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Exploring the Cemetery

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Author: Frank Kelley, Hartford Memorial Middle School
Grade Level: Grades 4 - 7
Length of lesson: Variable

Historical Context

  • Theme: The Change and Continuity in American Democracy
  • Era: The Revolution and the new nation (1763 to 1815)

Cemeteries and graveyards are part of our landscape and communities. They are the monuments people have created to mark the place where a family member, friend, or neighbor was laid to rest. Examining these markers gives students a chance to learn about a person's life, the materials that were available at the time, the different ways to make letters, and ,more. It is a wonderful introduction to working with primary sources.

Cemeteries are usually fairly close to the center of communities which makes them easy to visit; they are often within walking distance of schools. Students have seen cemeteries, probably visited them, and they have heard stories about them. The combination of intrigue, drama, and mystery gets students' attention; once they see how cemeteries can be both educational and fun, they will want to continue their work there.

This lesson is designed as an introduction. The amount of time spent out of class investigating will depend on the goals, targeted skills, students, schedule, and weather. Once you get started in a cemetery, you keep going back to learn more.

Primary Sources used:
  • Gravestones in the local cemetery
  • Photographs of gravestones to study in class
Teacher preparation:
  1. Visit the cemetery before you go with the kids. Look around carefully:
    • Are there any places of particular interest?
    • Are there any areas you would prefer to stay away from, or hazards?
    • If you are walking, check to see how long it takes to get there and whether are there any challenges along the way.
  2. Determine your goals, topics, and/ or focus that you want to address. A sample of possible topics could include:
    • Mapping the cemetery or a section of it.
    • Determining what types of stones are in the cemetery; typically, stones are slate, marble, or granite.
    • Searching for :
      • the oldest/youngest person
      • the earliest gravestone
      • examples of all three types of gravestones
      • the largest family
      • the largest/smallest stone
      • footstones (marking the end of the casket or grave)
      • a name similar to yours
      • the most unusual name
      • different types of lettering
      • quotes
      • a picture
      • someone about your age
      • patterns of dates around a certain time period (e.g., Civil War: 1861 - 1865)
      • flags that mark the graves of soldiers
      • crypts that would hold important people
      • a town vault (or other place where people are interred in winter until the ground thaws).
  1. Discuss/ brainstorm with students what a cemetery is.
  2. Discuss/ brainstorm what you want to learn about cemeteries.
  3. Use the discussions as a springboard to discuss respect in a cemetery (walking, staying on paths, talking in quiet voices, etc). This is also a good time to discuss safety strategies (establish boundaries, stay with your group, stay within sight of the group leader, and so on).
  4. Note: The students might suggest doing gravestone rubbings, but most experts strongly suggest that students NOT do this. These rubbings put unnecessary strain on the stones, cause bits and pieces of lichens and moss to fall off, and potentially leave lasting marks. The sketching strategies explained below help the students examine the gravestones. Digital photographs also provide the students with an image that they can examine later back in class. Doing a series of sketches together allows the students to share discoveries such as techniques for sketching. Once the students know the expectations, it is appropriate for them to begin their own searches and sketches.

  5. Have the students sketch a gravestone they visit. The specific details that seem to work well are to have the students sketch on the top half of a page, getting as many details as possible and adding 5 -10 labels that explain what was sketched. On the bottom half, have them write a paragraph or two describing what they saw. (A sample sketching form and rubric are included in the lesson.)
  6. The students will want to share their discoveries with their peers, so it's important to save enough time to visit the graves students found. A circle formation either in the field or back in class will also allow students to see each others' sketches.
  7. This initial trip usually sparks a whole series of authentic questions. Be ready to write them down when you return to class. Discussion about which people were buried where, the types of stones, the different styles, the different people, are all possible starting points for further study.

Have student-historians do a project entitled, "Interview a Dead Person", by finding out more information about their person using census data, birth, marriage, and death records, land holdings, genealogy, war records, and so on.

Standards Addressed

Students connect the past with the present by… Explaining differences between historic and present day objects in the United States and/or the world, and evaluating how the use of the object and the object itself changed over time.

Describing ways that life in the United States and the world has both changed and stayed the same over time; explaining why changes have occurred.

Students show understanding of how humans interpret history by… Identifying different types of primary and secondary sources, and understanding the benefits and limitations both bring to the study of history.

Students develop investigable questions by… Asking relevant, researchable questions based on what they have seen, what they have read, what they have listened to, and what they have researched.

Asking questions that lead to an analysis of an historical era through primary source materials.

Students conduct research by… Describing evidence and recording observations using notecards, journals, or databases. (e.g., recording relevant details of an historical or geographical landmark).


Sketch Overview Worksheet (provided)


Rubric for evaluating sketches (provided)


"Stones and Bones: Using Tombstones as Textbooks" (Vermont Old Cemetery Association Curriculum, 1996)

Flow of History
c/o Southeast Vermont Community Learning Collaborative
P.O. Box 300
Brattleboro, VT 05302