Amy Clark, professor of rhetoric at UVa-Wise, learned a lot about the rituals associated with death and funerals at an early age.
As a child, Clark would accompany her grandfather, who worked in a funeral home, as he transported bodies from nursing homes and hospitals. At the funeral home, he taught her about the embalming process, and she recalled how he would also dig the graves and then slip on a suit the next day to handle the actual funeral.
The experience helped the young Clark see and study funeral rituals. In the process, she developed a keen interest in cemeteries and tombstones. She recalled how Decoration Day, an event in Appalachia where family members gather to spruce up cemeteries and gravestones each year as an expression of respect, also made an impact on her.
“I started to see the cemeteries and gravestones as a researcher before I became a researcher,” Clark said.
She shared what she learned about the rhetoric of death in Appalachia in a lecture Wednesday.
She did doctorial research on the topic and later expanded the research with two of her former students. She shared the research during the Scholars’ Week lecture series before a large crowd. Fascinating information may be gathered from the size and shape of tombstones, the placement of graves in a cemetery, and how men, women and children were viewed in life and in death. A walk through a cemetery can yield answers about cause of death and social rank as well. In many ways, a cemetery and headstones act as a visitor’s center that offers glimpses of history and social attitudes.
“They can tell us a lot,” she said. “It is a museum that quietly grows larger.”
Cemeteries show where power is concentrated in a society since the bigger stones suggest wealth and status, Clark explained. And the wealthy and influential people are normally in the center of a cemetery.
“It’s what money can buy,” she added.
Cemeteries and tombstones also show how women and men are represented in death, Clark explained. Men were often memorialized by occupation while women were touted for domestic roles. Clark’s research examined a cemetery in Northern Appalachia and in Central Appalachia. The Appalachia region is more diverse than outsiders realize, she said, adding that immigration trends and the Industrial Revolution are factors in diversification.
She found similar causes of death on tombstones as she researched both Appalachian regions. Men tended to die from occupational accidents or even homicide, but women were more likely to die in childbirth or from contracting a disease from their children. The information on some of the tombstones from 100 years or so served as a crude obituary, Clark said.
Women rarely got their full names listed on tombstones that they shared with husbands, and were often listed by a first name only with wording that indicated they were the wife of their husbands. Basically, men got their names listed on the headstones twice, she added. By the 20th century, tombstones tended to include both a first and last name for women.
Women were also celebrated for their roles as wives and mothers, and men were lauded for their occupations, Clark said.
Clark noted that grave markers from the year 2000 up have shifted back to stones with more opportunities for individualism to appear in color of the stones or in other design. Some tombstones today offer QR codes that allow a person to snap a picture with a smartphone and learn more about the person buried in that particular grave.
“I think we’re going to see changes,” Clark said. “Cemeteries are not going to be quiet places anymore.”