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History Comes Alive in the Graveyard

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Within each community, cemeteries are among the most fascinating, richest, and often the most neglected sources of historical information. The age of the community, the daily lives of its inhabitants, its ethnic composition, and the impact made by immigration can be determined by "reading" gravestones. The style of headstones and the symbols and inscriptions found on them reflect religious beliefs, social class and values, as well as cultural change over time. The cemetery field trip and the related classroom activities described in this lesson will allow students to tap this source of information and thus gain a better understanding of their community.

Time Required:

Five to six 45 minute class periods, plus a field trip



As a result of this lesson, the student will be able to:

  • collect, categorize, analyze, and present data
  • participate in interpersonal and group activities
  • discuss the people, places and events that are part of his or her community history

Before visiting any cemetery, contact cemetery officials and the local historical society for permission and guidance.

Setting the Stage

Discuss with students the type of data they might find on a gravestone. List their ideas on a flipchart or the board. Next, give to each student a copy of the Glossary of Symbols & Terms for Studying Cemeteries. Discuss and compare their ideas with the information from the Glossary. After a thorough understanding of these terms has been reached, give a copy of the Cemetery Information Organizer to each student. Discuss the procedures for collecting the necessary data to complete this worksheet. Before visiting the cemetery, discuss with students the Field Trip Guidelines.


FIELD TRIP ACTIVITIES. Have students work in teams of two. Each team will collect data by using the Cemetery Information Organizer. Ensure that the Field Trip Guidelines are strictly observed by all.

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES. After students have completed the Cemetery Information Organizer and returned to the classroom, divide them into collaborative groups. Each group will categorize and analyzed the data according to the following categories: Name (first & last), Age at Death, Life Span, Cause of Death, Ethnic and Religious Indicators, Military Associations, Symbols, Interesting Epitaphs, and the size, type, condition, shape, and location of gravestone. Each group will prepare a visual presentation of this data.


Have students work on one of the following alternatives:

  • Write a poem reflecting the cemetery dwellers or students' feelings while discovering history in the cemetery.
  • Research the history of a local military unit, an event or an individual mentioned on a gravestone.
  • Stage an historic reenactment based on information found in the cemetery.
  • Design a computer database by using the information collected in the cemetery.


The student-produced visual presentations can be assessed by a rubric. Criteria used in the rubric design might include: content, oral presentation, visual presentation, and work habits.


Resources for teacher use can be ordered from:

The Association for Gravestone Studies
278 Main Street, Suite 207
Greenfield, MA 01301


This lesson plan was developed by Claire Deloria of LeMoyne College, Syracuse, NY. If you have a lesson plan which you would like to share with teachers, please send to School & Group Services, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, P.O. Box 627, Williamsburg, VA 23187.