by ElizaBeth Bede Guin
DuPont Research Fellow, NCPTT
Graveyards can be excellent resources for studying art, language, social and family history, cultural landscapes, and even the natural sciences. Many activities can make a cemetery “come alive” for students and instill a respect for this important resource while also being educational. Lynette Strangstad, in A Graveyard Preservation Primer, suggests:
An English Lesson: Students seek out nonstandard spellings of words and archaic words or phrases, clear evidence of our changing language.
A history lesson: Students identify historical facts or personages on the stones themselves or research the personal history of an individual or family.
An art lesson: Students identify artwork common to many stones; create original artwork using motifs found on the stones; discuss the symbolism.
A sociology lesson: Students gather data such as number of births or deaths, average lifespan, cause of death, most popular first and last name, and popular carving motifs in a particular decade.
A geology lesson: Students identify the variety of stone represented, examining typical characteristics of each type or unusual features.
Even though cemeteries are plentiful, they still must be viewed not only with respect for the dead, but also as outdoor museums. Here are a few preservation tips to keep in mind:
Cleaning: Often, a general cleanup of trash, and discarded flowers, can be helpful before beginning lessons and activities. Remember that some cultures have traditions that may differ a bit from your own; each tradition should be respected.
Vegetation: Clearing gravesites of vegetation and cutting back trees and shrubs is essential for preservation. Repeated brushing of branches over gravemarkers can cause the loss of inscriptions, and overgrown plants may cause the stone to decay.
Headstones: Gravemarkers are archeological artifacts, and only a professional should undertake preservation of these items. Dusting with a soft-bristle brush is permitted, but never use a wire brush. Removing imbedded moss or other vegetation can result in significant stone loss.
Reading: The most effective and least detrimental way to read a gravestone is to use a flashlight causing light and shadow. Rubbings are a popular method to read inscriptions, but the pressure from rubbings and residue left by the rubbing materials cause significant damage to the stone.
General: Gravestones may be more fragile or unsound than they appear; sitting or standing on stones could result in serious damage to both the visitor and to the stones. Also be alert to the local wildlife and the often uneven terrain of a cemetery.
The Association for Gravestone Studies is a non-profit organization that provides information about cemetery preservation and can be reached at (413) 772-0836 or 278 Main Street, Suite 207, Greenfield, MA 01301.
ElizaBeth Bede Guin was a DuPont Environmental and Materials Research Fellow at the National Center Preservation Technology and Training in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
“Northwestern State University is pleased that the Heritage Education program was designed and developed with our College of Education, which has long been a leader in teacher training in Louisiana.
“The pilot program in Louisiana has demonstrated the importance of teaching about our heritage resources in schools, and now the potential is evident for the model developed at NCPTT for implementation throughout the United States.
“We are proud at NSU to have been a partner on this project from inception to design to implementation and now expansion to other states.”