Cemetery Secrets


Gravesites tell the stories of the dead and the people who mourned them. Learn about cemetery archaeology and preservation with Jolene Smith and Joanna Green from the VA Department of Historic Resources.



Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. I’m always fascinated by old cemeteries – their history, their preservation, and even their neglect. I’m lucky to have as my guests today two archeologists who share this fascination. We’re joined today by Jolene Smith and Joanna Greene from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Thank you for being here today.

Jolene Smith/Joanna Green: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Harmony: Well tell us what you do at the Department of Historic Resources.

Jolene: Well, this is Jolene. I manage the archives, the paper forms and records and the computer mapping for all the archeological sites in Virginia. We currently have over 42,000 archeological sites recorded, and more everyday, and I also have a deep interest in cemeteries and cemetery archeology.

Joanna: And I’m Joanna Greene. I am assigned to the easement program which means that I work directly with the land conservation program in our department. I’m also assigned to something called archeology stewardship which means I float between different sections within the agency assisting with archeological issues, looking after archeological sites, providing information to the public about treatment of archeological sites and my personal interest is in cemeteries and cemetery preservation. That’s how Jolene and I got started with this.

Harmony: You’ve both mentioned that you have a special fascination for cemeteries. How did you become experts? What’s the fascination?

Joanna: It’s, at least for me, it’s an interest in the story that a cemetery can tell about the people; not only the people who are buried there, but people who buried the people who are buried there. It can tell you a lot about the community that these people lived in and their thoughts and their socio-economic status, their religion, their outlook on life. A lot can be inferred simply from walking in cemeteries and reading headstones.

Harmony: And Jolene, what’s the draw for you?

Jolene: Well, I mean just as an anthropologist, death is something that happens to everyone and so cemeteries are an excellent way to kind of get at the details of the human condition because everybody, everyone dies and everybody has to deal with that. The living community has to deal with that. You can see, as Joanna said, you can see so many cultural traditions and so much information from the way that people deal with their dead.

Harmony: At Colonial Williamsburg we have a focus on the 18th century and obviously Virginia. When you look at cemeteries from that era what are some of those cultural traditions that you see?

Joanna: I think one example would be the expressions that are contained within that cemetery’s symbolism:  the iconography that’s used on the headstones themselves, which is limited but very distinctive for 18th century cemeteries.

Harmony: For example?

Joanna: The kind of funerary symbolism that you most often find in 18th-century cemeteries is part of the tradition that was brought over from Europe with the early settlers to America, and that in itself is based in a larger world view. At that point in time, infant mortality was very high. The European population had gone through several waves of devastating plagues and other disease epidemics, so death was something that followed you very, very closely. It was a fact of life and it was something that people had to deal with in a very practical way.

So, at least the earliest headstones reflect that in the use of very, very stark symbolism such as skulls or skulls and crossbones, depictions of skeletons themselves. Sometimes the depictions of the outline of a coffin or the kind of hardware that the funeral sexton would use to build a coffin:  all things reflecting the practical understanding that death was an inevitability, and that when it happened it was essentially ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There was no promise of any sort of wonderful afterlife or anything like that. You were dead and that was it and it was going to happen to everybody.

As time goes by and as the population is having to worry less and less about mere survival, life gets a little bit easier and you can see a sort of a mental transition away from this feeling of death being an everyday shadow to something a little bit gentler. That’s reflected in a change in this iconography through time from the very stark, anatomical description of the skull and crossbones to something more resembling an angel or a cherub’s face. The skull gains flesh, it gains eyes and lips and it often smiles. Sometimes you’ll see hair and even small vestigial wings beside it. Again, it’s reflective of the societal shift away from death as your immediate companion to death as something that may not be quite as close to you, may not be quite as much of a shadow on your everyday life and something a little bit less to be feared.

Harmony: So that’s a little something about the symbolism. Jolene, I wonder if you can talk to me about just the practical layout of a cemetery. I know that in 17th century burials in Jamestown, Virginia, we saw graves laid out in an east/west orientation and I’m wondering if that’s something that persists into 18th century burials and also whether cemeteries are segmented by maybe religion or class or race?

Jolene: Certainly. Well, the burial facing east is a Christian tradition and it’s also present in other religions as well, representing the afterlife of the person who’s died rising to face the rising sun. So that does persist into later burial traditions, but then we have to consider the fact that burial grounds are very diverse across the state based on socio-economic status and religious grouping and things like that.

For instance, here in Williamsburg, it’s a relatively urban area and when we speak of the 17th century, or 18th century, definitely the 18th century where most of the people that lived in Virginia probably didn’t live in such a cosmopolitan area so they may not have been buried in a churchyard, and the person who buried them may not have followed the east to west tradition. It really varies from place to place. For people who are buried on their home farms, things like that, it could be a lot more haphazard and that’s probably the more common burial tradition in the 18th century.

Harmony: Really? And you teased me a little bit, we talked on the phone, and you told me about some tricks you can use to identify some of those home burials, maybe small family cemeteries that would be in the woods or maybe sort of overgrown. How you can kind of spot those things

Jolene: Well, the first trick that I usually use is to observe the plants that are growing in the area. Things like daffodils, cedar trees, periwinkle, periwinkle is a big one; a lot of evergreens that look a little bit out of place, even sometimes old fashioned roses. If you see plants in the woods or in a clearing even that just don’t quite look like they belong, they probably were planted culturally by somebody. It’s hard to say definitively whether they represent a cemetery, but with a little bit more work, we can kind of amass some evidence together because certain plants have certain symbolisms, especially into the 19th century, but also earlier as well.

Harmony: You both deal in this kind of archeology and anthropology on a day-to-day basis. What are some of the challenges of studying and preserving these particular sites?

Joanna: I guess that public impression, public opinion is something that we work with quite a bit. There’s an emotional content to any burial place.

That being said though, in many cases, especially when you have development projects, infrastructure projects, the kind of projects that move communities forward economically, sometimes cemeteries are seen as impediments to that, especially if you have a cemetery or graves that are in between you and your new road alignment or your new shopping mall or your new home or something like that. One of the biggest issues we deal with is trying to help people to understand that cemetery preservation needs to be just as big a part of project planning as where to put your pavement and where to plant your trees and where to place your house.

Harmony: So that’s the struggle against hearts and minds. I wonder if there are struggles against the physical elements. Do you want to talk about those, Jolene?

Jolene: Certainly. Well, in terms of archeological preservation, Virginia has notoriously inhospitable soils for biological and human remains especially in the Tidewater region.

Harmony: What makes them inhospitable?

Jolene: They’re slightly acidic and just the clay ratio. It just tends to eat away anything that was once organic. It just breaks down bone matter really fast so, you know, even coffin hardware metal, nails, things like that just don’t last as long here as they would, say, in a more arid climate with soils that are just more conducive to preservation. Then we also are fighting a constant battle with the above-ground elements that are attacking all the time the stones on the surface, including acid rain and human produced factors such as that.

Harmony: What is really important to you about studying cemeteries? What’s the most important thing that we can learn from studying; as you said the burials as well as the people who buried them is something that I’ve heard you both mention. That it tells us about the culture of the person buried, but also the mourner.

Jolene: I mean I’m personally interested in under-represented population groups, enslaved communities, tenant farmers, people that don’t necessarily show up in the historical record. You can learn a lot more about them based on the material that they left behind and their burial places themselves.

Harmony: And for you?

Joanna: I’m fascinated by the actual physical interment and the coffin, the enclosure, the hardware that was used to build and decorate the coffin and in the information that’s contained within the mortal remains of the individual who’s buried there. When you study human skeletal remains, it’s almost like having your own manual that explains to you who this person was. If the remains were well enough preserved they can tell you how old they were when they died, how tall they were, whether they were male or female, if they had certain kinds of diseases that leave traces on the bones, whether they had good or bad nutrition.

The clothing that they were buried with is usually gone, but you can find buttons and pins and fasteners. You can find jewelry, which will tell you not only how economically well off these folks were, but what was important to the person who was laying the body out for burial; what sort of decoration and remembrance did they want to send this person into the next life with. The coffin itself can give you more economic information. It can tell you a little bit about local construction methods. It can tell you whether these folks were able to afford to buy a coffin off the rack essentially or did they make the coffin, but they bought some fancy hardware to put on it? Or were they in such economic straits that all they could afford is a pine box? Again, everything that’s actually inside the grave tells its own specific story, and that’s what keeps me interested.

Harmony: I imagine you could learn a lot about what was happening in the community. For example, if you saw a whole raft of burials in the same month of one July you might be able to extrapolate back to a cholera epidemic.

Joanna: Exactly, especially here in the Tidewater with the range and variety and ferocity of the epidemics that would hit these port cities over the centuries. You can definitely read patterns in graveyards when it comes to everything from the cholera epidemics that swept through the port cities to the flu epidemics in the early 20th century that took so many people away.

Harmony: The Department of Historic Resources puts on several workshops every year. Do you want to talk about some of these workshops and what people might be able to attend to learn more about this work that you do?

Jolene: The workshops are designed for non-professionals, for anyone who has interest in historic cemeteries. A lot of the folks that come to the workshops either have a cemetery in their family that they would like to know how to take care of, they may have a cemetery on their land and they don’t even know who’s buried there or they’re a genealogist, something like that. We talk about laws as they relate to cemeteries and access and preservation of cemeteries through legal means. We talk about how to get them recorded in our records also with the localities and things at that level. Joanna gives a lovely talk about iconography and symbolism. We talk about conservation and preservation of the stones themselves and the cemetery environment and we talk about bioarcheology.

Joanna: They try to cram as much into a day in the classroom as we can without overwhelming people in the process.

Jolene: We also have a second day, which is actually in a historic cemetery. We have a little bit of hands- on experience with identifying different kind of symbols, different sorts of condition issues and preservation problems, photography, and using things like light instead of say rubbing with a crayon or using shaving cream to take a rubbing of the cemetery inscription; more noninvasive methods of just trying to read what’s on the stone.

Joanna: And we take them and show how to record them.

Jolene: Yes.

Harmony: So do you have a website where people can learn more about these upcoming workshops?

Joanna: Our workshops are always posted on the department’s website, which is www.dhr.virginia.gov and our next workshop is going to be this coming September in Leesburg and after that we’ll be scheduling additional workshops in areas that we feel like our department hasn’t visited quite as often.

Harmony: Well I hope you have a great turnout. It’s just a fascinating subject. I’m so glad to talk to you both today. Thank you for being here.

Jolene: Thank you.

Joanna: Well thank you for the opportunity.

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