Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb? Grave Insights into Customs and Cultures

Grant’s Tomb, New York

Rebecca Newland, the Library of Congress 2013-14 Teacher in Residence, muses on the value of studying graves and tombs.

For  aficionados of history, graveyards are not creepy settings for Halloween movies, but an opportunity to study human customs and cultural norms of the past and present. The way graves are adorned and the epitaphs they bear can give us information about one life, but can also encourage us to wonder about the people they commemorate and their cultures. Investigate photographs of graves and tombs from the Library of Congress to engage students. Study images of the graves of famous people as well as those who are known only to their loved ones.

Shamans Graves, Alaska

Use the primary source analysis tool to record students’ thinking as they observe a grave marker.  Guide students as necessary by asking questions such as: Is it simple or elaborate?  What words appear?  What images are used?

When students move to interpretation, consider: What do the various adornments mean?  What, if any, symbolism is visible in the decorations?  What can we tell about a person’s life, and the people who honored it, from the adornments of his or her grave?

Be sure to encourage students to ask questions about the graves themselves as well as the people they honor. If time allows, support them in seeking answers.

Compare graves from different cultures or time periods for additional insights. For example, what can be learned from studying the differences between “Shamans Graves” and “Grant’s Tomb“? Consider materials, construction, and symbols. What was important to the designers of each monument?

Victorian Gravestone. Mississippi.

To find additional images to study, search for “gravestones” or “tombstones monuments” (“tombstones” alone yields many images of Tombstone, Arizona) in the Library’s photograph collections.

Let us know in the comments what insights your students had from studying graves and tombs.

2 Comments

  1. Susan G.
    October 26, 2013 at 8:48 am

    Great idea to turn the frenzy of this “holiday” into a useful learning opportunity. I was just
    In New Mexico and observed and learned about customs of Native American
    and Mexcan Grave stes . Very nterestng how people adorn grave sites differently
    In different cultures. I would also include the recent controversy in the news
    Of the gravesites at Arlington National Cemetary. The rules for uniformity
    and families’ desires to make grave sites personal.

  2. Michael
    October 26, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Coincidentally I wrote a blog post with the same title several weeks ago, based on a different Library of Congress photograph of Grant’s tomb – //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011661553/.

    The photograph I found has a young couple riding a tandem bicycle in the foreground in 1907 and they are the subject of the photograph; Grant’s tomb is in the background and is part of the setting for their cycling outing. Arguably for many people memorials in public places like this are as much or more about enjoying the large public space as being a memorial for a particular person.

    I think it is interesting that both this blog author and I used the joke-question “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb” as a title but then made no direct reference in our blog posts to it. I had to look it up in Wikipedia, where I was reminded this comes from Groucho Marx, who considered it a trick question since the answer is “no one” – Grant and his wife are entombed in Grant’s tomb, not buried. That this is a trick question suggests that for many Americans at least, the details are not so important as for other cultures. Perhaps?

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