Lesson: Cemetery

Lesson: Cemetery


Students will explore all the different information you might learn from a cemetery visit to the gravestone of someone you are researching: dates of birth and death, affiliations, beliefs, family members, place of birth, stories (told and imagined); along with an appreciation for all cemeteries have to offer: art, nature, history, poetry, architecture, peacefulness


  • Permission from Cemetery Sexton to visit cemetery
  • Photos or drawings of the evolution of gravestones, an example of each: fieldstone, slate tablet, marble tablet, granite marker. You can get photos from the cemetery or online.
  • Samples of the types of stone used most often as gravestones: fieldstone, slate, marble, granite.
  • Bamboo garden stakes with bright flagging tied to the top, one for each student and adult on the trip
  • A book or downloaded listing of different symbols used on stones so students can look symbols up
  • A digital camera, one that takes videos  if possible and extra batteries
  • A  clipboard or hard-backed notebook and pencil for each student
  • A whistle to signal when it is time to gather
  • A popsicle stick for each student (if time allows; see extension activity at the end of this lesson titled “adopt a grave”; students could clean up their chosen stone, if it needs it, and if safe. Remind them  that all popsicle sticks need to be carried back to school. )



Burying ground

Cemetery (a spelling hint: take your e’s (ease) in the cemetery!)






















Because we started our Keepers unit in December with snow on the ground, our students had their first visit to a cemetery online, courtesy of the Find-a-grave website when they were researching our class research person, Amanda Colburn Farnham Felch. But once the snow was gone for good, in May, we began making plans to visit the local cemetery. Ideally, the class would just walk to a cemetery, but the closest cemetery in Glover was a little too far to walk a class of students, so we got written permission from their parents and arranged to have students ride in adults’ cars.


It will be a wonderful asset if you are able to make an advance visit to the cemetery, without the students, so you will have a sense of how it is laid out, any potential dangers to warn students about (precarious stones, poison ivy, etc.) You may also want to note the location of particularly interesting stones that you want to point out if students do not select them as tour stops.  


To introduce this activity, ask how many students have ever been to a cemetery. Ask what their feelings are about cemeteries. Share any superstitions kids might have about cemeteries, and share ones you had as a child. Do you remember lifting your feet off the car floor and holding your breath when you passed a cemetery? Or were afraid ghosts might come out of the grave and scare you? Many people do have sad (because they have been to a funeral and sometimes people are crying and very sad) and/or spooky associations about being in a cemetery. But cemeteries can be very peaceful, beautiful places to visit, filled with all sorts of interesting things. Whatever you love the most about school, you can find it in a cemetery. There is art, history, math, poetry, science…even if your favorite part of school is lunch or recess, you can find that in a cemetery; all over the world, cemeteries are often used as a place to walk and have a picnic.


The cemetery you visit may or may not have the gravestones of some of the people students are researching. If it does, give all students the opportunity to examine that stone(s) and write down any clues they garner from it. As you gather around the stone, or back at school, you can share all insights.



  1. Arrange with the cemetery sexton permission and time to visit.
  2. Before going, have students brainstorm a list of etiquette rules for the visit. If they do not come up with the following on their own, add and discuss: do not run (disrespectful as well as dangerous), do not take or disturb anything (even pretty flowers), leave cemetery in better condition than when you arrived (pick up trash with gloves, put in a plastic bag and later throw away), do not lean or stand on stones—some are very fragile and could fall (children have been killed by falling stones.)
  3. Give students an overview to the cemetery…how it got its name, how many others are in the town, etc. Your local historical society or town clerk or sexton can help you with this info.
  4. Either at school before going or at the cemetery, give students an overview of:
  1. The evolution of stone markers that is usually seen in a town. (This may be different in towns settled much later than New England, and your area may have unique burial customs and gravestone fashions.) (see “Tombstone Timeline” from Stones and Bones (Vermont Old Cemetery Association, 2008)
  2. The layout of cemeteries: old burials had a headstone and a footstone that marked where the coffin was buried. Over the years, the footstone were often moved or discarded, and headstones were arranged in more uniform rows to accommodate mowing. Beginning at the end of the 19th century, plots were marked by low corner stones, often with the family name initial engraved on each corner stone. Sometimes family plots are raised up, or might have a fence or stone border around, with steps that lead up to the plot. Usually larger stones and plots, and fancier carvings, indicate the family had more wealth than the simpler stones.
  3. The types of stones they may see: pass around pieces of the stones used most frequently (see your science teacher if you don’t have any on hand): slate, marble, granite, and explain that the availability of stone determined what would be fashionable, as well as technology. Granite holds up the best to weather and environmental erosion, but it did not become used until there were tools invented that could cut and carve it easily.  They also may see markers made of wood or metal.
  4. What was recorded evolved1: in Colonial days, the carvings warned of the inevitability of death, followed by the religious revival where the carvings softened and words talked of peace and rest in heaven. During the 1800s, the artwork and words were meant to sooth those left behind, and after the 1900s, usually only the name and date were recorded, with few picture or poetry. More recently, since about the 1980s, artwork has made a comeback, with the person’s hobbies and enjoyments sometimes carved.
  5. Symbolism: Very small stones usually mark the graves of children, and might have a sculpture of a lamb, a child, or flowers on the top. Carvings of flowers often indicate the age of the person who died: a broken bud would be for a young person, a broken stem with a full opened flower might indicate a person who had a long life. Each drawing used once had symbolism; for example, a willow tree symbolized grief, a hand pointing up meant that person was going up to heaven. You can look up the meaning of different symbols in books (see resources) or online (just type in “cemetery symbols” in a search engine and you will find many good listings.
  6. Other info to share that students might see: AE is an abbreviation for “age”, on old stones, sometimes the carver didn’t plan ahead well enough, and he had to leave letters out, or squeeze them in with at caret. Sometimes the early carver spelled words the way they sounded, in the days before spelling followed rules of convention. You might have to do some math to figure out when the person died, or was born, or how old they were. You may have to be a handwriting detective and a poet to figure out what old stones say… some of the letters may have broken off or worn away. The carver’s name (and even the cost of the stone!) might be seen at the bottom or back…sometimes this was omitted or is carved on the very bottom on the stone deep in the dirt. Early slate carvers would take about ½ hour to carve one letter; today it is done by laser machines, and elaborate colored paintings can be etched on. US flags mark veteran’s graves and the flag holders indicate which war they were in. They might see flags that mark professions like firefighters and police officers. They will see many unusual names, especially on older stones. They may see writing in different languages.


  1. Explain to the students that they are going to be the tour guides today on a field trip to the cemetery. Each student will be given a bamboo stake with a flag attached to the top, and after 10-15 minutes of walking around the cemetery and examining the stones, each student will flag a grave by inserting the bamboo stake next to the stone they would like to share with the class. They should pick a stone that “speaks to them”, one they really like. They might choose to flag it because of:
  • the style and shape
  • the size
  • the material it is made of
  • a personal connection: a similar name, birth date, a relative
  • the name
  • the art carving
  • the information about the person on the stone tells you a story and gets your imagination going
  • the plot

Tell student you will blow a whistle to signal the end of the 15 minutes, and then they are to all gather at a certain spot where the tour will start.


  1. Travel as a tour group from flagged stone to flagged stone. At each flagged stone, the student who selected it will talk about why they picked it and point out what they found special about the stone. Take a picture or video each student sharing. Adults who are chaperoning often like to share the stone they noticed, too!
  2. If time permits, you can share any stones you noticed on your advance visit that students might not have selected.  


  • Stones and Bones: Using Tombstones as Textbooks is the most comprehensive gathering of ways for teachers to use the cemetery as a classroom.  (see info below under resources)  
  • Adopt a grave: students volunteer to spruce up some gravestones that need attention. Many older stones have no caretakers; the relatives moved away long ago or died out. Get permission from the cemetery sexton first, and use only Association for Gravestone Studies (www.gravestonestudies.org) approved cleaning techniques. Make sure students are not working near stones that are in danger of toppling. It is very rewarding work to free up a stone from encroaching branches, and all it takes is some hedge clippers. Popsicle sticks work great for scrapping off lichen and moss. (Never used chemicals or stiff wire brushed to clean stones, and never scrape them with sharp objects—this could damage them. Some ground level monuments are nearly covered over with grass, and garden hand tools can free them up. This has always proved to be fun and rewarding for students, and hopefully instill in them a sense of respect, stewardship, and community service.
  • Ideas for becoming Find-a-grave volunteers are given in the Other Internet Resources lesson.
  • Making grave rubbings is a fun and popular activity for school children, even though it is often discouraged by graveyard preservationists. But, rather than pretend it doesn’t happen, the Association for Graveyard Studies (AGS) have compiled guidelines for those who do decide to do a rubbing. Please visit http://www.gravestonestudies.org and read their “Gravestone Rubbings Dos and Don’ts.  Note that in some cemeteries any rubbing is prohibited; check first.



  • Your Guide to Cemetery Research by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Betterway, 2002); all kinds of research information about cemeteries
  • Stones and Bones: Using Tombstones as Textbooks (Vermont Old Cemetery Association, 2008); a wonderful resource packet with lots of information about cemeteries and plenty of ideas to use with students of all ages and in all disciplines. It is available for $25 postpaid from VOCA secretary Charles Marchant, PO Box 132, Townsend, VT 05353.
  • Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography  by Douglas Keister (Gibbs Smith, Layton, Utah, 2004)
  • 1Epitaphs to Remember by Janet Greene (Alan C. Hood & Company, Brattleoro, VT, 1962); also referenced in Stones and Bones