May 31st, 2010
07:14 AM ET
Cemeteries are known for telling the stories of the people buried there. But the symbols on headstones and monuments can tell a different story: how our view of death has changed over time.
“Historic cemeteries really function as outdoor museums,” says Steve Estroff, education manager at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
A skull with wings, an urn or a tree were popular on headstones in America during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Puritans “looked upon death as something that caused anxiety because they believed in the idea of predestination – that God has already chosen ahead of time who is going to be saved and who is going to be damned,” says Joy Giguere, chair of membership and development of the Association of Gravestone Studies.
“When you look at the older monuments and symbols you do get a greater sense of community,” Giguere said. “Individuals are part of a whole earlier in America. In a given cemetery, most of the people buried there adhere to same belief powers, same social hierarchical structure."
But attitudes toward religion and death softened in the mid-19th century – and gravestones began to reflect that change. Sentimental symbols of death – doves, crosses, angels, flowers and hands, to name a few – started to appear.
In the early 20th century, a transition from large monuments to relatively small headstones uniform in style began to appear.
World War I “was a very traumatic experience for Americans, and it made Americans start to rethink the whole idea of our attitude toward death and this is the point we start to see cemeteries be unified,” Giguere said.
Today, how people remember the death of loved ones can be as individualized as the person. Laser-etched photographs of the person or their pet can be placed on headstones. Images of activities the person enjoyed – like tennis, reading or NASCAR – are displayed on markers.
Some families chose to plant a bush or tree instead. Outside of cemeteries, drivers place “In Loving Memory Of” bumper stickers on their cars. And others will opt for a tattoo to honor someone.
“I think we live in a society (today) where we focus on the individual," Giguere said. "Our desires, our individuality is what defines us, and that individuality gets transferred onto the gravestones of the dead.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.