With Halloween approaching, it got me thinking about death. I’m probably not alone. Have you ever wondered why a woman wears black while in mourning? Or why people stopped the clocks after a family member died? Or what the different symbols mean in cemetery art? Or how your ancestors mourned the passing of their friends and family?
Death is a part of our lives, but had much more of a presence in the lives of our ancestors when we consider mortality rates and the shorter life-spans of some of our earlier relatives. To better understand our ancestors, and the culture of death they lived with, try a few of these little genealogical exercises. We may end up exorcising our own ignorance about death and funeral traditions among our dearly departed:
Read. Some of my favorites at this time of year are -
- Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Kiester
- Your Guide to Cemetery Research by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
- The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds by Marilyn Yalom and Reid S. Yalom.
Surf the Web. Lots of information is available online, here’s some to get you started -
- The Association of Graveyard Rabbits. You might especially enjoy Sheri Fenley’s article on “Symbolism in Cemeteries.”
- “Messages from the Grave: Listening to Your Ancestor’s Tombstone” an online presentation by Elisa Scalise Powell, CG, CGL, with slides
- “Cemetery Art” an online presentation by Ellen Miller with slides
- “Death and Burial Customs” by Kimberly Powell, hosted by About.com.
Experience: Get out and have some spooky fun, or help make records more available for others -
- Take photos of headstones at a local cemetery and upload them at FindaGrave.com or Interment.net
- I am my own great-grandmother? If you’ve got the time and are making a costume, how about a little genealogical cosplay? Make a historical costume based on an ancestor’s time or heritage.
- Rescue a cemetery. So many cemeteries in our communities are being lost to neglect and swallowed up by nature. It will take time and organization, but you may want to get together with a local historical or genealogical group to clean up a “forgotten” cemetery.
Remember. As always, a ghost story is fun, but a life story is what genealogy and family history is all about. Find a way to remember your ancestors in scrapbooks, narratives, or video. Just remember and appreciate.