Minnesota State University, Mankato
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Grave Exclamations: An Analysis of Tombstones
and Their Use as Narrative of Self
Lacey Jae Ritter
Minnesota State University – Mankato
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Ritter, Lacey Jae, “Grave Exclamations: An Analysis of Tombstones and Their Use as Narrative of Self” (2012). Theses, Dissertations,
and Other Capstone Projects. Paper 242.
Grave Exclamations: An Analysis of Tombstones and Their Use as Narrative of Self
Lacey J. Ritter
A Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts in Sociology: Teaching Emphasis at
Minnesota State University, Mankato
April 3, 2012
This thesis paper has been examined and approved.
Dr. Leah Rogne, Chairperson
Dr. Emily Boyd
Dr. Kathryn Elliot
Ritter, Lacey. 2012. Grave Exclamations: An Analysis of Tombstones and their Use
as Narrative of Self. Master’s Thesis. Minnesota State University, Mankato. PP.69.
We establish our selves through narratives—with others and by ourselves—
during life. What happens, however, when a person dies? The following paper looks at
the way narratives about the deceased’s selves are created by the bereaved after their
loved ones have died. The paper focuses on the narratives created on the deceased’s
tombstones, as these are available to the public and last the longest of all final
declarations of the person’s identity (i.e., obituaries, funeral programs, eulogies).
Because I am interested in the way narratives of the self are constructed postmortem, a
symbolic interactionist approach was used. The study focuses on three hundred fifty
(350) tombstones in fifteen cemeteries around south central Minnesota. Using a coding
system to analyze the messages presented on the stones, I show the various ways
individuals are described—and how these ways change depending on the time during
which they lived and their religious and cultural affiliations. In addition, because the use
of cemeteries is extremely prevalent in American society, discovering what we say about
our deceased loved ones can be useful outside of southern Minnesota as well.
I am quite surprised this came together as well as it has. I have quite a few individuals to
thank for this, especially the groundskeepers at many of the cemeteries I visited for this
study. Without them, I would have spent even more countless hours wandering around
gravestones trying to find certain dates and interesting epitaphs. Thankfully they were
not only willing to help me, but often expressed interest and gratitude regarding my topic,
noting how people do not spend as much time thinking about cemeteries as they used to.
I would also like to thank my committee members and other faculty members who
expressed interest in my topic and pushed me to work as hard as I did on it. I would
especially like to thank Dr. Leah Rogne for helping me to set up such crazy deadlines that
ultimately made me both stressed and thankful to be so far ahead at an early date. I feel
like my thesis is much more developed with this added time, so thank you! Also, thank
you so much to all of you for bearing with me when the going became rough, as I am sure
it does for many a thesis. I am extremely grateful for your time and efforts and for your
belief in me throughout this project.
Of course, I would like to thank my family and friends who expected to see me all
summer, yet were surprisingly understanding when they realized my summer could
consist of a tremendous amount of time spent in cemeteries during ungodly heat waves
and onslaughts of mosquito attacks. A special thanks to Ms. Tiffany Bullen, who was a
true friend and accompanied me during a particularly huge chunk of data gathering and
was not afraid to nap in a cemetery with me when the heat overtook us.
Lastly, this thesis is dedicated to my mother and father, who nurtured my obsessions with
death and dying at an early age, realizing that knowledge is power, regardless of what
knowledge one is yearning for. Large thanks to my mother, who was thoughtful enough
to call me during my data gathering to make sure I was drinking enough fluids to keep
from passing out during the hundred-degree heat wave we had. Also to my father, whose
love and support keeps me going even through the hardest of times. I love you both very
much—thank you for all your emotional, financial, and educational support throughout
Table of Contents
Statement of Problem: Situating the Study………………………………………………………………..5
How Well We Handle Death: A Literature Review ……………………………………………………6
Historical Transformations in Understanding Death ………………………………………………..6
Changes in Beliefs about Life and Death …………………………………………………………….7
Changes in Burial Practices……………………………………………………………………………..10
Grave Expressions: Cemeteries, Tombstones, and Epitaphs……………………………………17
Feelings Toward and Prevalence of Cemeteries………………………………………………….18
Varieties of Epitaphs and Discussions of the Dead ……………………………………………..20
Theoretical Framework: Symbolic Interactionism & the Creation of Self through
The Use of Narrative to Establish Self ………………………………………………………………28
Data Collection …………………………………………………………………………………………………32
Ethical Issues ……………………………………………………………………………………………………36
“When I Count My Blessings, I Count You Twice”: Social Relationships…………………38
Spousal Symbols and Epitaphs………………………………………………………………………….39
Emphases on Parenthood ………………………………………………………………………………….41
Beloved Companion: Relationships with Pets and Animals…………………………………..44
“You Will be Missed”: Other Social Relationships………………………………………………45
“Not Yet…It’s Not Time”: Time of Death in Relation to Stone Exclamations ……………46
Infant and Child Stones…………………………………………………………………………………..46
Teenager and Young Adult Stones…………………………………………………………………..48
Adult and Elderly Stones………………………………………………………………………………..50
“A Real Lady [and] A Realist”: Describing Personalities and Interests of the Dead ……51
Ties to Nature and the Homestead …………………………………………………………………..52
Ties to Material and Physical Possessions………………………………………………………..53
Ties to Social Groups and Organizations………………………………………………………….54
Describing the Personalities of the Deceased ……………………………………………………55
“Pray for Me”: Emphasis on Religion …………………………………………………………………..56
Religious Pictures and Etchings………………………………………………………………………57
“The World is Not a Conclusion”: Poetry and the Dead ………………………………………….60
Popular Poetry and Quotations ……………………………………………………………………….60
Poetry and Exultations Written by the Family…………………………………………………..64
Grave Exclamations: Data Imagery………………………………………………………………………..70
Tombstones as A Narrative of Self……………………………………………………………………….108
Emphasis on Social Relationships……………………………………………………………………..110
Time of Death …………………………………………………………………………………………………112
Personalities and Interests of the Dead ……………………………………………………………….113
Ties to Religion……………………………………………………………………………………………….115
The Self, Engraved…………………………………………………………………………………………..119
Appendix A: List of Cemeteries Chosen for Analysis and Geographical Locations ……131
Appendix B: Matrix Sheets for Tombstone Analyses ……………………………………………..132
Appendix C: Matrix Sheet for Cross-Cemetery Comparisons ………………………………….133
This paper explores the ways people create meaning about a person’s self postmortem
through tombstones. Although today an increasing proportion of individuals are
purchasing tombstones before they die, the vast majority of stones are purchased and
designed by the bereaved after the death of their loved ones (Meyer 1992). Although the
entire ritual process surrounding death—visitations, funerals, wakes—is a way for the
bereaved to face the death of their loved ones, the tombstone itself is a lasting memory
and tribute to the deceased.
The way we have interpreted and thought about death and dying has changed
dramatically over time (Kellehear 2007). This, in turn, has greatly altered our burial
practices and assumptions about the dead and dying. Instead of placing goods and
personal items with the dead, we are now more likely to include such references to the
persons’ lives on their stones as opposed to within the caskets. Through an analysis of
tombstones, I sought to understand how the pictures, epitaphs, and even size and shape of
the stones serve to tell a story about the person buried beneath them.
I use a symbolic interactionist approach to this phenomenon that looks at the way
narratives create and establish one’s sense of self. One’s self is a strictly human
component that allows us to distinguish ourselves from other animals (Mead 1934). Our
self is the response to our social situations and social environments that is flexible and
changing throughout one’s life. It is both how others see us—and how we see ourselves.
It is this self that is expressed through etchings on tombstones and is, thus, the focus of
Since the individuals usually are not living to add input to the creation of their
grave markers, the narrative produced is often done by the bereaved. The narrative
created is also a semi-permanent fixture, as the stones themselves are made to last
hundreds of years. In addition, with the advent of new technologies that allow for a much
faster and efficient way to engrave stones, what we are able to include on these semipermanent
fixtures can become much more detailed. This phenomenon is easily
discernable when looking at the transformations in tombstone engravings over time, as is
discussed later in the paper.
Many of the differences evident between tombstones from the last few centuries
and tombstones from recent decades is tied to technological advances in the way
tombstones are etched. Madrigal (2011) discusses this phenomenon, noting how the
invention of the laser in the mid-1900s led to its appropriation as a tool for etching
gravestones in 1989. Madrigal (2011:1) describes the process in the following quotation:
The laser works almost like a printer, but instead of putting dark ink on
white paper, the laser blasts away the polished surface of the granite to
reveal the lighter rock underneath. Then, a worker goes over the lasered
parts with a razor blade, scraping very lightly to remove any debris. The
process produces a high-resolution grayscale image on the stone, a far cry
from the thick line drawings that chiseling and sandblasting had allowed
before. A name could have a face.
These differences are quite noticeable in more recent stones, which do include
these grayscale images, as is evidenced below.
Madrigal (2011) also notes transformations in the type of stone used
throughout the last few centuries. Before the 19th century, whatever rock was
convenient was often used. Marble became popular in the 19th century, followed
by granite, as it is more durable than marble. Tools, like the recently developed
laser, also allowed etchers to no longer have to chisel out information by hand,
often taking hours to write just one line. Now, tombstones can contain a myriad
of information and can be created to look unique when compared to their early
predecessors. It is no wonder there are evident differences in stones over time.
To see how individuals create narratives about their loved ones, I conducted a
content analysis of tombstones in 15 cemeteries throughout southern Minnesota: ten
larger, urban cemeteries and five smaller, rural cemeteries. Using a grounded coding
process, I analyzed a total of 350 grave markers. Not only did I look at stones
individually, but I compared them overall according to the time periods in which they
were erected. In addition to temporal differences, I also focused on the types of
information included on the stones and how that changed or stayed the same over time.
By analyzing the stones and finding similarities and differences during the coding,
overarching themes developed. Through these findings, I illustrate below how
individuals create identities for narratives about the dead postmortem through
tombstones. Obviously, the advent of new technology has allowed for more intricate
carvings on stones. Pictures, for example, have become much more elaborate, as will be
discussed later. Text, however, has not made such a drastic transformation over time,
with many older stones including poetry referencing the deceased or even large family
monuments serving as large statues of religious figures.
Regardless of the time the stone was erected, however, is the importance of the
stone itself. These pieces of granite, marble, or slate not only serve as markers to the
final resting place of peoples’ loved ones, but they serve to tell a story of the deceased.
Technological advances aside, these stones serve to tell a story to those who see them.
They function not only to discuss when that person was born and died, but often include
important information about the person’s life within the dash between the two alwaysincluded
dates—their birth and their death—with which we are so familiar.
STATEMENT OF PROBLEM: SITUATING THE STUDY
For this research, then, I sought to answer the following overarching research
question: “In what ways do people create meaning about a person’s identity post-mortem
through tombstones?” As mentioned, sociological research is lacking within this area.
Although research looking at obituaries and epitaphs has been done, there is little to no
connection to the use of these narratives to establish the self of the deceased. Because of
this gap in the research, I used a symbolic interactionist approach that understands the
self and its construction according to Mead (1934), as well as past research looking at the
use of narratives to (re)construct the self. With the aid of previous literature on
interpretations of death and dying, I was able to analyze tombstones—and what they say
about those buried beneath them—in a sociological way.
In addition, since there are these advances in technology that have dramatically
changed the appearance of tombstones, I sought to understand how these advances
changed or did not change what information we decide to include on these memorials.
With increases in technology, it is interesting to see how tombstones have transformed
and, at times, become more ornate, detailed ways of remembering the dead. Even the
increasingly-popular method of cremation, which will be discussed later, can still require
a marker or tombstone, as was present in two of the fifteen cemeteries analyzed.
Cemeteries and the stones within them are ways of remembering individuals who
are no longer living. Not only do we need to remember the individuals buried there, but
we need to understand why we bury individuals the ways we do and what that says about
HOW WE HANDLE DEATH: A LITERATURE REVIEW
Historical Transformations in Understanding Death
The way humans have understood life and death has changed dramatically
throughout history (Kellehear 2007). Whether death is understood through the death of
the biological body or during an otherworld journey, humans realize the distinction
between what is living and what is not. Along with this distinction, what is done with the
bodies of the dead has also changed over time. Burial practices in some cultures have
become more and more elaborate, costing the bereaved tens of thousands of dollars to do
what other societies achieve with blankets and grave goods.
Tombstones are commonly associated with burials in cemeteries. In the past,
individuals were more than likely buried intact inside a casket encased in a vault. Even
now, with rates of cremation on the rise, individuals will still purchase cemetery plots or
blocks to place their ashes that also use such markers to denote their presence (Mitford
2000). Since the majority of funerals and interments take place in this form, we often
take the prevalence of tombstones for granted. By understanding how varied burial
practices are, one can see how specific and historically recent—and possibly temporary—
the use and promotion of tombstones truly are. In Japan, for example, due to lack of
space, the ashes of many dead individuals are now scattered, leaving no particular place
to locate their remains and, thus, no tombstone to mark such a place (Rowe 2003).
Understanding tombstone markings, then, requires an understanding of how we came to
mark the graves of our dead in the first place.
The way we have thought about death has changed over time, as have our burial
practices. Many of these changes are tied to the social and economic contexts of certain
periods. The following section looks at these changes, noting how extensive burial
practices have become more common now that death is a drawn-out procedure. We deal
with our dead in different ways than our foraging ancestors did. Burying individuals with
grave goods has transformed into etching material goods onto the stone itself. The
amount of ritual included in funerals has decreased in favor of more personalized
ceremonies (Cook and Walter 2005). The transformations in our beliefs and burial
patterns are outlined in more detail below.
Changes in Beliefs about Life and Death
To understand how death’s meaning has been transformed throughout time,
Kellehear (2007) divides human history into four ages: the Stone Age, the Pastoral Age,
the Age of the City, and the Cosmopolitan Age. During the Stone Age, death was often
quick and unexpected, stemming from hunting accidents, warfare and other types of
violence, and malnutrition. These unexpected deaths allowed for foraging groups to
recognize what death was, but it did not allow for them to prepare for it. Dying in the
Stone Age period was also thought to take place after the physical body was dead in our
current world and our spirits had moved on to the otherworld, where the spirit would
endure battles and hardships in search of a heaven-like end. These journeys required the
dead to be buried with grave goods that were thought to help them in their quests. Many
of the living complied with this idea, lest their loved ones came back to seek vengeance.
The Pastoral Age brought forth sedentism and the ability to maintain plants and
animals for food and protection (Kellehear 2007). With living in one place came living
longer, and individuals were now able to both anticipate and prepare for deaths that
usually resulted from warfare, malnutrition, famines, and communicable diseases spread
through poor sanitation and living in close proximity with animals. Death became more
predictable and illnesses or situations leading to death were more obvious. Individuals
could now prepare for their own deaths by requesting certain items to be buried with
them and by finalizing social obligations they might hold. Death also became both an
otherworld and a this-world journey as individuals could now be dying instead of simply
living or dead.
The Age of the City began with larger populations accumulating in urban areas.
Death continued to result from warfare, violence, and communicable diseases, but
unequal distribution of wealth led to the creation of an unequal class structure. The
middle and upper class groups were able to live healthier—and longer—lives. As
Kellehear (2007:140) notes, “With affluence [of the upper and middle classes] came a
rise in coronary heart disease,” along with other chronic, long-lasting diseases like
cancer. Dying became a longer, more painful process than ever before, and those who
suffered from chronic illnesses sought to manage these deaths through the aid of
professionals. Priests, lawyers, and doctors became increasingly important as ways for
the dying to take control of their situations. The experience of death also moved more
fully into this world, with the exception of religious individuals who hoped for salvation
and nirvana after death.
Finally, Kellehear (2007) discusses the Cosmopolitan Age, our current globalized,
technological age. Two more ways of dying surface at this time: AIDS and dementia.
AIDS has become an increasing concern, with “25 million people [dying]
worldwide…and currently over 40 million people infected” (p. 204). Dementia, of which
Alzheimer’s disease is just one type, affects approximately one in four people above the
age of 85 and has been documented in approximately 25 million people in 2000, likely to
increase to “114 million people in 2050” (p. 203). Dying now frequently takes place in
either hospitals or nursing homes and involves long, drawn out, often-painful trajectories
of suffering filled with tubes, IVs, and invasive treatments (Kaufman 2005; Blank 1994).
Kellehear (2007:204) notes the “mixed blessing” long lives bring to the wealthy
in the Cosmopolitan Age, in which those living long lives may die deaths that probably
would not be considered “good” by anyone. These long lives also allow for
individuals—as mentioned—to express their own wishes regarding their dying, burials,
and funerals. Morris (2001) describes the various questions one might choose to consider
when thinking about one’s own death, including how one wishes to be buried, what
music is wanted at the funeral service, and whether a wake should be held. In addition to
longer lives, the Cosmopolitan Age also brings forth an increase in the
“professionalization of dying” (Kellehear 2007:204), with not only the emergence and
prevalence of hospice, but also the transformation of understanding death as the end of
life into understanding death as just another life stage (Simon, Haney, and Buenteo
1993). Although the professionalization of death work, such as funeral direction, is
increasing, Cahill (1999) notes that the stigma surrounding those attending school for
mortuary science has not decreased.
Although Kellehear (2007) notes cultural distinctions in relation to beliefs about
death and dying, the above-mentioned approach emphasizes more of a socio-historical
approach to understanding varied views of death. Whalen (2011) looks instead at how
religious beliefs can affect one’s beliefs about death in various ways. For example, he
explains, “Hindus believe that as long as the physical body exists, the essence of the
person will remain nearby; cremation allows the essence, or soul, of the person to
continue its journey into another incarnation” (p. 126). Other religious beliefs either
allow for or forbid embalming or cremating bodies, and the characteristics of that
person’s death (i.e., suicide versus natural) play a large role in what happens to their body
or spirit. Suicides, for example, are viewed much differently than other types of death in
several religions, including Catholicism. Atheists and agnostics—as well as religions and
organizations that focus on our current lives as opposed to our post-death existences—
frequently do not discuss afterlife in either their beliefs or during services.
Looking at grief cross-culturally, Stroebe and Stroebe (1994) note that grief is a
universal experience for all cultures; however, the way grief is expressed and understood
varies dramatically. The length of time one is allowed to express grief and sadness varies
from days to years, as do what physical or emotional outbursts are allowed and expected
by the bereaved. Religious and cultural beliefs hold major influence over these attitudes
Changes in Burial Practices
Bell (1994:1), in his work on the archaeology of cemeteries, emphasizes the
importance of burial practices through his definition of mortuary behavior, which
includes “the disposal of the dead, the events and rituals that revolve around the disposal
of the corpse, and the processes that allow death to be understood or integrated within the
social and psychic structures of the survivors.” The way in which we deal with the
deceased is directly tied to societal beliefs and customs. It also depends on the
individual’s particular beliefs about death and dying. Looking at past burial practices
allows us to understand either how our beliefs about death and dying have been passed on
through generations or have been transformed through time.
As mentioned above, burial practices have changed throughout the ages in
accordance with causes of and expectations about death and dying (Kellehear 2007).
Initially, grave goods were buried with the dead to aid them in the otherworld journey. In
current American burial practices, no such goods are placed with the body, with the
possible exception of keepsakes or letters that can be buried with the dead for sentimental
value. Cremation as a means for disposing of the dead is also rising, as was noted above.
Looking more broadly at the way we deal with the dead, the following section focuses on
changes in burial practices across time and cultures.
In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Roach (2003) discusses the
various ways with which we deal with dead bodies. In addition to burial and cremation,
popular American ways of interring the dead, tissue digestion has surfaced as a new way
of interment. This process, commonly used on dead animals, uses a chemical mixture of
mainly water and lye to break up and dissolve all non-bone material. In addition, Roach
mentions the “modern human compost movement” occurring in Sweden at the time of
her research. She describes this process in the following quotation:
The man’s body will be brought to an establishment that has licensed
Promessa’s technology. He will be lowered into a vat of liquid nitrogen
and frozen. From here he will progress to the second chamber, where
either ultrasound waves or mechanical vibration will be used to break his
easily shattered self into small pieces, more or less the size of ground
chuck. The pieces, still frozen, will then be freeze-dried and used as
compost for a memorial tree or shrub, either in a churchyard memorial
park or in the family’s yard (261-262).
In America, research is being done on natural composting—not using freezing
techniques—as a means for individuals from poverty-ridden areas to deal with corpses
when they cannot pay for funeral services or burials. Finally, Roach discusses the use of
human cadavers in science, either in medical or experimental fields, through using bodies
to test for crash impacts or types of death.
Another recent development in bodily disposal comes in the form of plastination,
or “a process that replaces the body’s 70 percent water with a resin that hardens not only
blood vessels but also any tissue, so that the body, or any combination of body parts, can
be displayed in its normal vertical position” (Walter 2004:605). As opposed to donating
one’s body for dissection, when a body is donated for plastination, it is “expected to
remain stable for at least four thousand years” (606). The cost to donate one’s body for
plastination is similar to that of the popular funeral and people are both accepting of
plastination and are offering to donate their bodies. Walter notes, however, that because
plastination is so permanent, the demand for bodies to undergo this type of disposal
might become less than the demand from the deceased themselves. This could change if
plastinate creators allowed private purchase of donors, especially by their loved ones.
Currently, the only plastinates are used in exhibits, such as Body World, and are
anonymous, often making viewing easier on people who see them as self-less (Hirschauer
While human composting and plastination may seem like horrifying or strange
ways to lay a loved one’s body to rest, Harris (2007) notes that our attempts to “protect”
our loved ones by spending hundreds on caskets is, ironically, doing the opposite of what
one usually hopes. He writes that casket manufacturing plants are always listed as top
producers of hazardous waste in all fifty states, and that the tight-sealing caskets
purchased for extra cost to “protect” loved ones “can transform a natural, inevitable
decay into a gruesome process and the corpse into what one consumer advocate dubs a
‘smelly stew’” (Harris 2007:35).
The importance of giving loved ones a “good” burial is not new to American
culture. Even during the Civil War, when casualties outnumbered the places to bury
them, fellow soldiers strove to give their comrades the most decent burials they could
(Faust 2008). When caskets were not available, Faust writes that soldiers would often
bury fallen soldiers in knapsacks or other such items that would keep them from direct
contact with the dirt. Even shallow burials in bags were deemed better than simply
leaving the dead where they fell. Grant (2005) concurs, noting the importance Americans
place on the deaths of fallen soldiers, beginning especially during the Civil War.
Looking specifically at the majority of contemporary American Protestant
funerals, Whalen (2011:126) notes:
…most funerals follow a similar form. Family and friends gather at the
funeral home to console one another and pay their last respects. The next
day a minister conducts the funeral service at the church or mortuary;
typically the service includes hymns, prayers, a eulogy, and readings from
the Bible. In 85 percent of cases today, the body is buried after a short
grave-side ceremony. Otherwise, the body is cremated or donated to a
Mitford (2000) looks at American ways of dealing with death more closely, noting that
these seemingly simple, prevalent services are more financially costly than one might
realize. As with most prices over time, the cost of funerals has increased dramatically in
the last fifty years. Mitford (2000:17) states “the total average cost for an adult’s funeral
today is $7,800”, a marked increase from the $750 services of the 1960’s, making
services $2,208.70 more just fifty years ago, adjusting for inflation.
In addition to the rates of financial inflation, the details of funeral procedures have
increased and have brought with this an increase in the costs (Federal Trade Commission
2009). We now have a variety of burial options, including a “full service” funeral, which
includes embalming or cremation, visitation and funeral services, hearse transportation,
and burial. Other, less expensive options include direct burials or cremations, in which
the body is not embalmed and is either buried in a casket or simple plywood container or
is cremated and the ashes are placed at the wishes of the family.
Looking particularly at the cost of a “full service” funeral in 2009, the National
Funeral Directors Association (2011) gives an average breakdown of the costs loved ones
can expect when someone dies on their website. See Table 1 below:
TABLE 1: 2009 Funeral Costs
Cost of regular adult funeral including following basic items. Does not include
cemetery, monument/marker costs or miscellaneous cash advance charges such as
for flowers or obituaries.
Non-declinable basic services fee $1,817
Removal/transfer of remains to funeral
Other preparation of the body $200
Use of facilities/staff for viewing $395
Use of facilities/staff for funeral
Use of a hearse $275
Use of a service car/van $125
Basic memorial printed package $125
Subtotal without Casket: $4,265
Metal Casket $2,295
AVERAGE COST OF A FUNERAL $6,560
Total Cost of a Funeral with Vault $7,755
National Funeral Directors’ Association (2011)
Although American funerals might seem—from an outsider’s perspective—to be
extremely expensive, the issues faced by the bereaved in these situations make rational,
logical pricing more difficult. Reliance on funeral directors or individuals working in
death-care conglomerates is both a way for families to remove some of the pressure and a
way to rely on someone else to help them in their decision-making (Laderman 2003;
Leming and Dickinson 2011). In addition, because it is a service industry career, funeral
directors and other death workers are expected to engage in appropriate behavior and
“acting” in ways that make them appear to be what one wants in a funeral director. These
dramaturgical behaviors—particularly respect and solemnity in the case of funeral
directors—are conducive to positive reviews of their work; it is through
recommendations and positive evaluations that death workers, especially funeral
directors, receive future clients (Turner and Edgely 1976).
What we consider to be “normal” or “average” ways of dealing with death in U.S.
society, i.e., through funerals and church services, differs dramatically from many other
cultures. Other means of dealing with the dead include allowing animals to pick bones
clean; throwing bones into pits; burning wives with their husbands’ bodies; the
acceptance or forbiddance of embalming and/or cremation; and the varying amounts and
types of goods buried with the body and the position of the burial in relation to the
individual’s status, age, or gender (Whalen 2011; Kramer 1988; Stoodley 2000). The
religious beliefs of a particular group have quite an effect on the burial practices of that
group, tied especially to the connection attributed to one’s body and soul—or lack thereof
(Kramer 1988). Belief in the afterlife or location of the spirit/soul of the deceased also
plays a role on burial practices. Chinese Americans engage in very specific funeral
practices meant to appease the spirits of those who died (Chung and Wegars 2005).
As mentioned above, the way we bury our dead says a lot about our culture.
Instead of burying men with bows and arrows or women with jewelry and food, we now
symbolically place these items on the tombstones of the deceased. As discussed below,
many newer stones reflect the hobbies or interests of the deceased and include references
to hunting, fishing, even knitting and baking. Tied to our changing beliefs in the afterlife
mentioned by Kellehear (2007), we no longer need to take these items with us into the
afterlife as a means for survival. Instead, they can now serve as a reference to our lives
and as ways for the living to remember and memorialize the dead.
Grave Expressions: Cemeteries, Tombstones, and Epitaphs
As seen above, when a loved one dies, the bereaved can inter or dispose of the
body in a variety of ways. In America, a majority of the deceased are buried in
cemeteries. The spot is marked by tombstones, which note the dates of birth and death of
the person buried beneath it. Grave markers have changed greatly over time, from the
pyramids of Ancient Egypt to the mausoleums of today. The death of a loved one no
longer means the end of their life, per se, because funerals, obituaries, funeral programs,
and tombstones allow for the expression and exclamation of the life of those they
describe. Through eulogies and epitaphs, lives and stories of the dead live on
There has been much research on cemetery usage and, as discussed above, the
transformations of burial patterns and assumptions about death that have led to their
prevalence. Because graves are marked with tombstones, what these tombstones say
about the people buried below them is very important. Although there is much literature
on cemetery use and even on specific types of epitaphs, much of the former is based in
archaeology or anthropology and the latter is based in literature or historical studies. A
sociological understanding of how and why tombstones are so important would allow
further analysis of their use.
The following sections look at how cemetery usage has changed throughout
history, beginning as a part of the church, now spreading into privately-owned competing
endeavors (Mitford 2000). Even the stones—and the writing on them—have changed,
with some cemeteries requiring uniform size and shape of stones while others allow for
variety. Cemeteries are even becoming more environmentally friendly, with bodies being
buried in biodegradable caskets as a means to promote healthy eco-zones (Basler 2011).
Regardless of the type of cemetery, the messages portrayed on the stones within them
describe those buried beneath. Whether written as riddles, poems, or even praises for
martyrdom, epitaphs, obituaries, and eulogies about the dead vary greatly throughout
time and place.
Feelings Toward and Prevalence of Cemeteries
Cemeteries of the past have been eclectic, filled with varieties of tombstones—
from the ornate and the gaudy to the simple and stern. Meyer (1992) looks at the
transformation to more uniform, simplistic stones and lots in the immediate past as a
means for easier maintenance. This is also tied to a push toward bestowing death work
onto those working within death-industry positions. He does note, however, that a
resurgence of the eclecticism of the past is occurring, with grave markers that “manifest a
notable degree of verbal and visual imagery, in essence a renaissance of those primary
elements, epitaph and icon, which have traditionally proven to be of greatest importance
to those interested in sepulchral decoration” (p. 62).
Also looking at the history of cemeteries, Mitford (2000:81) notes that:
The cemetery as a moneymaking proposition is new in this century. The
earliest type of burial ground in America was the churchyard. This gave
way in the nineteenth century to graveyards at the town limits, largely
municipally owned and operated. Whether owned by church or
municipality, the burial ground was considered a community facility;
charges for graves were nominal, and the burial ground was generally
expected not to show a profit.
As the excerpt shows, cemetery transformations have led to financial issues for both
landowners and purchasers. Now even the type of grave markers buyers are allowed to
choose from have become limited and costly, as have burial plots themselves. Mitford
(2000:196) talks about the drastic increase even within a two year span, stating that she
knew “the plot was $895 and I bought two apparently […] I bought these plots next to a
friend of mine that bought hers less than 2 yrs. ago for $395 ea. (sic).” She also notes
how many plots are bought out by large corporations who can then turn around and sell
them for much higher costs to gain profit.
Along with the memorials themselves, Woodthorpe (2010) notes the difficulties
faced by mourners in placing items alongside stones, such as balloons, toys, or foodstuffs
to memorialize and remember the dead. Although many living individuals wish to place
items such as wind chimes or stuffed animals at one’s gravesite—as either a way to cope
with a death or a way to establish still-remaining ties to the deceased—they come into
conflict with groundskeepers and other mourners. Issues with deterioration, especially of
edible items that also attract vermin, become problematic. Woodthorpe notes, however,
that either option—leaving these memorials to the dead—come at a cost, either to the
safety and sanitation of the cemeteries or to the memories and wishes of the living.
The size and type of tombstones allowed within cemetery acres is not the only
issue present—both Mitford (2000) and Gaziz-Sax (1995) note the ways capitalistic
endeavors are being invented as a means for making money in the changing world of
death work. Gaziz-Sax (1995) discusses how cemeteries are becoming more like parks,
with the ability to add more costs to bereaved family members. Mitford (2000) discusses
this consumerism, giving the examples of Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, which is not only
a place to bury loved ones, but also includes museums, film showings, and—of course—a
A new way of burial—much less elaborate and financially draining than those
practiced in Forest Lawn Memorial-Park and other such cemeteries—is practiced by a
doctor in South Carolina (Basler 2011). In a forest cemetery outside of town, the
deceased either are buried in biodegradable caskets or are simply buried without a casket
at all. For Campbell, the doctor in charge of this new project, not only are bodies being
buried in more environmentally friendly ways, but also the land in which the deceased
are interred is being protected from development.
Discussions of the Dead: Obituaries and Epigraphs
As noted previously, what people say about the dead through eulogies and
obituaries is one of the final ways the dead can continue to live. Usually before the final
tombstones are constructed, often obituaries and eulogies are created for the dead both as
a way to acknowledge the death and to remember the deceased. Fowler (2005:61)
discusses the use and meaning of obituaries in the following quotation:
Struggling against its earlier euphemistic conventions, the national
newspaper obituary could be seen as a semi-ritualized nexus of ethical,
political and professional worlds. Like the memorial service, it is a
secularized rite de passage, to help the bereaved; yet it is also a verdict,
derived from professional peers, about the worth of the dead person’s
contribution. Finally, despite conflicting interpretations vying for
authority, it aims to provide the last judgement about their personalities.
(Emphasis in original.)
Fowler also notes the structure of contemporary American obituaries, which focus on the
individual’s achievements, tied to societal emphases on meritocracy and capitalism.
Individuals are now able to create and supplement obituaries, memorials, and epitaphs in
a variety of ways, including online memorial websites (Kearl 2011; Williams and Merten
The way we talk about the dead varies across cultures and contexts, depending in
part on the way the individual died. Looking at cross-cultural examples, Al-Ali (2005:6)
distinguishes between two main types of Jordinian obituary announcements—those
celebrating normal deaths and those celebrating what is called a “martyr’s wedding,” or
the death of a martyr. The ironic and somewhat original importance of noting martyr
deaths is tied to social and historical contexts and religious beliefs of the area. Al-Ali
notes that, due to emphasis on kinship ties and protecting moral goodness and religious
values, many Muslim obituaries emphasize martyrdom while Western and European
obituaries do not. For some, obituaries matter less for the dead than as a way for the
bereaved to build their own identities through these death announcements (Bonsu 2007).
The gender of the deceased also matters, with obituaries differing in content and
numerical frequency of obituaries themselves for men and women, even from similar
occupational and prestige backgrounds (Bytheway and Johnson 1996; Rodler, Kirchler,
and Holzl 2001).
Epitaphs, especially symbols or pictures on tombstones, can express more than
just personal attributes of the dead. In addition, some symbols can represent larger,
societal beliefs, including religious ones (Ward 1957; Lattimore 1962). The various ways
epitaphs are etched is described in the following quotation:
A simple grave stone becomes the closed door behind which stands
eternity […]. It may be a terse statement recording only a name, a date
and the simple fact of death […]. Or it may be a long, beautifully
expressed eulogy on the passing of a human soul. Again, it may be a
cynical, pessimistic panegyric on the futility of life. Whatever its outward
form of expression, the epitaph represents the last eloquent fling of the
human mind in the face of inevitable death (Ward 1957:34).
Ward (p. 34) goes on to discuss how epitaphs serve as a “last reminder” of the person
buried beneath them. Notable, however, is the occurrence of over-eulogizing the dead.
Making them seem like better people than they were was a theme extremely prevalent in
ancient Egyptian times. Lattimore (1962) concurs, noting how ancient Greek and Latin
epitaphs often contain references to beliefs—or lack thereof—of an afterlife or
Although some epitaphs may be blunt, serious, and direct, Sárraga and Sárraga
(2002) discuss humorous, less grave—no pun intended—epitaphs in Jewish cemeteries.
Through their analysis of a Jewish cemetery in Hamburg, Sárraga and Sárraga discovered
the extensive prevalence of poetry and riddles within historical Jewish epitaphs dating
back to the seventeenth century. Curses are also present within epitaphs, seen especially
in instances where grave robbers might desecrate burials (Lattimore 1962).
What is said about the individual also varies in emphasis. Meyer (1990) notes
how ancient Roman epitaphs focus more on economic and political positions of power
and ownership. Interestingly, the deceased was not the only person named within the
epitaph—the name of the commemorator of the stone was also etched into its surface.
Meyer also attributes this to the importance of ownership and the inheritance of
possessions at this time. Even the construction of tombstones themselves was tied to the
status of the dead, as large, costly stones were constructed for the elite and high of status.
Vita (1999) takes this a step further by discussing how epitaphs are published,
creating yet another way in which the dead are kept alive through these messages.
Looking specifically at the Victorian era, Vita notes many texts referring to the deceased
being created as a way to protect stories and histories from vandalism, while others were
created to record only the amusing, lighthearted epitaphs.
Much like the burials described above, even individuals who do not have loved
ones to bury and mourn for them are allowed this generosity. Castex (2011) states that if
a deceased individual is unidentified or unclaimed, they are often buried without
ceremony and/or grave markings that denote their identity—due to the custom of family
of the deceased paying for their funerals. Social workers often fight against these societal
standards for dealing with Jane or John Doe by understanding laws and regulations
regarding unknown deaths, appealing to government or organizational funding, keeping
current paperwork and identification information about social work patients, and even
applying to the generosity of the town or neighborhood.
Looking particularly at iconography on gravestones, Farber (2005) lists several
prominent symbols for the 17th through the 19th centuries. Common, well-known
symbols include religious ones, such as angels, doves, crosses, heavenly gates, and
bibles. Some lesser known, yet popular, gravestone symbols include the following
present throughout many 17th and 18th century stones: flowers (symbolizing the cycle of
life and death), grapes and grapevines (representing Christ and abundance in one’s next
life), urns (the symbol of death and sorrow), and wreaths (meaning victory and honor).
Some more recently present symbols of the 19th century include—but are not limited to—
the following: butterflies (resurrection and the life cycle), ivy (friendship, love, and
immortality), and wheat (productivity and bounty).
In addition, the meaning of symbols has also changed through the centuries. For
example, Farber (2005) notes how the meaning of flowers has changed from one of life
and the life cycle to that of love and reward. The types of symbols used has also changed
over time, with a decrease in the number of stones portraying symbols of death, such as
skeletons, coffins, skulls, and mortuary tools (picks, shovels, spades, etc.). On more
current stones, there is a higher prevalence of religious symbology, including Greek and
Latin terms for Jesus, crosses, scrolls, and bibles. Farber (2005) does not include a list of
common symbols found during the 20th century. However, Memorials.com (2010)
mentions how such symbols as the Star of David became more popular in recent years. A
vast majority of the symbols Farber noted in the previous several hundred years are still
The use of tombstones allows the narratives that begin in obituaries and epigraphs
to live on, even past the lives of those who created the tombstones for the dead. Because
some tombstones can outlast even those who would be familiar with the lives and stories
of those buried below, it is important to note how these messages portray meaning even
outside of an understood context. What epitaphs say or look like denotes something
important about the dead—and something even more important about the living that often
THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK: SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM AND THE
CREATION OF SELF THROUGH NARRATIVE
It appears, then, that many contexts influence how we interpret death and dying.
As mentioned, for the dead, their last remembrances—for the living—often come in the
form of obituaries, eulogies, and epitaphs. Once self-narration is finished, the
personhood of an individual often lives on through the memories, words, and
exclamations of others. Understanding how symbolic interactionist perspectives
understand self-narrative, one can begin to ascertain how narrative can be created about
the self even in one’s absence; these narrations are maintained and exclaimed through the
use of tombstones—a quite permanent way of expressing information about the lives of
the dead, which is the main focus of this research.
To understand how narratives can enhance—or detract from—oneself, an
understanding of the self is first necessary. According to George Herbert Mead (1934), a
person’s self is a social creation different from their humanity or biological personhood.
In the following excerpt, Mead distinguishes between the physical body and the self, also
noting how humans differ from other animals in the creation and maintenance of our
The self has a character which is different from that of the psychological
organism proper. The self is something which has a development; it is not
initially there, at birth, but arises in the process of social experience and
activity, that is, develops in the given individual as a result of his relations
to that process as a whole and to other individuals within that process.
The intelligence of lower forms of animal life, like a great deal of human
intelligence, does not involve a self (p. 135).
Mead continues the discussion of the self, noting how the self is an object—
something that we can be both subjective and reflexive about; we can stand
outside of our selves to determine how others might see us within a given
Because our selves are reflexive, there are two major components—the “I” and
the “me” (Mead: 1934). The “I” is the spontaneous, creative part of the self that is a
direct response to our societal positions and situations. This part of our selves occurs in
the present. Mead distinguishes this from the “me” part of our selves, which is our ability
to reflect on present situations—or memories of present situations—in ways that the “I”
both “calls out to the ‘me’ and responds to it” (p. 178). The “I” and “me”, although
separate entities, “taken together…constitute a personality as it appears in social
experience” (p. 178).
The idea of the self is further developed by Cooley (1902), who—like Mead—
emphasizes the social and interactional necessity for the self to develop. In his famous
concept of the looking glass self Cooley describes our ability to see ourselves:
As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and are interested in
them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according
as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be; so in
imagination we perceive in another’s mind some thought of our
appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are
variously affected by it. A self-idea of this sort seems to have three
principal elements: the imagination of our appearance to the other person;
the imagination of his judgment of that appearance; and some sort of selffeeling,
such as pride or mortification. […] The thing that moves us to
pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an
imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s
mind (p. 152).
The looking glass self shows how our own opinions—and our perception of the opinions
of others—shape not only our actions, but also our feelings of ourselves.
Looking particularly at other ways of understanding our selves, Bruner (1994)
notes that our interpretations of our selves, especially those located in the past or in our
memories, require a myriad of procedures for recollection. Bruner (p. 41) concludes that
there are various parts of the self, including a self of agency, or one that focuses on past
actions or thoughts about motives, wishes, and desires. Another aspect of our selves
includes our selves as victims, or memories of being oppressed or controlled by someone
else with agency. Finally, the author describes our selves as consistent, yet ironic, as we
wish to maintain agency, yet do not want to be different from people we deem similar to
ourselves (p. 42).
Schiffrin (1996) concurs, noting how the linguistic and environmental contexts
also affect how individuals’ narratives are constructed. This idea is seen more directly in
a study on elderly widows by Lund, Caserta, Dimond, and Gray (1986). When survivors
lose spouses to whom they have been married for lengthy periods of time—above thirty
years—their identity becomes emphasized by their coupling. When they lose their
spouse, not only are they losing this social connection, but also often lose connections
with other couples, causing an often drastic change in one’s self. Troll (2003) also
focuses on this phenomenon, showing that simply because the relationship and selfconnection
between elderly survivors and the deceased are physically ended does not
prove harmful to keep one’s attachment to the deceased. Along with age, gender also
affects narrations and discussions of self, with parents emphasizing past experiences
more for their younger daughters than sons (Fivush 1994).
The Use of Narratives to Establish Self
Once a self is created, the ways we maintain and build upon these selves are
various. One particular way of establishing our selves is through the use of narratives.
Whether these narratives are inter- or intra-personal, the individual becomes recognized,
considered, and responded to through these stories and ideas. Previous research has
focused both on narrative identity discussions (Mason-Schrock 1996; Hertz 2002; Irvine
2000) and the ability to look back at oneself through memories (Bruner 1994; Fivush
1994; Ross and Buehler 1994). Understanding how narratives of the self are created
without the individual’s presence, however, is less prevalent in past research.
Understanding how narratives are used postmortem seems to be missing entirely.
Looking first at interpersonal discussions of self-narrative, Mason-Schrock (1996)
looks at the creation of transsexual identities through self narratives within support
groups. Through discussions with others either facing the same situations or engaging in
constructive narration support, the individuals within his study were able to talk about—
and construct—their selves in ways that they were unable to do so previously, a finding
corroborated by Ross and Buehler (1994). By establishing a narrative about their past
and present experiences, individuals realized their transsexual identities, but only with
both the verbal and non-verbal support cues of other members of the support group
(Mason-Schrock 1996). Important to note, however, is that these cues only stood to
support certain stories, those perceived by group members to be “believable” rather than
other stories perceived to be less likely. The same underlying theme was also present on
research focusing on codependents by Leslie Irvine (2000). The same group dynamics
mixed with self narratives allowed individuals to label themselves—and their families or
relationships—as dysfunctional and, thus, facilitating their codependent behaviors.
Looking past interpersonal narratives, Ezzy (1998:250) notes that, “while
narrative identities are constructed intersubjectively, in interaction with others, they are
also produced as part of an internal dialogue, or soliloquy”. This idea can also apply to
the creation of a self when that self is not physically present, as seen in Hertz’s (2002)
study of single mothers’ creations of selves for the sperm donors of their offspring. Even
though the biological father was either rarely present or—most often—entirely absent,
mothers would create narratives and build selves of the men they either did not know or
their children would never know so the children could then create their own identities
from this information.
A self, then, can be created and understood even outside the particular physical
person to whom it refers. Unruh (1983) looks at the ways the dying manage their
situation as well as how the living construct identities about the deceased. He discusses
how living family and friends face these losses through “reinterpret[ing] past experiences
and knowledge of the deceased and imbue[ing] them with personal meaning… [In
addition,] the dying supply the survivors with information, requests, and desires
regarding how they themselves wish to be remembered” (Unruh 1983:345). Unruh also
looks at four ways the living can maintain their connections to the deceased, which
includes reinterpreting the mundane and everyday occurrences that remind the living of
their loved ones. Second, the survivors can redefine negative aspects about the dead to
make them seem more positive, such as seeing jealousy as devotion. Thirdly, continuing
bonding activities that loved one engaged in with the deceased and, finally, sanctifying
symbols that hold meaning for or about the deceased are ways to maintain connection
between the living and the dead (Unruh 1983).
Grout and Romanoff (2000) concur with these findings, noting how bereaved
parents often deal with children’s deaths by creating narratives and places for them
within the family although they are no longer present. Martin (2010) looks more
specifically at the deaths of murdered children, noting how the creation of a child’s
identity becomes more difficult when opposing identities are created by outsiders, such as
law enforcement or the media. Families counteract these challenges through “their
identity work of and for the dead…within this process, private or individual stories of the
homicide victim may be shared, vicariously experienced, and entered into the collective
memory where the identity of the dead can then be sanctified” (Martin 2010:37).
This study is based on a content analysis of 350 total tombstones—30 stones from
10 larger, urban cemeteries and 10 stones from 5 smaller, rural cemeteries—from across
south central Minnesota. The data analyzed on the stones specifically consisted of any
text, pictures, or plaques on the stones, as well as any items that were permanently
attached to the stones, such as statues. The geographic location of the cemeteries was
selected based on geographic proximity to the researcher. In order to choose the
cemeteries, I began with a map of southern Minnesota and chose cemeteries in or near
towns and townships below the town of origin, Mankato and a nearby town, New Ulm.
All other cemeteries were spread out across the state’s southern geographic boundary,
with the westernmost location being Worthington, MN and the easternmost location
being Austin, MN. See Appendix A for list of cemeteries and their geographic locations.
The cemeteries within the state were chosen with the aid of the website
Imortuary.com (2011), a site that lists various funeral services and cemeteries according
to town within each state as well as a Google search of “cemeteries in (specified town or
township)”. Cemeteries were then chosen based on descriptions found through
supplementary links based on a Google search of each particular cemetery. Some were
chosen based on their lack of denominational requirements while others were chosen
based on dates of interment or demographics of those buried there to help me obtain as
varied a sample as possible and to control for possible religious biases that could result
from the prevalence of denominational cemeteries, such as an increase in the number of
rosaries or depictions of the Virgin Mary in Catholic cemeteries. By choosing mostly
nondenominational cemeteries, there was much less outside influence on the individuals’
choices of what was etched into the stone, thus allowing for a fuller description of self
according to that individual.
Within each cemetery, 30 stones and 10 stones were chosen for analysis in the
large and small cemeteries, respectively. I purposely selected the oldest and newest
stones containing legible epitaphs or etchings possible, which were determined either
from physically finding them myself or by obtaining the information from those working
in the cemeteries. The other stones were purposely chosen as well, and were spread out
across time to capture as much temporal change as possible within the limitations of
narrative stones. In addition, within the temporal limitations, stones were purposely
chosen in accordance with the amount of information they included—since the analysis
looks at narratives, I chose stones that encompassed what I was focusing on. A
systematic means of choosing stones would have caused me to miss those that are more
elaborate or meaningful in their markings. A purposeful selection thus benefitted this
study, making the analysis fuller.
The data in this study consist of text and iconography on 350 tombstones.
Photographs of each stone were taken to allow for later coding and analysis. Initially,
data was to be gathered from ten cemeteries across southern Minnesota; however, once
the gathering process began, I wanted to be sure to gather data from as many different
types of cemeteries as possible. Because of this, the five rural cemeteries were added,
bringing the total number of tombstones being studied to 350. The larger cemeteries
were primarily located either within city limits or just outside each town and included at
least 100 tombstones. No large cemeteries chosen were directly discernable as being tied
to a particular religious denomination and several claimed to be serving people of varied
faiths. The rural cemeteries were all located in the country and outside of city limits.
One of the rural cemeteries was clearly denominational, being located closely to a
Lutheran church and containing this denomination in its name. The others, as noted
previously, were chosen for their nondenominational nature.
All data were gathered in a three-month period, from May through July, since the
study required complete stone visibility, less probable in winter or fall months. Within
this time, I choose days and times that allowed optimal sunlight to prevent issues with
visibility. In order to collect the data, I photographed each stone, taking at least two shots
of each one to ensure as much information is recorded as possible. In addition, stones
with multiple pictures or text were photographed several times, with many shots focusing
solely on the items shown on the stone for better recollection during coding. A Canon
digital camera was used, which allowed me to see the picture immediately after it was
taken to ensure all necessary information is visible.
If the pictures taken did not seem clear enough, grave rubbings were done over
the less-visible portions of the stones. This did prove problematic, however, as many
older stones were so moss-covered or eroded that the text was unable to be discerned and,
thus, the stones were removed from analysis. Once all photographs were taken, they
were uploaded onto my computer and edited if necessary to make all aspects of the stone
clearly visible. At least one picture of each stone was printed as well, to allow for
viewing multiple stones at once and to allow for sorting the photographs into similar
groups during analysis. The photographs were stored in a file on the computer, on a flash
drive, and as hard copies stored at the researcher’s home in case of computer or flash
Another difficulty that became present while collecting data was the prevalence of
tombstones written in German. Because southern Minnesota is home to many German
families and was a common place to settle in the past, a vast majority of the older stones
within the analysis were written in German. To translate the stones, I used an internet
Google translator as well as double-checking these translations with a couple of
individuals fluent in German to make sure the online translator was not omitting or
missing slang or the correct intent of the poems and epitaphs on the stones. The English
translation was then used for analysis since it held the same meaning as its original
To analyze the data, I constructed and used a matrix to determine similarities and
differences within the tombstones. The matrix sheets focused on a variety of information
included—or absent—on the stones. Coding on a line-by-line basis (Charmaz 2008)
included the use of text, pictures, etchings, or anything else that is either part of the stone
or is permanently attached to the stone, such as statues or plaques. The type of pictures,
quality and length of text, and the overall themes of the stone’s messages were analyzed.
In addition, some of the textual information referred directly to the person, such as
“loving mother” or “avid reader,” while other information, such as poems or quotations
was more indirect. These differences were also noted (see Appendix B). A larger matrix
sheet was also used to keep track of the amount of textual and picture references on the
stones for each cemetery to more easily see similarities across cemeteries (see Appendix
To aid in the creation of the matrix, I first looked at each stone individually,
typing up a list of all pictures and text included with or on the stone. Each picture or
piece of text received its own line. This allowed me to have both the picture of the
cemetery and a textual representation of the stone to analyze at the same time. In
addition, the textual descriptions of the stone also included any translations that were
necessary due to the overwhelming number of tombstones etched in German. This
textual line-by-line coding allowed me to develop my matrix.
Through the matrix I engaged in grounded theory coding, which allowed me to
“shape an analytic frame from which [I was able to] build the analysis” (Charmaz
2008:45). I began by looking at the stones exactly as they were etched, not imposing any
theoretical assumptions, and determine themes based on the data alone. By looking
directly at what is said and pictured without imposing theoretical assumptions, I was able
to infer—to the best of my abilities—what the makers of the stone were trying to imply
about the dead. For instance, a picture of the individual in hunting gear and a statue of a
sleeping deer would emphasize the role hunting played in the life of the deceased.
Although not necessarily related to the wealth or status of the individual, the size of the
stone itself will also affect what is being stated. A small etching of an individual on a
more modest stone obviously makes a different impression than a large stone depicting
the same etching.
From there, I focused on the more abstract, theoretical conclusions I was able to
draw from the data, showing how the narrations of the stones represent those buried
beneath. Overarching themes, such as the emphasis placed on the individuals’ work or
family ties were noted. The use of memos throughout both the data collection and coding
process helped me pull ideas and thoughts about individual stones together into inclusive,
more developed frameworks. I also wrote memos about both my experiences and my
thoughts throughout the entire collection and analysis process to supplement the coding
Because I did not interview or deal with living subjects and the cemeteries in
which I conducted research are public domains, I did not need IRB approval to conduct
my research. The stones themselves are purposely placed in these public settings as ways
to mark to anyone who cares to read them the lives of those buried there. The stones are
created as semi-permanent tributes and memories to the deceased and were, therefore, an
unobtrusive way for me to understand how narratives can be created and used
postmortem. In addition, because tombstones are public information, I did not need to
worry about confidentiality, and thus did not have to remove identifying information
from my research.
This study also benefits various groups of people. First, as mentioned, a
sociological analysis of epitaphs and tombstones is lacking in studies of obituaries, burial
practices, and cemeteries. To see how narratives are created for our selves after we are
gone is an important area of knowledge-gaining within symbolic interaction specifically,
as well as within sociology as a whole. The bereaved also benefit from seeing how their
creations of epitaphs hold meaning not only for themselves, but also for their memories
and narratives of the deceased. Finally, all individuals are able to use this information
when determining what they want on their own tombstones or on the stones of their loved
ones should they be placed in charge of such decisions.
Although the stones analyzed varied across time and geographic location, many
overarching themes were present. The century in which the stones were created did
influence some differences in what information was included on tombstones, but five
major themes were present regardless of the era in which the stones were constructed.
Social relationships, the emphasis on time of death in relation to the age of the person and
expectations of their livelihood, religious emphasis, and the use of poetry was present
throughout the entire sample. How these themes were depicted, however, often changed
due to the historical constraints of technology and cultural emphases on certain aspects of
life, such as religious beliefs.
This chapter breaks the stones analyzed down into five major themes, explaining
the presence of each of them within the various cemeteries. Included in each section is
also a description of temporal changes if some were present. If there were no differences,
this was also noted. Pictures of tombstones used in the analysis were used to facilitate
examples. It is seeing these stones that allow the viewer to truly understand their
meaning and—hopefully—take away the emphasis the creators of the stones were
looking for in the symbols and etchings.
“When I Count My Blessings, I Count You Twice”: Social Relationships
A common finding within all of the cemeteries and the vast majority of all
tombstones was the proclamation of social relationships. Most of the oldest stones from
the 19th century focused exclusively on marital and parental ties rather than other social
relationships, often with a large family monument etched with the last name of the family
surrounded by much smaller headstones. These small headstones would say the name of
the deceased and—especially true for the small headstones of parents—describe their role
in the family.
More recent stones, usually etched within the last two decades, were much more
varied in the information they contain. Whether these stones emphasize one’s spouse,
siblings, parents, or even pets, one does not have to search far to find the deceased
person’s ties to the living, a significant change within tombstone creations. Stones within
the last several decades also use more photographs and visual etchings to denote social
relationships than ever before, as will be noted below. The following section looks
specifically at the emphasis we place on our relationships to the dead, even when that
social relationship can no longer be maintained directly through social contact.
Spousal Symbols and Epitaphs
As mentioned above, tombstones etched during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s
were created in different ways than their newer counterparts are. This is especially the
case in understanding the social relationships within these families. The larger family
memorial markers of the 1800’s and early 1900’s seem to come either in this form, with
the larger stone simply listing the family’s name with little to no ornate pictures or other
engravings, or they are large, ornate statues of religious figures, usually either saints or
angels (Figure 1). Labeling the wives and mothers of these families as the “Wife of”
their husband was much more common during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s than more
recent stones (Figure 2).
In more recent years, extremely popular tombstone writings, photographs, and
pictures inform viewers of the deceased’s spousal ties. Bibles, connected wedding bands,
even doves and roses became a focal point around which the date of marriage was often
written (Figure 3). On occasion, there would be more textual emphasis placed on the
marriage or intimate relationship of the couple, including a few engravings of couples
dancing, watching a sunset together, or even hiking into the mountains. More recent
tombstones included actual photographs of the deceased couple, whether these were their
wedding photos—as many were—or anniversary photographs of the couple in more
recent years. These serve to signify the importance of the deceased’s relationship to their
loved one. This proclamation of self emphasizes the intimacy and time spent with the
deceased’s spouse, whether simply by referring to their names or wedding date or
through sketches of them dancing or walking into the sunset together. Our society values
the family and the sanctity of marriage, noted overwhelmingly on these various
An interesting difference that appeared when noting temporal differences in
tombstone creations is that of the textual representation of marriage. In 19th and earlier
20th century stones, many stones declared spousal ties through labeling women as the
“wife of” their husbands. The husbands themselves were simply listed, often with many
more details than were allowed for their wives. More current stones simply listed both
members of the couple equally, usually beside each other on a larger stone. These
differences are shown in the Figures 4a and 4b (below). The first stone was erected in the
late 1800s, while the stone on the right was erected quite recently, as neither spouse is yet
deceased. This emphasis placed on marriage, however, is unchanging over time.
Regardless of the wording, stones emphasized marital ties regardless of name placement
or textual explanations.
Emphases on Parenthood
In addition to the proclamation of the deceased’s marital status, whether or not the
dead had been parents is present on numerous stones as well. For stones erected in the
19th century, as noted above, the family had a large, separate monument denoting their
surname in addition to smaller, less extravagant headstones listing the individuals’
information. “Mother” and “Father” were frequent toppers of stones erected during the
1800s and early 1900s. As seen in Figures 5a and 5b, the roles of the two Fuchs parents
are noted predominantly on the top of the smaller headstones, while the memorial for the
entire family is a separate, larger stone. If children of these families were dead, their
stones would denote their roles as daughters or sons as well (Figure 6).
Often on more recent tombstones, this parental role is symbolized by a list of
children’s names at the bottom center of the tombstone. This recent development usually
lists the names of the children in a smaller text size, approximately the same size as the
dates of life and death of the deceased. These social connections are not understated
because of the text size, however, but appear to matter as much as all of the other social
relationships present on one’s tombstone in recent decades. On occasion, however, the
naming of one’s children became a more extravagant undertaking. One stone in
particular had a large etching of the tree of life with the names of the deceased’s children
forming a circle around the tree (Figure 7). On this stone, the emphasis on the deceased’s
children is most noticeable.
This says much about our society’s emphasis on familial relationships and the
emphasis we place on having children. For women especially, we become socialized into
the expectation that we will grow up, get married, and start a family. By listing the
names of one’s children, we are able to proclaim about our selves that we accomplished
this goal. In addition, as Freeman (2005) notes, when an individual dies, we are able to
biologically pass on a sense of our selves through our offspring. This is both a way for
the dying and the living to deal with the impending death.
Grandchildren are also becoming increasingly noted on tombstones in more recent
years, often listed after the children of the deceased, something that never happened in
the past. Obviously, this is more likely to be seen on more recent stones, as mortality
rates for children have decreased and reproductive rates have increased throughout the
last few centuries. Interestingly, if grandchildren were mentioned, there was also
frequently a description of the deceased as being a grandparent, as seen on the tombstone
in Figure 8, which states both the name of the grandchildren at the base of the stone, as
well as describes Cynthia Linbo as “Gramma” on the flower holder to the side of her
name. In addition to this textual representation, one can see several children playing in
the etching, as well as the text “watching over our future” surrounding the picture of the
Through these proclamations, we can see much identity work being done. The
emphasis on the social relationships of the deceased has been highlighted throughout
time, one of the very few phenomena that appear to remain steadily present. Our self is
created through our interactions with others, as was noted by Mead (1934) and discussed
previously. Without others, then, our self would not exist. In addition, without familial
and friendship ties, the living would have no need for an ornate tombstone declaring their
relations. It is the living that continues the identity work for the dead, including but not
limited to the use of tombstones to express these connections.
Looking particularly at older (19th and early 20th century) tombstones, the
emphasis on one’s being a sibling is extremely rare. Instead, as mentioned above, one’s
role as a parent, spouse, or—as will be discussed later—child was a more prevalent
finding than one’s role as a sibling. Interestingly, however, one stone in particular from
the 1800s memorializes the lives of twin sisters, who both died on the same day in 1863
(Figure 9). Aside from this one stone, no other stones analyzed before the 1950’s
described one’s sibling ties.
Although most prevalent on the tombstones of early deaths (early deaths meaning
untimely deaths—such as infants, children, or teenagers), many recent epitaphs would
include listing one’s siblings in addition to the other social relationships one had. In
addition to early deaths, when one did not have a spouse or children, their tombstones
were most likely to contain statements of their sibling ties. Several tombstones
portraying the death of children included the names of their parents as well as their
siblings. For example, one particular stone (Figures 10a and 10b) is in memorial of
Bryan Peck. On the back of the stone (photo right) Bryan’s social relationships are
emphasized. After listing his parents, it is noted that he is the “loving brother of Jeremy
Interestingly, there was a tombstone that represented a brother and sister pair with
no discussion of spouses or children had by either person (Figure 11). The engraving
shows a couple standing near a lake and states “siblings for life—friends forever.” It
appears, however, that the stone is referencing a couple, as it is in the same format as
most couples’ stones, with the names across from each other with the last name more
prominent on the stone. The picture is also quite similar to those on couples’ stones,
where the two are shown dancing or walking together. The visual cues of this stone in
particular, then, were much harder to discern than most, creating a self-imagery that
could be slightly confusing for viewers to interpret.
Beloved Companion: Relationships with Pets and Animals
A very recent—and very interesting—development to tombstone engravings is
the presence of animals and their relationships to the dead. An intriguingly large number
of recent stones analyzed contained evidence of such ties to one’s pets. Several examples
are shown (Figures 12a and 12b). On another stone, the name of the pet dog (Molly) was
written beneath an etching of her. Beside the tombstone was a smaller grave in which
this beloved pet was buried, with her own memorial denotation as well. For the other
stones, however, pictures and text emphasizing the love of these pets seemed to suffice.
There were also several stones portraying cats and dogs with no text emphasizing their
connection to the deceased.
Yet another interesting modern tombstone emphasized one woman’s work as a
horse trainer (Figure 13). The back of her tombstone contained two large pictures of her
working with her horses, the first noting the horse’s name, “Stormy,” and the second
depicting her participation in the “World Championship Quarter Horse Show 1987” with
“Masters Cody Gal.” Quite intriguing is the recognition of her sons at the far bottom of
the stone, below the larger monumental etchings of her horses! This ordering seems to
appear almost as an afterthought to those viewing the stone, leading one to interpret her
self as being tied more deeply to her hobby than her to her kin. Much of her identity
work, then, appears to be done surrounding this pastime.
Previous 19th century and early 20th century stones did not contain such pictures
and epitaphs at all within the sample analyzed. Looking more broadly, I would assume it
is safe to say, especially given what is written on past stones, that this is an exclusively
new phenomenon. Past stones did not even contain pictures of animals, let alone textual
references to them. Again, this may be strongly tied to increases in technology and the
efficiency of carving modern tombstones as well as changing roles and hobbies over
time. Regardless of the reasoning, however, it is quite interesting to notice such a stark
“You will be Missed”: Other Social Relationships
One cannot forget to mention the references to the deceased’s being good and
loving friends, as well as uncles, aunts, cousins, even mentors. Older stones would
sometimes contain poetic references to one’s dying, describing the deaths as “too soon”
or as a way to remove the pain from the deceased but not from the living. Interestingly,
poems were written at times to describe both the social roles of the individuals in the
early 1900s, and—at times—the way they died or what their dying process was like.
These findings will be described in more detail below.
On very recent stones (those being erected within the last few decades), many
social relationships were listed together on tombstones, again, more often if the
individual did not have children and/or grandchildren. As Figure 10 showed, Bryan Peck
was “loved by many, missed by all” and friends as well as family were noted to be
missing him and awaiting their future reunions. Exclamations of the deceased as
“special” friends and “loving” friends were prevalent, and there was even one stone
included in the analysis that appears to have been erected by a friend of the deceased
(Figure 14). This says a lot about the person, especially their role within the lives of
others. It is possible that they were an exceptional friend to merit the purchase and
erection of a tombstone, they possibly did not have a good enough relationship with their
family to merit the creation of a stone, or the family was unable to create a stone for the
“Not Yet…It’s Not Time”: Time of Death in Relation to Stone Exclamations
Although the amount of information included on tombstones has increased
throughout time due to technological advancements in monument construction, the time
of death of the individual also plays a role in how much information—and what
information—is present on the stones. Some symbols are used particularly for certain
groups of individuals, such as lambs or rosaries, and others—such as crosses or
flowers—are present regardless of age or gender. Many of these symbols, especially
lambs, were prevalent across the last few centuries. More modern stones, however, are
becoming increasingly ornate in the use of photographs and sketches on the stones. The
following section looks at differences across the time of death (meaning the age of the
person when they died), as well as any differences across time of monument construction.
Infant and Child Stones
Often the most heart-wrenching stones are those that memorialize children. Some
cemeteries—depending on size—even have a designated section for the graves of infants
and young children. Lambs and angels are overwhelmingly present on the stones of the
young regardless of the centuries and times in which they died, as seen in Figures 15a,
15b, and 15c. In addition, the parents of the child are usually mentioned. Furthermore,
as noted previously, children’s stones used to be much smaller than they are now—often
they were placed in groups. This was especially the case for stillborn children or infants
A stark contrast to this idea within the stones analyzed is the memorial for Allie
Peterson (Figure 16). The large stone (over 7 feet tall) is a statue of a young boy standing
on the base of the stone, which describes Allie and his death. Labeled “Our Darling
Boy”, the stone continues to lament on his passing with the following brief poem:
How sweet it will be in that beautiful land,
To meet our sweet Allie again.
With a song on his lips, and a harp in his hand,
Our Darling has gone to that beautiful land.
None of the other stones analyzed before the 1940s paid such an extensive tribute to the
loss of a child. Ironically, quite a few of the more recent stones did not either. This
could be tied to the family’s wealth more so than the intensity of the mourning, but as a
viewer, it is impossible to tell.
Within the last century or so—and especially within the last few decades—babies
and children are either given their own ornate stone, or they are included on the stones of
their parents. In addition, technological advancements that have allowed pictures to be
etched are extremely visible on infant monuments. Trey Willour’s pictures in particular
(Figures 17a and 17b) show the extreme detail that can be accomplished with current
laser and computer technology. In addition to the picture being etched into the stone,
actual photographs of the deceased are also used.
Again, pictures are overwhelmingly present on the modern stones of children, but
now these stones also include more etchings of material objects, such as sporting
equipment or toys that the deceased might have favored. Baseballs, bats, and gloves
were popular on the stones analyzed, as were footballs and soccer balls for boys’
memorials. Girls’ stones included butterflies, rainbows, and other more “feminine”
stereotyped symbols (for example, see Figure 18). Not surprisingly, none of these items
were present on stones erected in the 1800’s and early 1900’s within this analysis. This
could be tied again to changes in technology as well as transformations in what symbols
and material objects are considered important in a given social context.
Losing infants and children is extremely difficult, as seen both in the literature
review and in these memorials. This is even more so the case during recent centuries
when previous medical, sanitation, and nutritional issues lowered mortality rates.
Because today we are expected to live much longer than our childhood years, it is no
surprise that children’s stones bear a much larger and detailed tribute to their short lives.
Their deaths were unexpected and this lack of expectation often shows on their stones.
Teenager and Young Adult Stones
Like their younger counterparts, modern teenagers’ stones encompass many of the
same pictures and symbols as related to the time in which the stone was erected.
Religious symbols were present at times, with angels being portrayed on girls’ stones
more often than boys’ stones. Aside from religious symbols, however, other pictorial
types (such as material objects) were not present in the sample. As will be discussed
later, however, the exact length of time someone lived was present on 19th and early 20th
century stones and has appeared to be forgone in the more recent decades.
In addition to the modern prevalence of sports and activities, however, come
pictures of consumer objects such as cars, hunting, and other hobbies that come about
with being a teenager. Many of the tombstones memorializing teenage or young adult
males contained references to or pictures of vehicles. Trucks were quite common, as
were fishing and hunting depictions. For teenage girls and young women, more popular
depictions included religious symbols, such as angels, hearts, or crosses.
What differentiates teenage and young adult stones from the stones of infants and
children, however, are the stones themselves. All of the deceased infants and children
within the sample had their own memorial stones and were buried alone. Teenagers and
young adults—if they were not married (applicable for young adults)—were then often
buried with their parents and were listed between the names of their parents on their
parents’ memorial stones (see Figure 19). Many times, the stones depicting deceased
teens and young adults with their parents would also not have room for any other
children, even though—as is seen in Figure 19—there may be other immediate family
members. This shows an early death of the children and, I suggest, is also tied to the
expectation that we all will live into old age, thus having our own tombstones declaring
our place beside our loved ones.
Stones from earlier centuries did not emphasize the lives of teens and young
adults nearly as much, often simply just listing their names and dates of birth and death.
Occasionally, as was a common practice in previous centuries, the exact amount of time
one lived is noted. This is most often present, as mentioned, within the 19
th and 20th
century tombstones. Most often, the age of the person was broken down into years and
months (Figure 20). On a few stones, however, even the number of days a person lived
was listed, as was seen on stones dating back into the 1900’s (see Figure 21). As
mentioned, this extreme detail into the literal “lives” of the deceased is no longer present,
or at least was not present among the sampled tombstones that were erected within the
last several decades or so—the trend seems to have disappeared in favor of including
more emphasis on social relationships and consumer goods that now comprise more of
our self identities.
Adult and Elderly Stones
Stones memorializing adults and the elderly were—at times—no less exquisite
than those of their younger counterparts. These deaths, however, were often depicted as
less traumatic (fewer references to being taken too early) and were much more similar to
one another in their construction and the way the information was arranged on the stones
than children’s stones were. As mentioned previously, stones from the 1800s and early
1900s used a larger surname monument with smaller, individual headstones. Exceptions
to this came in the form of pillar-shaped stones that had the names and descriptions of
different family members on each of the sides (see Figure 22). In addition, these stones
often have poetry written about the deceased, which will be described in further detail
below. Tombstones before the 1930’s also did not reference grandchildren, in contrast to
the more modern tombstones noted below.
Modern adult stones (stones that were erected for individuals who died between
the ages of 21 and 59) were more detailed and extravagant than stones for the elderly
(individuals who died at the ages of 60 or above), as many individuals who die as adults
do so in what we often consider “untimely” manners. Another marked difference
between adult and elderly stones and those of the younger deceased is the emphasis on
spousal relationships, which also leads to the sharing of tombstones. Obviously,
individuals who are below the age of 18 are unlikely to be married in modern American
society, contributing to this difference.
The main layout for modern adult and elderly stones follows the typical pattern
one is familiar with when visiting American cemeteries—the stone lists the last name of
the couple in a larger, more prominent font at the top of the stone, with each of the
couple’s names listed below. Often on very recent stones, the man’s name is on the left
side and might include his nickname or middle initial. The woman’s name is often on the
right and can include her maiden name, nickname, or middle initial. I suggest the
reasoning for this is tied to the emphasis placed on men in our patriarchal society; we
read from left to right, so placing the man’s name first establishes his dominance within
the relationship. The middle of the stone contains reference to marriage and the bottom
of the stone lists children of the couple. Pictures included on the stone can range from
pictures of the couple to hobbies and interests of each person. Figure 23 depicts one of
these more recent stones.
One of the small differences between adult stones and those of the elderly are the
inclusion of any grandchildren, though this is definitely not always the case. Differences
in stone construction across time are less detailed in these more recent typical couple’s
stones, with the exception of women being described as individuals rather than as “wives
of” their husbands as was noted above during the earlier centuries, tied again to gender
stereotypes and our use of males as the “default” sex. In addition, as previously
mentioned, pictures and symbols etched onto the tombstones have become more intricate
throughout the years.
“A Real Lady [and] a Realist”: Describing Personalities and Interests of the Dead
Along with the social relationships of the deceased being emphasized on their
stones, a much more recent development is the inclusion of hobbies, interests, and even
simple personality descriptions of the dead. As mentioned, many of them are
relational—loving mother, kind friend, and so forth. Some, however, emphasize one’s
love of hunting, riding motorcycles, even their donations to organizations. The following
section looks at these personality declarations, which occur mainly within the last few
decades. Previous stones—those made before the 1930’s—would describe the deceased
on occasion, often in poems or quotations about the individual, but were rarely—if at
all—used as descriptors of one’s hobbies or material interests.
Ties to Nature and the Homestead
Many tombstones have a variety of engravings related to nature. Whether this
comes in the form of a couple walking in a field during sunset, or an etching of a cabin in
the middle of the woods by the lake, a vast majority of newer (20th and 21st century)
tombstones go beyond just simple text to explain the lives of those buried beneath. Some
older stones of the 1800’s and the early 1900’s would have engravings of doves, lambs,
flowers, wheat and/or rays of sunlight, both tied to religious symbolism and nature
(Figure 24). Other, more detailed stones would include pictures of horses, particularly
for soldiers, as shown in Figure 25. Usually more uncommon, these icons were found
four times within the sample studied, making it noteworthy.
An interesting development, however, comes in the form of etchings of
individuals’ farms and homesteads as a description of their lives. There were tombstones
emphasizing these homes—usually country homes that included the house itself, any
building (such as sheds, barns, or garages), and some farmland (see Figure 26). Along
with showing one’s family farm on tombstones, often even just the house of a family
would be etched into the stone. Some appeared to be summer cabins that the family
either might have owned or frequented. At times, however, a home would be etched
solely into the marker, as in Figure 27. Because a viewer could potentially be unfamiliar
with the homes of the deceased, one must assume that either that is the home of the
deceased and holds special meaning to the family (the home was built by an ancestor and
has remained in the family for generations), or the individual could be a carpenter or an
architect. Whatever the conclusion, a viewer would understand that the particular
engraving holds significance to the makers of the stone.
Ties to Material and Physical Possessions
Some of the more intriguing engravings come in the form of modern material
emphases, visible almost exclusively on tombstones erected in the last few decades. As
mentioned while discussing the tombstones of teenagers, vehicles often appear on
memorials to the dead. Trucks are extremely popular, as are motorcycles and other motor
vehicles—not surprisingly, these show up overwhelmingly on men’s stones (Figure 28).
Women’s stones contained a variety of engraving associated with possessions, ranging
from knitting needles and balls of yarn to fresh-baked bread (see Figure 29). As
mentioned previously, children’s stones show toys they might have played with or
gendered etchings (sports for boys, butterflies for girls). It appears, then, that we “do”
gender—and have gender “done” for us—even after death (West and Zimmerman 1987).
The exceptions to having gendered etchings on tombstones appear to be the prevalence of
religious etchings, which appear on tombstones regardless of gender, age, or date of stone
creation. These exceptions will be discussed below in more detail.
Ties to Social Groups and Organizations
Not extremely popular, but still noteworthy is the emphasis some memorials place
on community service and ties to various organizations. The most prevalent ties to social
organizations, obviously, come in the form of serving in the armed forces.
Acknowledgement of such roles was present for service members across time of stone
erection within the sample. For earlier stones erected in the 1800s and the early 1900s,
the only social organizational ties present within the sample were ties to armed forces,
like the military or the army, and membership in the freemasons. More recent (post1930)
membership in the armed services is denoted by the presence of a plaque placed on
the back of the tombstones or as smaller iron stand-alone markers. Previous stones,
unless updated by living family members at later dates, would reference their
membership textually or in carved pictures (see Figures 30 and 31).
In a modern example, one modern stone described how the deceased was the
“manager of Broadway and Rivoli theatres for 17 years” and “endeared himself as
sponsor of the children’s annual Christmas party.” Yet another stone attested to one
man’s role as senator and other related civic duties during his lifetime. Pastors—and
their subsequent importance within the religious institution—are often denoted on their
stones regardless of time in which the stone was erected (see Figures 32 and 33). The
way in which the pastor’s social organizational connections were etched into the stone
varied over both the time the stone was erected and the religious affiliation with which
the pastor was associated.
Perhaps one of the most interesting and unusual stones was that of the “brave
Christian chief of the Dacotahs who saved many white women and children during the
Indian War of 1862” (Figures 34a and 34b). Not only does this serve as a monument to
his death, but it also serves as a memorial for the war. The cemetery guide denotes it as
such, as does a marker along the road by the location of the stone. In addition to this
stone for Chief Taopi, stones for men who fought during the Indian War denoted such
actions, as did one stone in particular, which exclaimed how the individual buried below
was “killed by Indians” in the 1860’s as well.
Emphasis was also given for those who either were settlers to a certain region, or
had lived in the same town for all of their lives (Figures 35a and 35b). This theme was
present only on older stones and stones that were etched closely to the year(s) in which
certain Minnesota towns were founded and/or incorporated. If an individual was born or
died in a state other than Minnesota, that was often noted on stones etched pre-1940 as
well (Figure 36). This appeared especially to be the case for individuals born in Europe
who then immigrated to America (Figures 37, 38a and 38b). No modern stones (etched
post-1940) within the sample contained information like this.
Describing the Personalities of the Deceased
A final way to personalize the stones of the dead almost exclusively within recent
years is to emphasize the type of person they were through references to their
personalities. As mentioned, many personality traits—especially those reflecting caring
and kindness—are often associated with social relationships. Other descriptions are tied
to material possessions and social roles, such as calling someone a “hard worker” or an
“avid reader,” present on over one-fourth of the sample. One of the older references
present within the sample included labeling women as “loving mothers,” which was
present only on two of the 350 stones analyzed. This discovery is tied to gender
stereotypes emphasizing the nurturing role of women within the family over that of the
husband or father.
Sometimes, however, the description allotted to the personalities of the deceased
is simply descriptions of their behavior. As noted by the title of this section, one stone
emphasized the wife as a “real lady” while her husband was seen as a “realist.” Other
such personality descriptions included calling the deceased “sweet,” “inspiring,” “proud,”
and even “wild,” making up approximately 15% of the sample. Again, many of these
traits, with the exception of “beloved” or “loving” were usually found on newer stones—
those erected within the last few decades or so.
If older stones contained any reference to the personality of the deceased, it came
in the proclamation of their hard work and perseverance, usually through a description of
their immigrating to Minnesota, working, and starting a family. Again, these
proclamations were gendered when present, with vocational and economic success being
noted for men and personality traits associated with relationships being primary for
women. Two instances within the sample, however, included the perseverance of the
deceased during their final hours, describing them as “fighting hard” and “not giving up
until the end.”
“Pray for Me”: Emphasis on Religion
One major theme is visible on tombstones regardless of age, gender, and even the
years in which the stone was created. Religious portrayals were present on almost all
tombstones in some way, even within the non-denominational cemeteries studied. The
likelihood of a stone including some religious reference did not differ between these nondenominational
cemeteries and the one overtly-religious cemetery analyzed—Lunder
Lutheran Cemetery. The following section looks at the religious pictures and text found
on these representations of the dead.
As previously noted, there are some differences in what religious information is
present on tombstones depending on the date of stone creation and the age and gender of
the dead. Stones created in the 1800’s and early 1900’s have more ornate religious
references, including large statues of angels and saints presiding over the smaller
headstones of the deceased (Figure 39). “Pray for me” and “rest in peace” were also
popular religious quotations on the tombstones of the dead during the 18th and 19th
centuries (Figure 40). More current stones have less ornate religious carvings, opting
often for pictures of crosses or angels. Text has become more detailed, however, with
bible verses and hymns taking the place of shorter religious exclamations, as is discussed
Religious Pictures and Etchings
Religious depictions on stones have changed over time. As mentioned above,
Figure 39 shows a common example of stones from the 1800s that either portray large
statues of religious deities or are erected in the shape of cross. In addition, popular
religious pictures and etchings etched or carved pre-1940’s included carvings of heavenly
gates, angels, bibles, and portals—or arches—that signify one’s doorway to heaven
(Figures 41, 42, and 43).
More recent religious depictions vary more than their predecessors do in terms of
variations and themes. Along with the popular symbols of the cross and doors to heaven,
pictures became more intricate—and more varied. Tombstones carved into the shape of
pulpits with bibles on them (Figure 44) transformed into more current box-shaped stones
with simple pictures of bibles or religious references etched or carved into their surfaces
Most often, stones are no longer made to be religious symbols in and of
themselves as they were in the past. Now, these symbols seem to be placed alongside the
hobbies and interests of the dead, perhaps making their religious ties seem almost less
than their historic counterparts did (see Figure 46). Stones that are more recent have a
greater likelihood of having no religious references included on them than do stones from
the 18th through early 20th centuries as well. Again, this could be tied to a lessening of
religious importance, or it simply could be the ability to include more detailed nonreligious
references with technological advancements.
Finally, the religious symbols used on stones vary across the age in which the
person died as well. As mentioned previously, the stones of infants and children portray
an overwhelming number of angels, lambs, and crosses. This has been the case across
time and seems not to vary according to the gender of the deceased. Lambs were often
carved into the stone itself in the past, but now are often simply etched into the stone’s
surface. Angels and crosses were usually etched into the stone from the beginning with a
few exceptions. Stones of adults contain the myriad of religious symbols explained
Text has become more varied and elaborate over time as well. As mentioned,
previous phrases asking the living to pray for the dead or for the dead to rest in peace
were usually the extent of religious writings on stones created before the 1930’s. Some
stones, however, do not follow this pattern. Religious poems written about the deceased
were visible on some stones created during the 1800’s and the early 1900’s, as shown in
Figure 47. These poems often told of how their suffering ended now that they are in
Heaven. Other religious text came in the form of bible passages, but at a much smaller
rate than was depicted on tombstones that are more modern. Newer stones built within
the last century show evidence of the technological changes playing a role in this
presence of longer and more varied religious text.
The use of religious bible quotations is a common occurrence when religious text
is present on stones. As mentioned, stones from the 19th and early 20th centuries would
often ask for the prayers of the living. Now, modern religious quotations that ask for
God’s help directly are etched into the stones. Bible verses talking about God and heaven
are popular, as are references to God taking the best when he decided to take one’s
particular family member, which was present on 27 out of the 194 total textual references
to religion analyzed. Another popular biblical quotation comes in the form of the verse
John 14:2, which begins, “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions,” which was
present both on tombstones erected in the 1800’s and early 1900’s and during modern
constructions (Figure 48).
Many of the older (19th and early 20th century) stones did hold religious references
and contained some bible verses as previously mentioned, often in German. Some of the
more popular versus included variations of, “blessed are the dead which die in the lord,”
“I know my redeemer lives,” and “my spirit rejoices in God, my savior.” Other popular
bible verses referenced Corinthians, Revelations, and Psalms. One stone in particular had
the entire 1st Corinthians 13:4-7, which is popular within wedding ceremonies and
discusses how love is patient and kind (Figure 49).
Interestingly, religious songs were also referenced exclusively on some modern
stones, and on two stones, the actual musical notes to the songs themselves were etched
into the surface of the stone (Figure 50). References to non-religious songs were also
present and—at times—included parts of the musical scores as well. Finally, another
religious quotation that was present among newer stones is tied to the popular quotation,
“if tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane, I’d walk right up to heaven and
bring you home again.”
“The World is Not a Conclusion”: Poetry and the Dead
In addition to text describing the deceased and bible verses discussing their
futures in heaven, the dead were often remembered through poetry and literary
quotations. Whether these came in the form of poems, stories, quotes, or lyrics of secular
songs, many tombstones contained a myriad of interesting messages left for the living to
interpret in their own ways. The following section looks first at popular poetry and
literary quotations present within the sample, followed by a few original pieces written by
family members of the deceased.
Popular Poetry and Quotations
If pre-1930’s stones contained poetry or popular quotations, they were usually
referencing religious ideals or deities, as previously mentioned. Figure 51 stands as an
example. The stone, erected in memorial of Patrick Spellman, contains the following
Dearest Father, thou has left us,
And thy loss we deeply feel.
But ‘tis God that has bereft us.
He can all our sorrows heal.
Yet another religious poem was present on a stone memorializing Harrison W. Kaiser.
This epitaph focused on Kaiser’s connection with God, equating him with “a little flower
of lore/ that blossomed by to die.” Emphasizing the positive aspects of religion and
going to heaven, the epitaph continues, “transplanted now,/ always to bloom with God on
There also were some stones erected before the 1930’s, however, that included
poetic epitaphs that were more secular in nature. On the same stone as Patrick Spellman,
noted above, was also a poem for Andrew Spellman, which did not contain religious
Peaceful be thy silent slumber,
Peaceful be thy grave so low.
Thou no more will join our number,
Thou no more our sorrows know.
Another example from a family stone erected in 1877 comes in the following poems
carved for Ann and James Jordan, respectively:
She has fallen asleep,
She is resting at last.
Her pulse has grown still
And her fever has passed.
She suffers no longer,
(the rest has eroded into illegibility)
‘Tis hard to break the tender cord,
When love has bound the heart.
‘Tis hard, so hard, to speak the words,
Must we forever part.
One of the most intricate—and thus unique—modern memorials analyzed for this
study was one for Mark and Sue Hamre (at Lakeside Cemetery in Fairmont). This large
mausoleum-type structure contained a number of both religious and secular popular
quotations for viewers to read. The mausoleum itself had two large glass doors that
allowed one to see inside the structure, which housed a bench and more quotations etched
into the walls (see Figure 52). On the left side of the mausoleum was a famous quote by
Robert Frost that stated, “Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I took the road less
traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Inside the mausoleum was a quotation
that said, “A certainty like ours comes once in a lifetime,” along with three religious bible
All other stones in the analysis were less dramatic in their presentation of secular
quotations, but were still descriptive in their exclamations. One stone contained the
poem “High Flight,” by John Gillespie Magee Jr., which appeared to be etched into the
stone both as a memorial to the deceased himself and to his interest in flying, as there is
also an engraving of a plane on the stone (Figure 53):
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
This poem is often used to as a way to memorialize pilots on their tombstones, especially
those in the air force.
Poems referencing other service members were also present, including one on
Harry Wiebe’s stone that said, “He left his home in perfect health/he looked so young and
brave./We little thought how soon he’d be/laid in a soldier’s grave” (Figure 54). One of
the more contemplative epitaphs was that of Allan Sirvoy, which contained Edgar Allan
Poe’s poem “Eldorado” on the back of the stone (Figure 55):
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
But he grew oldThis
knight so boldAnd
o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow-
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it beThis
land of Eldorado?”
“Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied-
“If you seek for Eldorado!”
Also frequently present was the following poem, “I’m Free,” by Shannon Lee Mosely:
Don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free
I’m following the path God has chosen for me.
I took His hand when I heard him call;
I turned my back and left it all.
I could not stay another day,
To laugh, to love, to work or play.
Tasks left undone must stay that way;
I’ve now found peace at the end of day.
If my parting has left a void,
Then fill it with remembered joys.
A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss;
Oh yes, these things, I too will miss.
Be not burdened with times of sorrow
Look for the sunshine of tomorrow.
My life’s been full, I savored much;
Good friends, good times, a loved ones touch.
Perhaps my time seems all to brief;
Don’t lengthen your pain with undue grief.
Lift up your heart and peace to thee,
God wanted me now-He set me free
This poem was seen on seven of the 350 stones analyzed, whether the full poem or
smaller excerpts of it (see Figure 56).
Poetry and Exultations Written by the Family
An exclusively modern phenomenon, for some individuals, family members or
friends wrote poems and eulogies that were etched into the memorials. These were much
less frequent than more well-known poems and quotations, but seem to make a similar—
if not more dramatic—statement about the dead. One poem in particular, written by a
deceased baby’s grandmother, has such an emotional pull (Figure 57). Called “Johnny’s
Poem,” (2000) it goes as follows:
Johnny, so full of life, when you were born
Always smiling, always teasing with bright blue
We envisioned baseball caps and gloves and bats
and uniforms you would’ve worn!
Mom and dad would have cheered you on,
as their eyes, glowed with pride.
Just to see you run and jump and just be a boy,
would’ve been their only joy!
You are in god’s hands now, but don’t be
For someday mom and dad will be there with you,
just to play.
To catch up for the times they missed,
while you were away!
I love you precious one with all my heart!
Your sweet little face and loving smile
will always be in my memory and
we’ll never be apart!
With all my love! Grandma Vicky
Another poem written for the deceased was created by Garry Lee Berkner for his
father and serves as “A Tribute to Warren Berkner” that he wrote to his father on Father’s
Day, before his death (Figure 58):
I wanted to tell you, Father dear,
that you have made me happy again this year.
With all the things you have done for me,
whether on land, the air, or sea.
The greatest sportsman of them all,
a guy with whom I have a ball.
He can shoot a running fox,
or kill a couple of flying ducks.
Pheasants he hath given fear,
and also he takes antelope and deer.
With northerns, walleyes, and panfish,
he brings them all home for our dish.
A snapping turtle he had met
was scooped up with a fishing net.
Besides a sportsman, he can fly,
with his Cessna through the sky.
And with a score of forty three,
he can golf better than me.
Of course I’m talking about my dad,
who never really makes me sad.
To the greatest father there can be,
come thanks from son, Gary Lee.
More succinct poems written by the family of the deceased are shown in the following
example of a poem written for Brad Young:
Your life gave us love,
Your smile gave us happiness.
Your strength and determination
Gave us hope.
The memories of you will be in our hearts forever.
We love you, Brad.
Religiously-affiliated poems written by the families of the deceased were also prevalent,
as was seen above in “Johnny’s Poem” and in the following poem written for Mark D.
Williams that contains a popular religious quotation at the end (Figure 59):
From a boy, there grew a man.
He had big dreams, he had big plans.
To see the mountains, to see the sights,
To live amongst the city lights.
You both were scared and didn’t know,
But in the end you let him go.
He made it happen, he lived his dream.
He had it all, so it seemed.
Then one May morning, God came to call.
Why is still a mystery to us all.
We are left to suffer and in such great pain
With only his memories to remain.
Though the sun will rise and we must go on,
We will never forget Mark is now gone.
The sorrow and pain in time will pass,
But our love for him will forever last.
A golden heart is now at rest,
God broke our hearts to prove he only takes the best.
Finally, on one tombstone was a poem written by the deceased herself, apparently
while at the end of her life. Titled “To Those I Love”, it is a lengthy poem that discusses
her time on earth, her future in heaven, and how those she is leaving behind should and
can go on without her immediate presence (Figure 60):
To those I love:
Some things I’d like to say,
but first of all to let you know that I arrived okay.
Writing this from Heaven where I dwell with god
Where there are no more tears or sadness here.
It’s just eternal love.
Please do not be unhappy just because I’m out of
Remember that I’m with you every morning, noon,
That day I had to leave when my life on earth was
God picked me up and hugged me. And he said,
I welcome you. It’s good to have you back again.
You were missed while you were gone.
As for those you love, they’ll be here later on.
I need you here so badly as part of My big plan.
There’s so much that we have to do here to help our
mortal man. Then god gave me a list of things He
wished for me to do.
And foremost on that list of mine is to watch and
care for you
and I will be beside you every day and week and
And when you’re sad I’m standing there to wipe
away your tear.
And when you lie in bed at night the day’s chores
put to flight,
God and I are closest to you in the middle of the
so when you think of my life on earth and all those
loving years, because you’re only human, they are
bound to bring you tears.
But do not be afraid to cry it does relieve the pain.
Remember there would be no flowers unless there
was some rain.
I wish that I could tell you of all that god had
But if I were to tell you, you just wouldn’t
But one thing for certain, though, my life on earth is
I am closer to you now than I ever was before.
And to my very many friends: Trust God knows
what is best.
I’m still not far away from you; I’m just beyond the
There are rocky roads ahead of you and many hills
but together we can do it, taking one step at a time.
It was always my philosophy and I’d like it to be for
that as you give unto the World, so the World will
give to you.
If you can help somebody who is in sorrow or in
then you can say to God at night my day was not in
and now I am contented that my life it was
Knowing as I passed along the way I made
somebody smile today.
So if you meet somebody who is down and feeling
just lend a hand to pick them up as on your way you
when you are walking down the street and you’ve
got me on your mind
I’m walking in your footsteps only half a step
And when you feel the gentle breeze or the wind
upon your face that’s me giving you a great big hug
or just a soft embrace.
And when it’s time for you to go from that body to
be free Remember you’re not going, you are
coming here to me
And I will always love you from this land way up
We’ll be in touch again soon.
P.S., God sends his love.
GRAVE EXCLAMATIONS: DATA IMAGERY
Figure 1 – Large, Ornate Surname Monument with Smaller Individual Stones
Figure 2 – Labeling Women as the “Wife of”
Figure 3 – Modern Ways of Denoting Marital Status
Figures 4a and 4b – Gendered Transformations in Marital Denotation Over Time
Figures 5a and 5b – Emphasis on Parenthood
Figure 6 – Stone Denoting the “Daughter of”
Figure 7 – More Emphasis Placed on Parenthood
Figure 8 – Emphasis on Grandparenthood
Figure 9 – Stone for Twin Sisters
Figure 10a and 10b – Emphasis on Sibling Relationships
Figure 11 – Sole Emphasis on Sibling Relationship
Figure 12 – Emphasis on Pets
Figure 13 – Large Emphasis on Pets
Figure 14 – Memorial for a Friend
Figures 15a, 15b, and 15c – Similar References across Time on Infant Stones
Figure 16 – Ornate Stone for Child’s Death
Figure 17a and 17b – Technological Improvements on Pictures
Figure 18 – Gendered Engravings (Dora the Explorer)
Figure 19 – Teenagers on Parents’ Stone
Figure 20 – Age of Deceased Broken Down Into Years and Months
Figure 21 – Age Broken Down Into Years, Months, and Days
Figure 22 – Pillar Stones with Different Family Members on Each Side
Figure 23 – Popular Structure of Modern Tombstones
Figure 24 – Past Emphasis on Nature
Figure 25 – Past Emphasis on Nature
Figure 26 – Etching of the Family Farm
Figure 27 – Etching of the Family Home
Figure 28 – Emphasis on Vehicles
Figure 29 – Gendered Possessions
Figure 30 – References to Military Involvement
Figure 31 – Freemason Membership
Figure 32 – References to Pastoral Work
Figure 33 – References to Pastoral Work
Figures 34a and 34b – Chief Taopi’s Memorial
Figures 35a and 35b – Ties to Community
Figure 36 – Emphasis on Life in Other States: Emma (2nd) and Albert (3rd) both born in Chicago, Ill.
Figure 37 – Ties to Other Nations
Figures 38a and 38b – Ties to Other Nations
Figure 39 – Ornate Religious Stones from the 1800’s
Figure 40 – Common 19th Century Religious Text
Figures 41, 42, and 43- Popular Past Religious Art
Figure 44 – Stones Carved into Religious References
Figure 45 – Less Emphasis on Religion in the Stone Structure Itself
Figure 46 – Less Pronounced Religious Exclamations
Figure 47 – Religious Poems
Figure 48 – Common Religious Quotation
Figure 49 – Entire Bible Verses Etched Into Stone
Figure 50 – Hymnals on Tombstones
Figure 51 – Poetic Religious Reference to Deceased “Dearest Father, thou has left us/ And thy loss we
deeply feel./ But ‘tis God that has bereft us./ He can all our sorrows heal.
Figure 52 – Ornate Hamre Mausoleum
Figure 53 – “High Flight”
Figure 54 – Poem Related to Service
Figure 55 – “Eldorado” on Back of Stone
Figure 56 – “I’m Free”
Figure 57 – Poem Written for Infant by Grandmother
Figure 58 – Poem Written For Father By Son
Figure 59 – Poem Written By Family
Figure 60 – Poem Written by the Deceased
TOMBSTONES AS A NARRATIVE OF SELF
A tombstone is not simply a marker declaring the name of the person occupying
the plot beneath; it is an assertion of the life of that individual. Because the deceased no
longer occupies a physical and social space in the living world, this monument (and
grave) becomes a new “home” for that person. Instead of the home one creates for
oneself while living, this new “home” serves to reinforce the physical, economic, and
social achievements the deceased made during their lifetime—a different place to lay
one’s head at the end of the day. Whether a simple stone to mark one’s place or an
elaborate home-like mausoleum, our self narratives become reconstructed and reasserted
within these final memorials for the deceased.
In addition to the creation of new “homes” for the dead (and marking these
locations either with house-like mausoleums or stones that are interestingly similar to
using a stone depicting family names at a homestead), the way we go about burying and
memorializing our dead has become more intricate and permanent throughout history.
As mentioned previously, the personalization that can be present on one’s stone certainly
echoes our ideas of individuality and ownership as well as an emphasis on material
culture (Cook and Walter 2005; Kellehear 2007).
What we find etched on tombstones means much more to those who know and
love the deceased than just a simple phrase of text or picture. To the individuals who
know about their lives and who they were as individuals, these markings serve as a way
to narrate the life of the deceased through one last, permanent portrayal. For the
individuals who do not intimately know the deceased, yet happen across their stones, the
information encountered allows us to make assumptions about the previous lives of these
individuals, as well as what they have left behind, similar to the narratives single mothers
create for their children (Hertz 2002). As seen above, these narratives of self, constituted
by survivors, help the living both to deal with their loss and to remember and keep alive
the deceased through memory (Bonsu 2007; Ross and Buehler 1994). They literally say
to the viewers, “this is who I am, what I love, and what I use to identify myself,” as noted
previously by Schiffrin (1996).
Again, it is important to note that now, more so than ever before, individuals have
the ability to make decisions regarding their own deaths due to increased life expectancy
in our Cosmopolitan Age (Kellehear 2007). This includes the creation of one’s own
tombstone. It is hard to determine whether one creates their own stone or loved ones do
so for them if the individual is already dead. As seen, however, many stones—and
plots—are purchased pre-mortem, making construction of one’s stone before death more
obvious for cemetery visitors (Mitford 2000).
It is individuals in such a death-fearing culture who are taking death into our own
hands (Walter 2008). Although most Americans do not wish to talk about death,
purchasing funeral plots, making tombstones, laying out wishes for funerals, even filling
out an advance directive are becoming increasingly common (Chapple 2010). In
addition, cemeteries are increasingly becoming more extravagant, park-like areas that
encompass more activities than simply mourning the dead (Gaziz-Sax 1995). Whether
cremated, plastinated, buried, or donated to science, the person’s self, who they were premortem,
is noted (Roach 2003). Indeed, with the new phenomenon of plastination, the
dead are put on display for the living to analyze in a fascinating way (Walter 2004;
This chapter seeks to align the findings discussed above with past research
mentioned within the literature review. Looking at each subset of findings, I use theory
and sociological approaches to facilitate an understanding of why we do death in such
specific ways. An understanding of self, the key theoretical background for this research,
will be emphasized at the end of the chapter, thus solidifying the importance of
understanding the use of tombstones to construct and maintain one’s sense of self.
Emphasis on Social Relationships
Within this research, the largest way the self of the deceased was narrated was
through the written exclamations regarding family members. As noted above, the most
common affiliations analyzed were marital ties. If individuals had children—or
grandchildren—this was often also mentioned on the most recent tombstones.
Throughout human history, the survival of our species depended largely on successful
procreation. Kellehear (2007) notes how children often lost brothers and sisters at young
ages and how infant mortality rates were quite high in previous ages. This, coupled with
the American emphasis on the family as the most important social institution, leads one
to see why the listing of the deceased’s relatives—or the family role played by the
deceased (father, mother, etc.) is so important and prevalent.
For children, their stones served as memorials to their premature deaths, often
mentioning such an awful, unexpected loss. Again, this sentiment is tied to the
increasing expectation of long life as well as the assumptions that children’s deaths are
the most untimely (Martin 2010; Kellehear 2007; Grout and Romanoff 2000) A newer
occurrence, individuals who died before adulthood are now often buried alongside their
parents, being memorialized on the same tombstone. Before, small children—especially
infants—were often buried alone, in groups with other children, or with their own stone
beside the stone of their parents. Again, this can be tied to transformations in longevity,
as well as an emphasis placed on the nuclear family instead of the extended family
Looking past the nuclear family, another recent occurrence comes in the
denotation of deceased family members’ roles as aunts, uncles, cousins, or even friends.
This new emphasis is much different from past stones, which either emphasized one’s
role as a mother or father, or noted one’s marital status. Kellehear (2007), as mentioned
above, discussed the ways in which family members have more of a role in the dying
process now than ever before. Again, this is tied to both our ability to live longer than
our historic counterparts did (thus allowing for the creation of larger families—i.e.,
grandchildren), and our ability to control death via medical intervention (Kaufman 2005;
For the living who see these stones, then, the emphasis placed on their role in
various social relationships can lead to the establishment of narratives that picture the
individual as loving, caring, and social even without these also popular descriptive words
for the deceased on the tombstone. After all, an individual’s ability to connect socially
with others is an important factor in the way we think about that person. For the family
members who are missing the deceased, these exclamations emphasize the connections
they had with the dead and allow for viewers to recall stories and narratives about the
deceased and even the creation of them just as single-parent families did in respect to the
unknown parent, or sperm donor (Hertz 2002).
Emphasizing the living on tombstones also enforces the idea of biological modes
of thought regarding immortality; this allows the lives of the deceased to be carried on
after death through their biological offspring (Freeman 2005). Interestingly, relationships
that were portrayed did not seem to foster any negative aspects about the deceased,
similar to the way obituaries and memorials to the deceased are written, a form of
impression management quite popular when remembering the dead (Bonsu 2007; Bruner
1994). The negative aspects of the deceased are never highlighted, simply the positive,
which can lead to a distorted view of the deceased’s self (Fowler 2005; Unruh 1983).
Time of Death
Overwhelmingly, the most dramatic tombstones were those of children and
teenagers who died at what we consider to be inappropriate ages. Although the death of a
loved one is always difficult, certain deaths that occur later in life, often due to chronic
illness or age-related diseases, are often easier to handle. Stones of the elderly are less
likely to include references to the death occurring too quickly or a lack of life experience.
Children’s and teenagers’ stones, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly filled with such
It is deaths stemming from accidents that are the most difficult (Martin 2010).
Often these deaths are sudden and do not leave time for anticipatory grief or for accepting
and preparing for the loss of a loved one (Freeman 2005). As mentioned, the tombstones
of the young most directly relate to this type of dying. Loved ones who create these
stones often express the difficulty faced in untimely deaths and how these individuals
were full of life—or were unable to live their lives—before their demises (Grout and
Within our Cosmopolitan Age (Kellehear 2007), we have the ability to live
longer, more successful lives. Tombstones of those whose lives were cut short, then,
emphasize activities in which they had participated, such as sports and other hobbies as
well as focus on social relationships. As noted, many children’s stones were either
alongside or connected to that of their parents, as those are our closest bonds before
marriage. The narrative both of what is on the stone itself and where the stone is located
in relation to the stones of other family members gives description as to the relationships
of the deceased.
Personalities and Interests of the Dead
Along with understanding the self of the deceased through including their
relationships with others on the tombstone, a much more direct assertion of self come in
the form of quotations or etchings that serve to describe the personalities and interests of
the deceased. Again, in our Cosmopolitan Age, we can spend more time engaging in
leisure activities or emphasizing our community roles than in previous ages where
emphasis on physical survival was more important (Kellehear 2007).
As mentioned above, these can come in a variety of forms: ties to civic
organizations, material possessions, hobbies, even descriptions of the individuals’
personalities. Whatever the exclamation, however, these are usually fairly
straightforward ways of describing the lives of the deceased, much like what is done with
obituaries and online memorials denoting the financial and familial successes of the dead
(Bonsu 2007; Fowler 2005; Rodler, Kirchler, and Holzl 2001).
Because what is placed on an individuals’ tombstone is permanent and serves as
the basis of understanding the self for observers who might not know the deceased, what
is etched into the stone is extremely important. Noted above, none of the stones
analyzed—and probably very few stones at all—would describe the negative aspects of
the individual buried below. Instead, one takes the most positive, central characteristics
about that person and promotes them via their tombstones and, as mentioned, their
To label one as loving, an avid reader, or a hunter emphasizes to those who
observe the stones how important these traits were to the deceased. Many of these traits
are not necessarily vital to one’s understanding of that person’s self—such as avid
reader—but serves to give viewers a glimpse into the individuality of the dead;
something that can serve to distinguish our self from the selves of others (Bruner 1994).
In addition, these traits were probably extremely important to the family members or the
deceased themselves, as they are more than likely the ones who determine what is placed
on the tombstone, reifying the sociological understanding of “identity preservation” used
when a loved one dies (Unruh 1983).
Material possessions themselves follow along this same idea; the material objects
depicted on the stones should obviously represent importance to the deceased. One
particular stone, as described above, had labeled the deceased as “Our Pickup Man” and
contained an etched drawing of a pickup. RVs, campers, tractors, and motorcycles were
also observed for many men on more recent stones. Items such as hunting bows and guns
were seen, as were knitting needles, balls of yarn, and baked bread. Not only are gender
differences dramatically different and visible, especially on newer stones, but this
emphasis on financial success and consumption of material goods is a recent, yet popular,
As Kellehear (2007) noted, beginning in foraging societies (and becoming more
complex throughout pastoral, agriculture, and high civilization societies), individuals
were buried with goods that would help them succeed in the trials of the Afterlife. It
appears that we no longer bury these goods with the individuals; instead, we put them on
their tombstones as a way to describe their lives pre-death; we emphasize the materials
that aided them in their “this world” journey as opposed to what might be needed in their
“otherworld” one (Kellehear 2007). The direct reference to the material and financial
successes of the deceased also corroborates with Fowler’s (2005) research, which notes
our increasing emphasis on such things due to our capitalistic and meritocratic societal
Ties to Religion
As noted, religion plays a major role in cultural beliefs about dying and death
(Kremer 1988). This, then, directly affects both how individuals are buried and what
emphases they place on death and its role in society. Tombstones are useful in the
expression of one’s religious beliefs and often explicitly reference one’s religious
affiliations, particularly older stones. The way in which religion is portrayed on
tombstones has changed throughout time, however, which can be tied to changes in both
religious affiliations and attitudes.
In older stones, there appeared to be much more concern for the status of one’s
soul, or what happened to the self after death. This was evidenced in the prevalence of
“pray for me” and “rest in peace” etchings in a vast majority of the stones. This could be
tied to transformations in religious beliefs, as noted below. Newer stones may have a
reference to religion, but they are less obvious and straightforward in their sentiments and
do not seem to ask religious aid of the viewers of the stone.
For individuals who were religious, both sacred pictures and text project this
major aspect of self. Looking at various stones, it was interesting to see how stones
emphasized—or completely omitted—religious references. Certain religious depictions
or references on their tombstone could lead to the establishment of particular narratives
about that person. For example, seeing the Star of David on someone’s stone would lead
to the understanding that the individual was most likely Jewish and, thus, lived a certain
religious lifestyle. Individuals who did not have religious references on their tombstones
would promote a much different sense of self than someone whose tombstone was a
statue of a religious deity and contained religious quotations like “pray for me.”
These differences, of course, could result from the samples used within this study,
as cemeteries were chosen for their non-denominational nature. Looking at the sample
from a sociological standpoint, however, secularization could also be attributed to this
discovery. Berger (2009:69) notes that secularization theory was popularized in the
1950s and 1960s when most sociologists believed increasing modernization of our
societies would lead to a decline of religious belief. This theory would encompass the
variety of tombstones within the study that contained no religious references or
emphasized them at much smaller levels than secular objects. Berger (2009:69) also
notes, however, that “a consensus now exists that secularization theory can no longer
explain the worldwide persistence and spread of modern religious movements,” which
also encompasses the evidence of tombstones erected with religious references regardless
of the economic situations of the period in which they were carved.
Because religious references were more prevalent on the older tombstones, one
should be careful how they try to determine the religious narrative about the self of the
deceased. Stones including iconography before 1940 usually always had at least one
reference to religion, whether it came as a picture, symbol, statue, or quote. Newer
stones including iconography have much less emphasis on religion overall, and vary
much more in the number of religious references present across the sample. As
mentioned, this could be tied to the choice of using non-denominational cemeteries
within my analysis, but in a society that is becoming more secular and spiritual versus
deeply connected to a religious community, these findings might be more generalizable
than one would think (Dillon and Wink 2003).
The use of poetry on tombstones is a particularly interesting way to establish
narrative of self for the deceased. Especially in the case of poems written for and about
the deceased by their loved ones, the viewer can much more easily establish who the
individual was, as was seen in the examples given above. This also gives a dramatic
portrayal of the grief felt by the living at the loss of their loved ones. Woodthorpe (2010)
noted this emphasis on grief-work through our public memorials at cemeteries. Ways
families experience grief, handle it, and eventually work through it are noted by Freeman
(2005) as well. The cathartic release of writing, in this case poetry about the dead, can
help in one’s transition from grief to remembrance.
Again, the death of the person is often brought to the forefront—either through
describing how the life was cut short or describing that person’s leaving and what will
happen to them after death. The assertion of self is quite present, as is the role that dying
and death have played on that person. Almost an obituary of permanence, these poems
serve to give a much deeper glimpse into the self than standard tombstone text (name,
dates, and relationships) seems to do.
Much more peculiar was the poem written by the deceased for the living, as was
the case for Eva Mutch (deceased memorialized by her self-written poem mentioned
above). Not only do we see that she was a brave individual, writing about her impending
death, but we see how much she cared for her loved ones. This, more than anything,
expresses who she was and allows the stone observers to create a narrative that allows
them to understand who she would have been. These poems, particularly written for or
about the deceased, give the most detailed insight into the self of the dead than the other
previously mentioned exclamations.
Poems written by the deceased, as well as narratives given by the dying, are
becoming increasingly popular. Kastenbaum (2007) notes that, instead of analyzing the
process of death through a stage, or process, model, understanding dying through the
dying of individuals themselves seems to be more instructive. Mutch’s poem is an
example of this. The experience of dying is quite individualistic, so to see dying through
the eyes of someone who is experiencing it gives deep understanding of the
transformations of one’s self at the time.
Although we like to keep death hidden, usually in private locations such as
hospitals (Chapple 2010), we are also fascinated by stories of death and are attracted to
areas in which death is either present or is depicted, known as “dark tourism” (Walter
2008:325). The lengthy poem by Ms. Mutch, as well as the emphasis placed on celebrity
deaths and stories of the dying show how our society is, as Kellehear (2007) labels it, not
a death-denying place. Instead, death is stigmatized and often treated like sexuality—
“exotic yet familiar” (Walter 2008:328).
The Self, Engraved
Through the creation of tombstones used to memorialize the selves of the
deceased, one can see how our selves can exist as a separate entity from our physical
bodies. This separation, which Mead (1934) considered a requirement of distinguishing
the self, cannot be more complete than through one’s physical death. Even though the
body of the person is gone, the self is able to be preserved and memorialized through
tombstones. In connection, as noted above, Mead (1934:135) notes that the “self is
something which has a development; it is not initially there, at birth, but arises in the
process of social experience and activity.” These activities can both include and continue
after death, as relationships created with the living do not necessarily end with physical
The self occurring as an object—also important to Mead (1934)—is equally
emphasized through the literal placing of the self on stones and memorials for the dead.
Because the physical body is no longer present and able to be interacted with, the stone
serves as an intermediary to the self that was loved and shared with others. Now, because
it has become engraved and/or attached to a semi-permanent stone marking the place of
the physical body, the self literally becomes a part of this object; the tombstone literally
becomes the nearest embodiment of the deceased’s self as proclaimed by the survivors
(who usually create the stone).
The “I” and “me” become a little less clear once the physical death has occurred,
as the individuals’ self no longer can adapt to certain situations (Mead 1934).
Interestingly, however, the living often accomplish the work of the “I” and “me” even
after death through making guesses as to what the deceased might have done given
certain situations in the lives of friends and family. This is often the case during major
life changes of the deceased’s loved ones, such as weddings, births, or graduations. The
ever-present “your (deceased loved one) would be so proud” or “(deceased) is probably
rolling in their grave” are common ways the living continue the work of the “I” and “me”
even when the individual cannot do so for themselves. This phenomenon can also be tied
to Bruner’s (1994) emphasis on interpreting the self through recollection and thoughts of
past motives and desires. In this case, the recollections would be on the selves of the
deceased by the survivors.
For understanding the use of tombstones in relation to the self, perhaps the most
direct theoretical ties come from Cooley’s (1902) looking glass self. Unlike his main
premise, which requires individuals to establish selves based on others’ reactions to them,
when others create the tombstone for the individual, that secondary aspect of the threepart
looking glass self is what is emphasized. In addition to using tombstones to reiterate
the self that others create related to the deceased, it seems that the self that is portrayed is
the ideal one that will be used as a memorial for years to come. This ideal self,
emphasized by others, allows the self of the deceased to be completed full circle,
reiterating Cooley’s ideas, even after death.
This emphasis on the ideal, as mentioned above, also reifies Best’s (2011) ideas
on achievement culture. We emphasize the things we have accomplished in our lives—
successful occupations, having a family, possession of material goods—as a way to
denote our success in our increasingly materialized worlds. We give awards even to the
losing teams at children’s sports tournaments, so it is no wonder that we emphasize the
“good” we have accomplished before death (Best 2011). The self that is established,
then, emphasizes the socially-accepted self, the ideal self that most of us strive to
On our tombstones, we present this ideal self (or, rather, others present it for us)
that also serves as a means of impression management (Goffman 1959). Again, tied to
the emphasis on the ideal self, or the positive self that we, as individuals, wish to
promote, Goffman (1959:3) says that:
Regardless of the particular objective which the individual has in mind
and of his motive for having this objective, it will be in his interests to
control the conduct of others, especially in their responsive treatment of
him […] he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a
way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act
voluntarily and in accordance with his own plan.
These motives for being interpreted as a certain self, or having a certain self, are
thus fulfilled through etching these direct, positive references to the self on these
memorials. If one is presented with purely positive aspects of a self, it is much
more difficult for a viewer to concoct ideas about the deceased that place them in
a negative light.
As mentioned previously, much of our self is created through the help of
others (Ross and Buehler 1994; Mason-Schrock 1996; Irvine 2000). With many
tombstones, the self is literally being created (i.e., being etched into the stone) by
others (the family, then the stone maker). The narratives that are emphasized are
those which include others, either within the narratives themselves, or at least
through the telling of these narratives. The recollection of these narratives then
allows the self to be recreated and remembered as well. Tombstones, then, allow
the self to exist without the physical person, and for this self to be narrated
through the stone to the viewers who can then either remember these stories or
imagine them if the deceased is unknown.
This study has several limitations. First, as mentioned above, the data gathered
for analysis came from cemeteries in Southern Minnesota. Cemeteries in other regions
could prove to contain stones with much different findings, which would serve for an
interesting comparison. This would especially prove true for older cemeteries in the New
England states as opposed to cemeteries in later-settled locations. In addition to the
location of the cemeteries chosen, the emphasis on their being non-denominational also
plays a role in the gathering and interpretation of the data. Findings in more current years
that reflect a trend toward more secular expressions is presumably less pronounced in
overtly religious cemeteries (Dillon and Wink 2003). The small number of stones
analyzed, as well as the location and type of cemeteries, makes it difficult to generalize
these findings to many other cemeteries in various regions. More research is needed in
Through this research, I sought to find how individuals’ selves are continued after
their deaths by their loved ones. These narratives are quite permanent, being etched into
tombstones that often outlast even all the living memories of those buried beneath them.
Like Hertz’ (2002) article on donor fathers and the creation of their selves by mothers
and children who never knew them, looking at the messages engraved into tombstones,
one creates images and narratives of a self that is also no longer present. Because the
vast majority of Americans are buried in tombs with grave markers denoting their final
resting places, what we say on these stones is very important to our society as a whole.
As noted, technological advancements have played a large role in transformations
in the appearance of tombstones over time. Laser etching versus carving by hand allows
for larger and more detailed epitaphs and symbols to be included on one’s memorial
(Gaziz-Sax 1995; Madrigal 2011). Pictures have made the most drastic transformations,
as actual photographs themselves are either included on the stones or are etched in with
exceptionally delicate detail. This allows for more explanation and understanding about
the self of the deceased, allowing observers of the tombstone to create more detailed
narratives about the dead than the more simple stones created in the 19th and early 20th
Along with photographs and pictures becoming increasingly prevalent ways to
commemorate the dead, biblical references and ties to literature and poetic works are
becoming increasingly more extravagant and detailed. Instead of simple biblical etchings
begging for the prayers of the living, one can quote entire biblical verses or write their
own poems in respect of their dead loved ones, tied to the idea that we are becoming
more spiritual than religious and debunking the secularization debate (Dillon and Wink
2003; Berger 2009). Even references to popular culture are appearing on stones, from
lyrics of famous classic rock songs to pictures of Dora the Explorer or a Minnesota
Vikings helmet. We have also transformed the process of burying goods with the
deceased to aid them in death to a more symbolic “burial” of these items into the surface
of the tombstones as ways for the living to understand the lives of the dead (Kellehear
Regardless of technological innovations, however, what is included on
tombstones depending on the age of the deceased has remained relatively constant over
time. Children’s stones often portray angels or lambs and reference the popular
children’s prayer that begins with, “now I lay me down to sleep.” Likewise, stones for
children and teens emphasize their innocence and include more references to their
gendered lives—pictures of sporting equipment for boys and butterflies and rainbows for
girls. Adults’ stones portrayed more direct religious references, with crosses or angels, as
well as secular hobbies and interests of the dead. In addition, marital ties and names of
children were common additions. The stones of the elderly were quite similar to those of
younger adults, but also sometimes included names of grandchildren when applicable.
Even though age did create differences in what was included on one’s tombstone,
what did not change over time, age, or gender, was one’s relational ties. Almost every
stone analyzed included at least one reference to the deceased’s family. This is not
surprising, as it is often the living who create these monuments once their loved ones
have passed on. Also not surprising is that these monuments only portray the good about
those buried below, as was noted in much previous research, especially those focusing on
eulogies and obituaries (Ward 1957; Lattimore 1962). Regardless of what the specific
message is, the way we create them after the deaths of our loved ones holds meaning
related to our overall assumptions about death as well.
Although we do not like to talk about death and often treat death as a contagious,
stigmatic problem (Chapple 2010), the death industry—and death itself—is becoming
increasingly prevalent within our everyday lives. Individuals are buying funeral plots
and creating their own stones now more than ever, as well as taking their dying and
deaths into their own hands through the popularity of advance directives and living wills.
Body displays, ornate mausoleums and stones expressing individuality and achievement,
and multi-purpose park-like cemeteries bring death and dying closer to us than we
previously allowed. Dark tourism and learning about dying from the dying themselves
gives us an even deeper glimpse into this previously taboo realm.
As noted through Durkheim’s work on the sociology of death, “it is precisely
when groups—from families to nations—are depleted by death that they reconstitute
themselves, symbolically and practically” (Walter 2008:317). Tombstones and memorials
to the deceased are both a symbolic and practical way for the living to reconstitute their
lives after the death of a loved one. As seen in this research, however, the lives of the
dead go on as well, through the proclamations, narratives, and remembering of the dead.
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APPENDIX A – List of Cemeteries Chosen for Analysis and Geographical Locations
*Beauford Oak Hill Cemetery Association – Beauford Township, MN
Calvary Cemetery – Mankato, MN
City Cemetery – New Ulm, MN
*Decoria Cemetery – Decoria Township, MN
*Ebenezer Cemetery – Waseca, MN
Graceland Cemetery – Albert Lea, MN
Lake Crystal Cemetery – Lake Crystal, MN
Lakeside Cemetery – Fairmont, MN
*Lunder Lutheran Cemetery – Freeman Township, MN
Maple Lawn Cemetery – Faribault, MN
Riverside Cemetery – Blue Earth, MN
Riverside Cemetery – Jackson, MN
*Rose Creek Cemetery – Austin, MN
Sacred Heart Cemetery – Owatonna, MN
Worthington Township Cemetery – Worthington, MN
* denotes smaller cemeteries
APPENDIX B – Matrix Sheets for Tombstone Analyses
PRESENT QUANTITY DESCRIPTION(S)
TEXT YES NO
PICTURES YES NO
APPENDIX C – Matrix Sheet for Cross-Cemetery Comparisons
*1 – Buford Oak Hill Cemetery
2 – Calvary Cemetery
3 – City Cemetery
4 – Decoria Cemetery
5 – Ebenezer Cemetery
6 – Graceland Cemetery
7 – Lake Crystal Cemetery
8 – Lakeside Cemetery
9 – Lunder Lutheran Cemetery
10 – Maple Lawn Cemetery
11 – Riverside Cemetery (Blue Earth)
12 – Riverside Cemetery (Jackson)
13 – Rose Creek Cemetery
14 – Sacred Heart Cemetery
15 – Worthington Cemetery
Numbers written in bold show the highest numbers within that cemetery.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Religious 3 20 18 4 7 17 13 23 7 11 18 14 5 17 17
17 27 49 11 2 27 39 31 14 40 49 29 17 33 42
2 8 14 2 1 8 5 9 2 4 4 16 5 7 5
Misc. 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Religious 6 27 19 4 6 14 15 16 12 27 26 21 6 29 22
17 10 15 5 0 2 8 12 2 27 4 13 6 15 12
0 0 4 0 1 0 2 0 0 3 0 2 3 3 4
Misc 2 1 0 1 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2