Cemetery & Graveyard Heritage Interpretation

Cemetery & Graveyard Heritage Interpretation

Old cemeteries contain a wealth of fascinating and often unusual tombs, grave stones and architecture which are an important link to local social history.

One of the most interesting things about graveyards for visitors is the use of art and symbols on older tombs and gravestones. Usually the symbols have a cryptic or hidden meaning, by interpreting and understanding these symbols usually reveals interesting facts and stories about the person buried below!

Gravestone art and symbolism is different in different parts of the world and there are often changes in designs and types of symbols used over time. This is something that should be researched for any cemetery interested in interpreting its stories.

Some small community or village cemeteries can be very powerful even if they are lacking ornate gravestones. The Dougherty-Miller Cemetery located in Indiana, USA is a good example of this;

This cemetery from the late 1800's was for “blacks only”. There are only a few headstones showing today, like the one on the left, of a black civil war veteran who was only allowed to be buried in this sad little plot. The site was on the verge of being totally lost amongst the trees and undergrowth before the local community recognised its importance and began to clear, restore and interpret the site. This little cemetery is a powerful and important reminder of a darker past and is an important part of local history. The interpretive experience developed by the community (with a little help from HDC team!) will send chills down your back and the memory of your visit will stay with you forever.

Planning for Cemetery and Gravestone Interpretive Programs or Services

Over the years HDC has been involved with a huge number of community interpretation projects of which many have involved the development of interpretive services for their churches, cemeteries, war-graves and memorials . If you are interested in providing a heritage interpretation program in a local historic cemetery, here are some steps to consider:

Remember that this is a cemetery. Any interpretive guided programs or tours, and self-guiding interpretation must be respectful of the site you are in. Panel design should sympathetic to the surroundings and any copy or graphics should convey a sense of respect and reverence – However that doesn’t mean that they cant be fascinating and have a powerful message too!

Check into the need to acquire permission or planning consent to interpret a cemetery. Land ownership and management of some graveyards isn’t always clear cut so take time to research who’s who.

Many people will use a cemetery regularly and become quite protective of a place that has strong emotional ties, so engage and communicate with the regulars from the start.

Be mindful of how many visitors you could manage in the cemetery at any one time and the impact that new visitors may have on the landscape and on the local community.

Plan your objectives well - what do you want the interpretive programs to accomplish? Are your objectives managerial, emotional or educational?

Clearly plan what elements you want to interpret:

- Gravestone art/designs and their historic meanings.
- Gravestones as a social statement.
- Gravestone carvers & masons
- Historical figures from the communities past.
- Communities relationships to conflicts
- Social stories and conflict
- Funeral practices (above ground vaults, wooden caskets, etc.).

Once you have decided upon what elements you want to interpret, research subject well and cross reference your data to avoid costly mistakes.

If you would like to know more about interpreting your historic graveyard or cemetery contact HDC.