Front Porches of the Dead

Culture & Identity | Fellowships | VFH News

Woodland Union Church Cemetery. Photo courtesy Alison Bell
Woodland Union Church Cemetery. Photo courtesy Alison Bell

VFH Residential Fellow Alison Bell teaches anthropology at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Bell has been studying cemeteries in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and says that in the 1980s a shift started happening in these spaces where the living and the dead come together.

Bell recently sat down with Trey Mitchell, director of web communications at VFH, to discuss her work.

Why study cemeteries?

Well, everybody dies. In that way, cemeteries are democratic to some extent. My colleague at VFH, Lynn Rainville, has noted that in historical archeology there’s been a tendency to study Thomas Jefferson or his enslaved laborers. My work has been on the people in between. Studying cemeteries gives me a way to study the middle-class.

What are you working on while at VFH?

I’m writing a book for the University of Tennessee Press, tentatively called The Vital Dead: Making Meaning, Identity, and Community through Cemeteries. The book focuses on some recent changes I’ve observed in the cemeteries in the Valley of Virginia, commonly called the Shenandoah Valley.

What is it you’re seeing happening in those cemeteries?

One thing that’s happening is that the living are treating grave sites as if they are the front porches of the dead, as if the dead are still “at home” somehow, behind a door, not visible, but cognizant, and vital in a way.

Frequently I see that graves have welcome flags, or door mats with the first initial of the family name, they have bird feeders and whirly gigs. All the things people have on their porches, people are now putting those things on graves.

There’s one I love in Raphine that has a laser etched image of this couple’s farm, their cows, and a tractor, and it says “thanks for stopping by.”

Prospect Hill Cemetery, Front Royal – Photo courtesy Alison Bell
Mt. Carmel Presbyterian Church, Raphine – Photo courtesy Alison Bell

So the couple is literally welcoming visitors, like you would at the front door to your home?

Exactly. Another thing that’s happening is that the living are incorporating the dead into their holiday and family celebrations. There was one church cemetery in Rockbridge County where a teenager had died and on her grave was a Plexiglas cube. Inside the cube was a purple Easter rabbit (this was around Easter time), facing the grave, holding a photo album, as if the rabbit was showing the deceased teen recent pictures of the family.

Lebanon Presbyterian Church, Goshen – Photo courtesy Alison Bell

I’ve seen nativities set up on graves, as well as happy anniversary balloons and happy birthday balloons. I think one of the most moving examples was a grave of a baby who was about eight months old when he died. His grave site had wrapped presents on it. I was there in February so I don’t know if they’d been wrapped for Christmas or his January birthday, but they’d been sitting there for some time. The elements had worn away the paper a little bit and you could see inside one of them was a stuffed animal.

I’ve also seen quite a few graves where someone passed away in 2001, but there’s a 2003 bowling trophy on it. Or someone died in 2012 but a family member has left a 2015 photo of a kid winning a soccer tournament. So people are really keeping their deceased loved ones informed about the world of the living, like they’re still part of the same social group.

Prospect Hill Cemetery, Front Royal – Photo courtesy Alison Bell

And there’s also a big shift in what’s considered culturally appropriate to put on grave markers. One example is a marker in a church cemetery in Stuarts Draft with the inscription “I told you I was sick.” Or one in Waynesboro that says “It’s been real. It’s been fun. But it hasn’t been real fun.”

People will put elaborate tributes to the Pittsburg Steelers or Washington Redskins on grave stones. People will wheel their Harley Davidsons into a studio to have them photographed and turned into a laser etching. We just haven’t seen that degree of personal expression on grave markers until very recently.

Does this cut across cultural lines? Or is it more of a white or middle-class phenomenon?

You can definitely see some variations by wealth, by religion, even ethnic groups in some cases, but these trends cut across those social divisions.

How is this different from what people did in the past?

In the context of American history, there was a time in the Colonial Period where the dead expressed a sense of responsibility to the living on their markers. Graves would frequently feature a winged skull and a saying like, “Remember me as you pass by. As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you soon will be. Prepare for death and follow me.”

It was a very popular idea that the dead and the living were still somehow responsible for each other. The dead would give advice and the living would remember and listen. According to the work of American anthropologist Jim Deetz and others, that fell out of fashion in the late 1700s and early 1800s. After that, there was much more of a clean break between the living and the dead. The grave stones would simply say “In Memory of Shirley Smith 1820-1890.” I think in some ways the pendulum is now swinging back in the direction towards continued association, that the living and the dead are still part of the same community. That shift seems to have started in the 1980s but has accelerated in the twenty-first century.

So what do you think is driving this change?

Technology, like laser etching, plays a part. But it doesn’t explain the shift in what’s considered appropriate in cemeteries. Growing secularization plays a part. But on a lot of markers you’ll see both a baseball and a Star of David or a football and a cross. So neither explain it fully.

One explanation that I tend to favor, is that people are cultivating social capital by flagging themselves as belonging to specific subgroups in American culture. They’re saying, “I’m a Harley rider” or “we’re a family that raises golden retrievers” or “we are Hokies.” People are shoring up relationships with groups on whom they can rely. There are such pervasive political, economic, and social changes today and people are trying to figure out how to establish themselves as part of durable, reliable social groups. Shared memories of deceased loved ones can be a kind of social glue for the living.

Thornrose Cemetery, Staunton – Photo courtesy Alison Bell

The first grave stone that got me interested in this study is a perfect example. I came across the marker of Dennis Lee Clatterbaugh (1956-2010) in Thornrose Cemetery in Staunton. Above his name is an inscription that says “Monsters from the Vault” and above that are the faces of five monsters including Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. This was very different from the other markers in the cemetery featuring praying hands and flowers, so I looked it up online and found a discussion of the grave marker on the Classic Horror Film Board.

Dennis’ brother Jim had created the discussion board and a fanzine called Monsters from the Vault. People said things about the marker like “this memorial is stunning” and “Dennis would be proud to spend eternity under this awesomely cool tombstone” and “it brought tears to my eyes, what a beautiful tribute.”

These were self-described “monster kids.” They grew up loving horror shows, one person wrote on this board “Monster kids are united, we’re a unique group.” So for them, this was the perfect way to memorialize Dennis and show that he was still part of their group. And also for surviving “monster kids” to affirm their supportive ties to each other in this small community.

Why did you choose VFH for your Fellowship?

I thought it would be perfect because what I really needed was some time away from teaching to focus on this project. It’s such a gift to be able to sit in quiet and read, take notes, and write. VFH has given me that quiet space, but also access to other people to bounce ideas off of. I frequently discover what I think by talking about it. So I need a group of people around me to share ideas with. The other Fellows have been really helpful in that regard.

Has this work made you consider what you want on your own grave marker?

I think the more you study death, the more delighted you are to be alive. It really is life affirming and you see the reality of love. I love Walt Whitman, the great American poet. He wrote a lot about death, because he was writing about life. What I would like on my grave marker is one of his quotes that says “To die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.”

Explore More

About Alison Bell

Alison Bell teaches anthropology at Washington and Lee University. She holds a Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Virginia and an M.A. in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley.

Her research interests include anthropological perspectives on American history, historical archaeology, material culture, consumption and production, social stratification, 18th and 19th centuries in the eastern United States.