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