Learning about Geography and History

from your local Cemetery

Gale Ekiss
Teacher Consultant
Powell Junior High School
Mesa, Az

Adapted from the work of

Marshall Levi, Henry DeVona, and
Judy R. Morgan


Cemeteries are a unique resource for studying the people of an area. This lesson actively involves students in the gathering of information and then in evaluating the information about their community.

Connection To Curriculum:

Social Studies, Math, English

State Standards
SS3-P2 Analyze natural and human characteristics of places in the world studied to define regions, their relationships, and their pattern of change, with emphasis on

PO 2 applying the concept of region to organize the study of a geographic issue using multiple criteria

SS3-P3 Analyze how economic, political, cultural, and social processes interact to shape characteristics of human populations, interdependence, cooperation and conflict, with an emphasis on

PO 5  the spread of cultural traits that lead to cultural convergence and divergence, including the widespread use of English and the role of the global media

National Geography Standards: 1,4,6,9,10,12,17,18

Grade Level 5th through 12th

Time: 4 to 6 Hours


Map of local cemetery clipboards
Worksheets (attached) pencils
books on local history white construction paper
markers or colored pencils scissors

Optional Materials:

Charcoal handi-wipes
large sheets of smooth newsprint


Students will:

research local history using maps and books.
use the local cemetery to gather information.
use the skills of communication and mathematics
work in cooperative groups to answer questions.
learn for whom local place names are dedicated
learn what groups of people have settled the locale
learn what symbols and epitaphs mean on graves
create a timeline of "tombstones" for deceased residents


Several Weeks in Advance:

Call local cemetery and tell them your plans, including your likely field trip date. Visit the cemetery on your own. Look for names that can be researched easily with school resources. Look for names that have resulted in local place names. Get a brochure of the cemetery, if available, and a map.

Request permission from principal to take field trip, order buses, and secure parent permission and chaperons.

Day before Trip (one or more periods):

Introduce the students to the activity by explaining how your locale was first settled.

Share some anecdotes from your personal experiences in visiting cemeteries.

Share some slides of cemeteries or local historical sites.

Assign students famous residents (now deceased) who can be researched and found in the local cemetery. Make sure that plenty of local history books are available.

Prepare students for cemetery trip. Remind students of respect for funerals and grave sites. Remind students to dress comfortably and to bring water and a pencil.

Check back with the cemetery to see if funerals are scheduled in an area where students may be asked to visit.

Gather materials to be used such as clipboards, etc.

Cemetery Trip (1 1/2 hours):

Upon arriving at cemetery, hand out worksheets and assign students to complete certain sections (Calculating Lifespans, Lifespans of Children, Epitaphs, Size and Shapes, Symbols, Demographics of the Cemetery, Tombstone Tour). There is too much here for one group to do unless this is a much longer field study.

In addition, remind your students to find the grave of the deceased resident they are researching. They must find the grave and then record the information from the tombstone on a piece of paper. Also remind them to read everything on the worksheet before beginning work.

Optional: When students have finished the assigned tasks and still have more time, have them complete another section of the worksheet or allow them to do a charcoal rubbing of a tombstone that interests them.

Days After the Trip (two or more periods):

Have students who received the same worksheet assignments work together. The group will make a report to the class on their findings on the following day.

Each student must also compose a paragraph or more on the deceased citizen that he/she researched. Using the large sized white construction paper, he/she must also create a tombstone with birth?death dates and an epitaph that reflects something that was learned about the person.

Students will then create a tombstone timeline (based on birth dates) that will go around the room. Each student will add his or her tombstone in order and explain what this person did to be famous.


Students can use local phone books and city maps to search for place names or company names that may be based on the deceased citizens.

Students can select a tombstone and compose a fictitious biography for the person.

This can be an introduction to a more in-depth study of your community.

Students can relate episodes of oral history about their families to the class.

Look at the Mesa Cemetery: Walking Tour Guide

Your deceased resident to find is ____________________________________.

1. Find his/her grave and record what the tombstone states.

2. Now, using the walking tour pamphlet and the tombstone inscription, write a paragraph about this person.

3. On the back of this paper, draw a tombstone for him/her. Create an epitaph that would fit his/her life. Be original. Be creative. This tombstone will be part of our community timeline.


Geography of the Cemetery: Calculating Lifespans

1. Record the birth and death dates for 10 men and 10 women (over the age of 18 years).

2. Calculate the number of years that this person lived.

3. Average the life spans.


What is the average age for Men?________

What is the average age for Women?_____

Which group lived longer?________________

Do you think this is true today?___________

List the causes of death if given:

Are there any common causes of death in this group of people?


Geography of the Cemetery: Lifespans of Children

Find the graves of 10 children (under the age of 18 years). Record their birth and death dates and ages at death. Average their lifespans.

What is the average age for children? _________ Do you think this is true today?____________

List the causes of death if given:

Are there any common causes of death in children?

What is the saddest epitaph you found on a child's tombstone?

What symbols do you find on children's tombstones?

How are cemeteries public places? How are cemeteries private places.

Geography of the Cemetery: Epitaphs

(Sayings on a tombstone in memory of the deceased)

Which epitaph was the most common?

Which epitaph was the saddest?

Which epitaph made no sense to you?

Which epitaph seemed to tell something personal about the person?

What clues were given to the occupations of men and women. Do not use Mother or Father.

Geography of the Cemetery: Size and Shapes

What is the most unusual shape of tombstone? __________________________ Draw it in the space below.

Look at 10 tombstones for women. How many give the woman's maiden name?

What color of stone seems to make up the most tombstones?

Explain how new tombstones differ from old ones in size and shape?

Does the size of the tombstone tell something about social class?

Geography of the Cemetery: Symbols

What symbols do you find as you view the tombstones?

Which symbols do you find that indicate a religious background?

Which religious symbol is the most common?


Geography of the Cemetery: Demographics

Record the last names for 10 different families and guess at their original nationalities. (Use the resource sheet attached for help on determining nationalities.)

Choose one and mark it with an X.

_________One nationality seems to have the most representation.

Which nationality?________________________


___________There is no real pattern to the nationalities

Why is this true?

Which family group seems to have the largest plot?

What family names do you notice that are famous names in this area and might be the names of streets, buildings, towns, etc.?

Do you have any family or friends buried in this cemetery? If you do, describe your feelings when you visit these graves.

Geography of the Cemetery: Common Symbols in Cemeteries

angel--represents God's messenger, a Christian symbol

clasped hands--symbolize marriage

clover--represents the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Ghost)

cross--symbol of Christianity

crown--represents royalty, eternal life and honor

dove--represents Holy Spirit

grapes and grape leaves--symbolize the blood of Christ

ivy--symbolizes fidelity and immortality

lamb--represents God as the Good Shepherd or innocence

lily--symbolizes purity, innocence, beauty, marriage and Christ's resurrection

mansion or castle--from the Bible, "my Father's House has many mansions"

oak leaves/acorns--symbolize courage, strength, eternity, and virtue

open book--symbolizes the Bible

pointing fingers--represent the hand of God

rose--symbolizes love, beauty and perfection or, sometimes, Christ

roses on a cross--symbolize the death of Christ

sunburst--symbolizes the dawn of life

wheat--represents the body of Christ

willow--symbolizes sorrow and grief

Geography of the Cemetery: A Short History of Names

Approximately 3000 B.C. dithemic (two element) names began.

Alfred = aelf (elf) + raed (counsel)

Edith = aed (rich) + guth (war)

There were also short names (one element).

Wold (old)

After the Norman conquest of Britain, peasants still retained one

element names. The nobility adopted Norman names.

Biblical names came about 1200 A.D.. By the Reformation, 84% of

the names in Christianized places were Biblical.

The Mayflower era brought names of virtue: Hope, Charity,

Patience, etc.

European last names (surnames) came from:

1. Locality: Mills (near the mill) Wood (in the woods)

2. Relationship: Ericsson (son of Eric) Hopkins (kin of Hop)

3. Occupation: Taylor (tailor) Miller (works at a mill)

4. Description: Beard (facial hair) Wilde (unruly) Stout (heavy)

5. Social Standing: Knight Pope Queen King

Presently, the largest ethnic group in America is German.

It was only in 1920 that Persians (Iranians) had to have a last name.

They were forced to choose one at this time.