Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ancient Cemetery

Life has been hectic again lately.  I’m working in Louisiana, mostly in the marshes along the coast.  I passed an interesting cemetery yesterday.  Take a look:

There are vaults and crosses, but the unusual thing is that the cemetery is mounded up.  There are no natural hills in the area – an elevation of 1-2 feet is pretty drastic, this is a good 7 feet tall.  Hmm, there’s a historical marker there, maybe it can explain it.

So this cemetery is possibly very old.  The mound was built around 1000 years ago, burials are known from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Unfortunately I didn’t have time to wander through the cemetery, but I was able to get a better shot of the mound/graves.

Keep an eye out when you’re traveling, you never know what you’ll stumble upon!

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Monday, August 16, 2010

More from Duffy’s Cut

I posted an entry about the excavations at Duffy’s Cut earlier this year.  There’s been some new discoveries from the site that hit the news this week.  It seems that evidence of violence in the form of bullet wounds and other trauma have been discovered on some of the excavated skulls.  The “official” story at the time was that the workers died of a cholera outbreak but the evidence of violence seems to disprove that.  As the project continues I’m sure there will be more information. 

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Monday, June 7, 2010

D.I.Y meets Death.

Make magazine, the glossy magazine dedicated the DIY movement, has a post on its online blog titled “DIY coffin making”.   Unfortunately the Make blog is having problems at the moment so I’m only able to read the introduction and the links to more information.  There are two links given, an article on Salon that inspired the Make blog, and a link to an article from Mother Earth News full of construction details

The article on Salon is short, poignant, with few practical details.  In it the author tells the story of his father’s death and how, as one of his last requests, he had asked his children to build his coffin.  The funeral home did not oppose this, so a coffin is built in an in-law’s garage.  The Mother Earth News article is a step by step general guide, no different than a “build your own garden shed” article.  Practical, simple, and upbeat. 

Historically, most coffins were hand-made and in the frontier days of the United States may have well been built by a family member.  Of course, undertakers, carpenters, cabinet-makers, and others made them as a commercial side-business.  The family would also be responsible for preparing the body for burial.  My grandmother used to regale us grandkids with tales of laying out a dead neighbor or relative.  The custom at the time was to sit up with the dead, and quarters or silver dollars were often placed on the deceased’s eyes.  While it’s tempting to link this tradition to the ancient Greek custom of providing the dead with coins to pay Charon for passage across the rivers Styx and Acheron, the truth (such as truth is) is more prosaic – the coins kept the eyelids closed.  My grandmother commented on how the imprint of the coins would remain visible on the eyes of the dead after the coins were removed prior to laying the dead out.  To lay out the dead meant to lay the deceased in a room of the house, sometimes in a coffin sitting on sawhorses, a table, or chairs.  The body was cleaned and dressed prior to this.  Neighbors and friends would come by to visit the family and close friends would sit with the family through the night.  Someone would “sit up with the dead” all night, keeping vigil.  Folklore has it that this tradition began as a way to ensure that the dead were truly dead.  It seems as good a reason as any, and once again blends the romantic and the practical. 

Because of these traditions there was an intimacy with death.  I suspect death was less often a lingering affair without modern medicine to prolong life in the face of disease or serious injury.  The dead were not theatrically costumed mannequins of themselves, instead, they were the vessel of the departed in a very intimate sense.   The same people who had loved, cared for, and cherished that person were the ones to prepare them for burial and saw first hand the process of transformation as a once living body became a corpse. 

During the 20th century, changes in the American way of death brought about a divorce of life from death.  Gone was the gradual transition from living, to unclean corpse, to cleaned deceased.  Instead one died, sometimes alone, one’s body was whisked away to be embalmed, painted, and restored to a lifelike appearance for a final viewing then burial.  In this change there is a chicken and egg problem – was this change brought about by changes in the culture of death or were changes in the culture of death brought about by this change?  Regardless, the new way of death became the cultural standard, set in law and practice. 

What intrigues me about articles such as the on in Make is the way they represent a change in the way death is perceived and handled.  It may well herald a return to a more intimate understanding of death, and an extended celebration of life in which the participation in the rituals surrounding death provide more ways for the bereaved to express their love, respect, and grief.  Obviously home-made markers in cemeteries fascinate me for the same reason, particularly those which are decorated using adapted materials such as broken tile, bits of mirror, and other objects. 

I’ve gone on an extended ramble here, but I think it is important to keep in mind that the culture of death, the ceremonies, traditions, rituals, and material goods used in memorializing and burying individuals varies throughout history.  As students of cemeteries and the material culture embodied within we can see tantalizing glimpses the past and the way in which people deal with one of the truly universal human experiences, death. 

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Monday, May 31, 2010

CNN Article on Cemetery Symbolism

CNN has a short article on cemetery symbolism posted on their web site.  It’s light on details, mostly covering a few well known symbols.  The comments are equally as interesting as the article, ranging from complaints there’s not enough diversity in the photographs to promoting green burials. 

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cemetery Presentation next week.

I will be giving a short presentation on the work I've done in cemeteries, along with an overview of various aspects of the laws pertaining to cemeteries and general preservation do-and-don't, at the Union County Heritage Museum in New Albany, MS on May 20, 2010. The presentation begins at noon and will last around 35-45 minutes with a question and answer period following.

I'm excited about the opportunity to present to a non-professional audience! I've given a presentation to the Beaufort County Genealogical Society in Washington, NC and I have given several presentation at archaeological conferences, but this is the first time I'll be doing something like this. I'm trying to make it fun and informative with plenty of photos. I'll post a summary on the blog afterwards. If I can get my video camera to cooperate (it's in the shop at the moment) and if I'm feeling brave that day I may record the presentation and post it on the blog.

In other news, I will be updating the blog again as I have time. It's been a busy year so far and that isn't likely to change, but there are several local cemeteries I'd like to cover and there are plenty of topics yet to be explored.

I think I've mentioned it before but I'll mention it again - check out Grave Addiction. The site is maintained by Beth Santore, who also happens to be the chair of this year's AGS Conference. It's got some great cemetery information along with some paranormal tales. It's certainly different and chock-full of information both educational and entertaining. Speaking of the AGS Conference, if you haven't been you should go! I'm sad to say that I have never attended the conference, but if the finances come together perhaps I can attend this year. I had hoped to present but I believe the deadline for submitting papers has passed. The conference may seem expensive, but remember the rate is all-inclusive and includes workshops, lodging, and meals in addition to conference admission.

Finally, if there's something you'd like to see in an article or just more information on send me an email or leave a comment. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, January 25, 2010

Online Cemetery Preservation Books

I have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of good cemetery preservation information available online.  As I find particularly good examples I’ve been posting them to the blog, and today I came across a couple of books published by Georgia and South Carolina. 

South Carolina publishes “South Carolina Historic Cemeteries:  A Preservation Handbook” and makes a PDF available online.  This looks like an excellent resource.  It has a brief overview of cemeteries by century (18th, 19th, and 20th) along with preservation advice.  Keep in mind that the Atlantic coastal states were points of entry for many who later migrated westward into Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Louisiana so you find similar cemeteries across the southeast.  Basically – even if you live somewhere other than South Carolina this will be a good reference!

Georgia makes their preservation guide, “Grave Intentions”, available online as well, although the link isn’t working for me right now.  You should be able to click on the “text” link and download the book. 

The weather has not been conducive to cemetery excursions lately.  After the extremely cold (for Mississippi) temperatures there has been torrential rainfall.  Many of the roads out to the smaller family cemeteries are impassable quagmires.  Now that things are warming up a bit I’m hoping to get out again once the ground dries up a little though.  Keep an eye on this page for new photos and updates soon!

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Grave Mistakes in Gravestone Preservation

Found this on “There I fixed it” – this is not the correct way to repair a gravestone

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Still Alive.

Just (another) update – the blog is still somewhat on hiatus, but I hope to have some new articles soon. My thesis is nearing completion. Once it is done I will post a synopsis and links to download the complete thesis. I have moved back to Mississippi in the meantime, I should have some new cemeteries and new articles from this area.

On the way back to MS I ended up driving through Oxford, AL. The mound is still standing (if I had the right place) but pretty badly damaged. I may be going back through the area in a month or so, I'll try to get some photos.

In summary: I have not abandoned this blog, new content will be coming! Happy New Years!

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