Learning Comes Alive At The Cemetery
A Playing Smart Activity

by Susan K. Perry

People have been visiting cemeteries for generations, of course, but increasingly graveyards are destinations not just for mourners, but for families and students of all ages looking to headstones as records of human history and society.

On a cemetery visit, your child will discover fascinating facts, perceive connections, draw conclusions from comparing names and dates, and become more comfortable with this most integral facet of human life and culture.

Before your visit, discuss the “ground rules” with your child. Explain that since other people may be at the cemetery to pay their respects to deceased loved ones, it is imperative that everyone conduct themselves with dignity. As long as your child walks on the paths and speaks in normal tones, he won’t offend anyone.

Bring along a notepad and pencil in case your child wants to record observations, make lists of names or figure ages from birth and death dates. A calculator and magnifying glass may be helpful, too, as well as supplies for making tombstone rubbings.

Rubbing the Past the Right Way
After you get permission from the proper authorities, your child may enjoy collecting rubbings of gravestones. You’ll need large, thin sheets of paper, masking tape, a fat wax crayon with the paper removed (or colored chalk), and a paintbrush or whisk broom (for cleaning off any dirt obscuring the words on a gravestone). To make a rubbing, tape the paper tightly over the chosen gravestone and rub the surface with the edge of the crayon until the stone’s details show up sharp and clear. Be sure no tape is left behind when your child removes the paper. Have your child note the date and the name of the cemetery where the rubbing was taken. (Ages 4 and up.)

Looking for Names and Dates
Help your child to think in terms of unscrambling puzzles as you tour the cemetery. Share the most common gravestone abbreviations: “b.” for “born,” “yrs.” for “years” and “dau.” for “daughter.” Point out that some people’s names evolved from occupations, places of origin and parents’ names. For instance, the family name of Miller refers to the occupation of milling flour. The family name of Paris suggests French origins. (Ages 5 and up.)

•Compare the last names on the older stones with those on more recent graves. Talk about whether the names suggest some changes over the years in residents’ countries of origin. Now focus on first names. What used to be the most common ones for men? For women? Are those names still used much? Can your child find any particularly unusual names? (Ages 6 and up.)

• Are there any famous people buried in the cemetery? You and your child might come upon some well-known names on your own. In some communities, maps are available that direct tourists to the resting places of historical figures or celebrities. (Ages 7 and up.)

• Try to locate the stones at the opposite ends of time: the one with the oldest dates and the one with the most recent dates. (Ages 5 and up.)

• Compare gravestones of males and females to determine who tends to live longer. Did more husbands outlive wives, or vice versa? Does it appear that adult life expectancy has changed over the years? Is there a preponderance of headstones from one particular year? Work with your child to figure out why that might have happened. Could there have been an epidemic? A war? A natural disaster? (Ages 8 and up.)

Learning About Relationships and Beliefs
• Looking at the gravestones of previous generations, what seems to have been the average number of children in a typical family? Do gravestones tell you anything about whether this number has increased or decreased?

• What can your child deduce about changing family relationships by observing the gravestones of individual families? How large did extended families used to be? What about today? Is it easy to find grandparents, great-grandparents and grandchildren buried near one another? (Ages 8 and up.)

• Encourage your child to notice the variety of symbols engraved on headstones. These may include angels, lambs, hearts, flowers, heraldic designs or specific religious symbols. Common themes include the passing of time, shortness of life, resurrection of the soul, and occupation of the deceased. For instance, birds stand for the soul, trees for paradise or eternal life, angels for heaven, willow trees for mourning, trumpets for victory, and anchors for hope. Also look for hourglasses (life passing), candles (life snuffed by death), bells (tolling for the dead) and fruits (fertility and abundance). (See the Resources box for an Internet site that lists and defines these symbols.) (Ages 8 and up.)

Digging Deeper: Related Investigations
• Like everything else, monument designs go in and out of fashion. Notice, for example, the massive floral designs that were popular at the turn of the 20th century, or Egyptian motifs that were stylish in the 1920s. After the 1960s, a new freedom allowed quite a range of monument styles, and these days you’re likely to discover very personal remembrances, from a surfboard to a color photo of the departed, encased in lucite and embedded in the granite. At some gravesites, you may even be greeted by the recorded voice of the deceased. (Ages 9 and up.)

• Compare the styles of graves and headstones. Discuss how a headstone or marker can reflect a person’s social status. What can you infer about a person or family from the kind of headstone chosen? For instance, more elaborate headstone – the ones with statues or ornate carving – might suggest wealth and high status. However, wealthy or prominent people sometimes choose simpler headstones because they have simple tastes or dislike ostentation. (Ages 9 and up.)

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is the author of Playing Smart: The Family Guide to Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4 to 14 (Free Spirit Publishing, 2001), from which this column is adapted. Check out Susan’s Web site at

To learn more, go to our resource page.