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K. Kris Hirst

Readings: Death and Commemoration

By March 8, 2006

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In Industrial Archaeology Review (volume 27) late last year was an interesting paper by Sarah Tarlow called "Death and Commemoration". Tarlow, lecturer in archaeology at the University of Leicester, has previously investigated emotions as they are reflected in the archaeological record, and this article is no less intriguing. She takes as her subject graveyards of the post-medieval period, and argues that they are under-exploited resources, in terms of historical studies of socio-cultural behaviors.

Tarlow suggests that an examination of graveyards, in combination with historic records, may be used for quantitative demographic studies of mortality rates, fertility and the like. She suggests that social data concerning the relative value of individuals within a family can be ascertained by careful investigations: monuments for single versus multiple interments; who is buried in which plot; which family members are included in the family plot and which excluded. How are personal identities recorded? How are class, wealth, status, and power reflected in the stones and type of burial?

Finally, Tarlow notes that the history and nature of social beliefs and values can be studied by consideration of the methods of burial or symbols and carving on stones. The spiritual importance of the corporeal body varies across history, and this can be traced in the stones. What is the relationship between the living and the dead, and how is that expressed? The importance of the individual as a mourned subject is a fairly recent phenomenon; the shift from studying 'the dead' as a group and 'the loved one lost' as an individual can be traced using data from graveyards.

Article Details and Abstract

Sarah Tarlow. 2005. Death and commemoration. Industrial Archaeology Review 27:263-269.

Abstract: The study of graveyards and memorial monuments in Britain in the early modern and modern periods is underdeveloped. Despite the many (maybe thousands) of graveyard survey and recording projects that have been undertaken, wide-ranging historical research questions have barely begun to be addressed. This paper identifies a number of possible directions for academic research, clustering around the three areas of demographic, family and social structure; the production and expression of identity and changing beliefs about the living and the dead. It is suggested that the full potential of graveyard studies has not yet been exploited for a variety of reasons. First, the essentially local remit and interest of most projects has not encouraged any orientation towards ambitious historical questions; second, the absence of any standardised way of recording graveyards and any way of monitoring the work that has been done; and third; the failure of post-medieval archaeologists to develop many extensive or imaginative research programmes.

Photo credits: Congressional Cemetery, Elvert Barnes.
Memento Mori, plumbum.
18th century Scottish tombstone, curlsdiva.

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