Digital History>Topics>Cemeteries

Inquiry Questions

Digital History TOPIC ID 31

1. Changes in terminology

During the 17th and 18th century, the dead were buried in “graveyards,” in “burial places,” or even “bone yards.” Beginning in the 19 th century, the terminology shifted. The dead were buried in “cemeteries”—derived from the Greek word for “sleeping place.”

What does this shift in terminology suggest about changing attitudes toward death?

2. Changes in the appearance and location of graveyards

Early grave yards were located near the center of communities. Beginning with the construction of Mount Auburn cemetery in a rural area near Boston in the early 19th century, the modern rural “park” cemetery appeared. This was a place where the living could commune with the dead in a park-like setting.

What significance do you see in the movement of cemeteries from the community's center to the periphery?

Why do you think there were growing attempts to beautify places for the dead?

3. Gravestone Glossary:

Find the meaning of the following terms:

  1. Border
  2. Finial
  3. Inscription
  4. Lunette

4. Gravestone Symbols:

Determine the meaning of the following gravestone symbols:

  1. Arrow
  2. Birds in flight
  3. Broken Column
  4. Cherub
  5. Death's head
  6. Dove
  7. Hourglass
  8. Lamb
  9. Open Book
  10. Outstretched Arms
  11. Owl
  12. Phoenix
  13. Rooster
  14. Urn
  15. Willow
5. Changes in the iconography of gravestones

Between the 17th and the 19th century, the images of gravestones underwent a profound change, reflecting profound changes in attitudes toward death.

What do the gravestones found at

tell us about shifting attitudes toward death, grieving, and hopes for immortality and reunion of family members in heaven?

6. Epitaphs

any gravestones carry an epitaph, an inscription in memory of the dead Sometimes the epitaph offers a warning to the young. Some express resignation in the face of death. In other instances the epitaph offers a brief description of the deceased.

For a list of famous epitaphs, see:

7. The Puritans and Death

The Puritans, unlike many other religious groups, did not bury the dead near their meeting houses. The Puritans attached no spiritual significance to the body, and did not believe it needed to be buried on sacred ground. Further, since the Puritans did not believe that any person was assured of divine salvation, they did not think it would be appropriate to bury the dead where they worshipped.

Puritans graveyards were often used as grazing grounds. They did not regard graveyards as spooky or sacred places that evoked fear or horror.

Contrast Puritan attitudes toward death with those that are common today.

8. Learning from a Graveyard

Each of the following web pages contains photographs of several gravestones. It also contains the names of those buried in the graveyard; the date of their death; and their age at death.

  1. What period do the graves date from?

  2. What does it tell us about naming patterns?

  3. What do they tell us about relationships within the local community?

  4. What does it tell us about life expectancy? At what age were people most likely to die?

  5. What symbols or epitaphs appear on the gravestones and what might they tell us about peoples' values, including their attitude toward death? (to 1745) (Click on burial markers)

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