4805A~Elliott, B pic

Gravestones and Cemeteries:
Cultures of Death and Memorialization

Instructor: Professor Bruce S. Elliott

Course Description and Objectives:

How a society treats its dead gives insight into fundamental cultural values, tensions, and priorities, and wider processes of social, cultural, and economic change. The seminar draws upon perspectives from social, cultural, economic, intellectual, and religious history, as well as from the history of business and marketing, art, architecture, and technology.  The course should appeal to those interested in these fields, as well as in landscape and place, commemoration, public history, material culture, the family, or the heritage movement. Inquiries from other departments (including masters students) and the wider community are welcome.

In studying gravestones, we look at themes highlighting difference and transformation, reflections of changes taking place in the wider society: seriation in inscriptions and iconography as evidence of changing attitudes toward death and afterlife; ethnic, racial, class and gender differences in memorialization; why the commemoration of war dead became a state function; how the stone trades evolved into multinational industries. We also consider cultures of alternative memorialization such as roadside memorials, ghost bikes, and a return to personalization. Sessions on cemeteries consider evolving landscape models for burial space, controversy surrounded the professionalization of cemetery management and the rise of the funeral business, and vertical integration and corporate consolidation in the death industries. Additional market challenges have come from crematoria and memorial gardens, woodland, green, and marine burial, and virtual cemeteries. Cemeteries remain contested space: potential development sites, ideological battlegrounds in postcolonial societies, objects of morbid fascination, and venues for so-called “dark tourism”.  Are cemeteries really taboo in our society?


The participation of staff of Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery provides us with opportunities for field work and research, and for projects culminating in exhibitions, publications, walking tours, and public lectures. Designated a national historic site in 2001, and Canada’s National Cemetery in 2009, Beechwood is a classic city cemetery founded in 1873. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board calls Beechwood an “exceptional example of 19th-century ‘rural cemetery’ design characterized by a naturalistic, pastoral and picturesque landscape”. It is home to the National Military Cemetery of the Canadian Armed Forces and the RCMP Memorial Cemetery. As a non-denominational public corporation, and provider of crematorium services, Beechwood has been increasingly utilized by francophones as well as by its traditional anglo-Protestant clientele, and has dedicated sections for Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Lebanese Maronite and Ukrainian Catholic churches, and for members of Ottawa’s Asian, Latvian, Polish, Portuguese and Muslim communities. Carleton’s library subscribes to Markers (the annual journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies), American Cemetery, and the online journal Mortality. Archives and Research Collections (ARC) houses one of the largest extant archives of trade journals of the North American monument industry, including some unique periodicals. There are also very considerable international resources online.

Course requirements and evaluation:

As this is a seminar course, students are expected to master an extensive reading list and participate actively in seminar discussions, as well as field trips and class projects, to make oral presentations on their research, and to complete an autumn material culture analysis, an essay proposal, and a major research paper of 20-25 pages, the production of which is the major focus of the winter term. Students may pursue research topics locally or internationally, and ranging in time from the ancient world to the present. Students are also asked to select an image representing a major theme of their research and to contextualize and explain it in three sentences. The resulting exhibitions have been placed on display at Beechwood’s National Memorial Centre, where the work of a former class in currently on view. The building is open M-F 8-5, Sat 8-12. The Beechwood Cemetery Foundation contributes a $500 annual essay prize for a paper done in the course. Past winners have written on topics as diverse as Hutterite grave markers in Manitoba and compulsory cremation in Singapore. Students in past years have competed successfully against international competition for scholarship assistance to present their research at the Association for Gravestone Studies annual conference in the United States.

For further information please contact me at Bruce.Elliott@carleton.ca or (613) 798-2211.