Read the full article in The Columbian here
For the past two summers, PSU Adjunct Anthropology Professor and National Park Service Archeologist Doug Wilson has led student field trips to Vancouver's Old City Cemetary to document and observe how society treats death and burial, using the gravestones to reveal information about the cultures of people who lived over a century ago.
"You can look at how people commemorate the dead," Wilson said. "The taller monuments tend to be in the midst of the Victorian era, when there was almost a cult of commemoration."
In a cemetery that includes Civil War veterans, you sometimes can differentiate the Union soldiers from their former Confederate foes by looking at the tops of the gravestones. In 1873, U.S. military officials adopted a design for slabs of durable stone, with the top slightly curved. One example in the Old City Cemetery marks the grave of Thomas Thorns, musician, Company F, 25th New York Cavalry.
In 1906, Congress adopted a similar design for Confederate headstones. One difference: the top was pointed instead of rounded. According to one story, it prevented Yankees from sitting on the Confederates' gravestones.
In addition to the social and cultural aspects of burials, the students' project had a practical side: documenting and evaluating the condition of grave markers and monuments.
"The impetus was some horrendous vandalism a couple of years ago," Wilson said.
Students have surveyed hundreds of grave markers, using forms to log data on inscriptions, material, design and condition. The forms lists different kinds of damage, including weathering, cratering, delamination, flaking and cracking.
The descriptions, as well as photographs, have been provided to the city of Vancouver, which owns and operates the cemetery. The information also has gone to the Clark County Genealogical Society and the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.