraising for archaeological endeavours is not new, nor something that is usually frowned upon. Groups like DigVentures in the UK are run by professional archaeologists and raise funds for research and excavation through volunteers who help on the digs, and their contributions to the field are immense! We could not do this job without the support and interest of the public, which is why public archaeology (check out the tag #pubarch on twitter) is such an important aspect of the work that we do.

The issue here, as you can see in the tweet above, is that a gofundme incentive was created as part of the crowd-sourcing that offered the public the option to ‘adopt’ a tomb for a donation of $50.00 USD or more.

This is an ethical issue, as it as prescribes the right, even the pretend right, of an individual over another individual’s grave. No matter how old a grave is, it is still the final resting place of a human being and should be respected as such. However, there is the added layer of colonialism here, because the graves in question are Egyptian, a region whose archaeology, including the tombs and mummies, have historically been decimated by the established white antiquarians of the 19th – 20th centuries. Allowing pretend ownership over these tombs is allowing the continuation of this narrative, this assumed ownership over the past.

This raises the question, who owns a grave? I’ve written about an extension of this topic in the past, ‘when is a grave no longer a grave‘, and in short the answer is simple: the deceased. The longer answer would include their ancestors, their families, and their culture. Some museums and art galleries have an ‘adopt an artifact / painting’ program, where the money from the program goes towards the conservation of those objects, but you know what those objects are not? Human remains. The Museum of Ontario Archaeology’s Adopt an Artifact program says it well when they wrote “a symbolic way to show your appreciation of Ontario’s archaeological and cultural heritage, connect with your favorite object, and support the museum.

I’m sure that sentiment is what the gofundme page was going for when they decided to launch an ‘adopt a tomb’ incentive, but pretending ownership over the dead, especially the dead from a country who has already suffered the brunt of colonial impact on their heritage, isn’t ok. As a burial ground specialist and historic archaeologist, I would not dream of suggesting people could own other peoples’ graves, and am not happy to see others suggesting it be done.

The dead belong to themselves, to their people, to their history, to their land. Even when a burial ground has been ‘abandoned’ where I live today, the municipality is assigned as its caretaker, but not as its owner.

Thanks so much for reading.




When is a grave no longer a grave?

This is a topic I’ve discussed with colleagues on several occasions, and most recently in a really engaging thread on twitter: When is a grave…no longer a grave? If ever, at what point might that happen? There isn’t one definitive answer to this question, and the understanding of a grave, its significance, and longevity are rooted in our backgrounds, cultures, and society.  I’ve finally found some time to sit down and write up the results of the discussion, and share some thoughts with you all.


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An Inconvenient Corpse: Winter Dead in colonial Canada / Death Salon Boston 2018

Last week I had the utter pleasure of attending and presenting my research at Death Salon Boston, put on by the Order of the Good Death and hosted at Mount Auburn Cemetery. For anyone new to this blog / death and burial studies in general, Mount Auburn Cemetery is significant as the first landscaped rural garden cemetery in North America, opening in 1831 and is still an active cemetery today.

My talk, “An Inconvenient Corpse: Winter Dead in colonial Canada” discussed how  individuals at early colonial settlements dealt with their dead during the winter. It’s just not something we think about that much! I’d like to summarize my talk in this post for everyone who didn’t get to attend the conference (it sold out so quickly), and just some all around thoughts about my experience at Death Salon Boston!

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Death Salon Boston 2018 – An Inconvenient Corpse

If you’re following my research because you’re extra-interested in death and dying, there is a good chance that you already know about the Order of the Good Death. The Order is an organization founded by funeral director and death positive advocate Caitlin Doughty, and directed by curator Sarah Chavez. It advocates for education and discussion on death and dying, that speaking/working in/researching these subjects is not morbid, and that burials should be moving towards an environmentally conscious set of practices (among many other things!).

The Order hosts this annual, sort of a cross between a conference and a public event, with talks, tours, artists, ad all manner of people who work / study / have an interest in death, called the Death Salon. The last few years I’ve really wanted to attend the event, mostly out of curiosity of what was going on, but they have always been far away from where ever I was living at the time (ie. last year I was in YYT and the Death Salon was in Seattle!).

This year Death Salon is in Boston, MA!  The event will be taking place from:
September 28th – 30th, 2018, at Mount Auburn Cemetery. 

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Curious Canadian Cemeteries: Union Cemetery, Calgary, Alberta

We’re heading back west for this week’s Curious Canadian Cemeteries installment (ok I know its been a few weeks, but there is work to do and papers to write!), lets take a look at the famous (and rather large) Union Cemetery in Calgary, Alberta.


Funeral procession at Union Cemetery, Calgary, 1911. (Glenbow Archives, NA-2315-6)

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New Perlican: Blank Gravestones & Mapping


Myself, mapping away on our plan of St. Mark’s! Photo by Ian Petty

Yesterday I headed back to New Perlican with Ian Petty (2nd year MA student in Archaeology at MUN) to meet up with Dr. Shannon Lewis-Simpson from Memorial University of Newfoundland in order to continue with the surveying of the St. Mark’s historic burial ground. The weather was not ideal and I was hard-pressed to remember if we’d used a plastic drafting film or normal paper to draw the map on in the first place, so with rain in the forecast our fingers were crossed!

I wanted to go get as much of the burial ground mapped as possible before the rain set in…and before I had to start my new job! There will be more details on that major life change later though, this post is still about the burial ground in New Perlican.
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‘These are grave terms’ – terminology in historic mortuary archaeology (for colonial North America)

First of all, I’d like to start by acknowledging that my last post was two weeks ago and my reason for not posting more frequently is: a) the job hunt, and b) I have been madly finishing a paper and my thesis..which was submitted yesterday officially! Yay!

I thought it would be nice, and relevant to do a post today discussing terminology for burial spaces and monuments. The terms I’d like to go over have some history to them of course, but like anything, they can take on different meaning depending on who is using them and where they are in the world. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m looking exclusively at colonial North America because that is my current study area, and dealing with basically only British/Irish, Christian (Catholic/Anglican/Quaker/Puritan,etc) burial spaces at this point. (I’m looking forward to seeing how these change as I go back in time a bit for PhD research in a few years)


Hartford, CT burial ground, facing the later-added church. Photo by author, 2015

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