Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Cemetery Counts

Indexing cemeteries provides great value to family members and genealogists searching for ancestors for obvious reasons and I’m sure you can all list the benefits. Similarly, studying the cemetery and analyzing the data collected can provide even more valuable insight into the community or family that uses the cemetery. As a cemetery mirrors those it supports, a cemetery study focuses on humanities, and can provide clues to socio-economic, climate, growth, illnesses, plagues, disasters, belief/value systems, history, technology, and linguistics. All of these things together help to provide context around the people and the silent city. This article focuses on a few examples of one phase of a cemetery study.

Running the Numbers

Cemetery transcriptions, or indexes, provide us with a great dataset to work with to begin to understand the growth pattern and longevity of the community, and provides clues to the environment.

Decade and Death Year Charts

One of the first types of analysis I like to perform is focused around the known death years. Using the power of Excel, I total the number of interments by gender for each year of the life of the cemetery, and subtotal by decade, and plot each in separate stacked area or line charts. Because you are limiting the data to just those records with legible death years where gender can be determined, it is important to note both the total number of interments and the sampling size.

The Decade chart provides a clear picture of the overall time-frame and growth trends of the cemetery.

Active cemeteries can extend this trend line to forecast and plan for the future. Cemeterians can gain insight from the bumps and dips in the line. Unusual spikes in the chart can indicate epidemics, war, or other disaster, and the lack of spikes is meaningful as well. A Death Year charts allows you to drill down to understand why a specific decade shows up as a peak or a valley. The decade may be filled with peaks and valleys or may be an elevated fairly flat level.

Age Charts

An Age Chart can also provide an interesting perspective to the population of the cemetery. To develop the data for an Age Chart, first gather the records that have the year of age inscribed on the stone, and then calculate the age in years for the remaining records that have both birth and death years. This will be a smaller subset of records so remember to take note of the sampling size.

I create age groupings like 0-4, 5-9, 10-19, etc. and compare the groups to the population mix in general by plotting the groups in a stacked area chart. This information can help you determine the make-up of the overall population. With some studies it is feasible to plot the age groups over time for an even greater level of context for a given point in time. A spike may show a large number of children, or men of a certain age during war time, or a broad mix, indicating disease or other community-wide disaster.

The Example Study

The charts used as examples in this article, along with detailed charts, are part of a study I conducted of a cemetery located in Johnson Co. Kansas. The cemetery contains a number of illegible, missing, and broken stones, resulting in 56 indexed records, 32 of which were included in this portion of the study.

The charts illustrate the early years of an 1860s pioneer community on the new Kansas prairie and indicate the pattern of a customary cemetery. The early years are marked by a high number of infant deaths, followed by the deaths of young mothers, providing hints to the harshness of life on the prairie. The community peaked in the late 1870s and known interments waned completely by 1890. The cemetery was dormant until a meager resurgence appeared in 1905. Further research revealed that the first formal cemetery association was formed in 1900 to manage sales and care of the cemetery. Burials climbed slowly through the 1910s and declined through 1939. The cemetery was dormant until the last interment in 1960, when the spouse of a prior burial joined her husband at rest.


Anonymous said...

Good luck in your project... I hope you continue & would be interested seeing the progress. Cemeteries possess a huge amount of historical data that is unfortunately overlooked in Argentina. While my blog about Recoleta Cemetery is geared toward documenting it for future generations, hopefully we can produce data like yours one day. Saludos desde Buenos Aires!

Linda K. Lewis, JoCoKS Cemeterian said...

Thank you so much for the kind words. I started the Digital Cemetery about 4 years ago - it is very slow indexing all the stones and hoping to enlist more local help. I am really excited to see someone in Argentina with interest!! Good luck to you!