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Feature

A photo of several white gravestones with large statues on top.

A Catholic church cemetery in Nottingham, England, where the crosses are a good indication that this is not a Church of England cemetery.

Resting places of the dead

U professor teaches students that gravestones are more than markers on the ground

By Pauline Oo

Published on October 28, 2004

John Hamlin has thousands of photographs of cemeteries on his computer. And his picture on the University of Minnesota, Duluth, sociology department's Web site shows him lying in a grave--resting in peace, with arms crossed and eyes closed.

"No, I didn't take anybody out [of that grave in Scotland]," quips Hamlin. "It was empty at the time, and it'll remain like that because that's an old section [of the St. Andrew's cathedral], which is mostly destroyed and gone."

Hamlin teaches a University freshman seminar on graveyard culture. His class focuses on the structure and the cultural traditions associated with cemeteries in the United States, England, and Paris. This fall, he's sharing his more than 30-year fascination with cemeteries with 31 students.

"Cemeteries are essentially cities in stone," says Hamlin. "They represent a whole set of cultural values, norms, beliefs, and expectations of a community."

For example, Hamlin explains, cemeteries in small, tight-knit communities tend to reflect the likenesses and similarities that help keep such places together. "The gravestones are more controlled [in these cemetaries]--what size and what can go on them," he says. "But in large urban areas, where you have more diversity, grave markers run the gamut from small ones to big, obelisk monuments and mausoleums. You'll see virtually anything you can imagine engraved on them."

On visiting cemeteries...
Be careful
"Cemeteries are places where you can actually get hurt," says U sociologist John Hamlin. "Brand new cemeteries that are well maintained are fine, but older ones may have uneven ground."

Look at the headstones
"Pay attention to everything that's on a tombstone because things are on there for a purpose," says Hamlin. "They tell you a lot about the person; notice the images, the symbols, and the lettering that are put on there."

Use a grain of salt
"Don't believe everything that's on the tombstone," says Hamlin. "People make mistakes and people lie on tombstones.... If you die and you don't leave anything for people to put on your gravestone, then they get to make up who you were."

One of Hamlin's assignments to his students is to write a cemetery paper. The students must visit a cemetery close to their hometown and collect as much information as they can about the history of the place, its landscape, the types of people buried there, and the markers, symbols, images, and vocabularies used.

"I learned how to approach graveyards quite differently than I was used to from taking this class," says former student Mike Neilsen. "I have always had a keen respect for the history of burial sites, but this class helped me refine that respect and add sociological applications as well."

When asked about the morbid side of graveyards--dead bodies, werewolves, ghosts and ghouls--Hamlin says that view is subjective. "I've never run into a werewolf in a cemetery, but I've run into a lot of deer," says Hamlin, who readily admits that he closes his eyes when a gory movie is aired. "Cemeteries on the whole aren't that way, it's how they get portrayed in the media. The big cemeteries that allow for variations are really like the poor people's art museums. We get to see the most beautiful sculptures and unique symbols without having to pay an admission price."