What headstones say about the living

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Cemeteries are known for telling the stories of the people buried there. But the symbols on headstones and monuments can tell a different story: how our view of death has changed over time.

“Historic cemeteries really function as outdoor museums,” says Steve Estroff, education manager at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

A skull with wings, an urn or a tree were popular on headstones in America during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Puritans “looked upon death as something that caused anxiety because they believed in the idea of predestination – that God has already chosen ahead of time who is going to be saved and who is going to be damned,” says Joy Giguere, chair of membership and development of the Association of Gravestone Studies.

“When you look at the older monuments and symbols you do get a greater sense of community,” Giguere said. “Individuals are part of a whole earlier in America. In a given cemetery, most of the people buried there adhere to same belief powers, same social hierarchical structure."

But attitudes toward religion and death softened in the mid-19th century – and gravestones began to reflect that change. Sentimental symbols of death – doves, crosses, angels, flowers and hands, to name a few – started to appear....

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