Money and Mortality: Shifts in Commemoration due to Economic Change

Money not only shapes the way that you live, it also can determine the manner of your death. From cemeteries we can infer social status and wealth based on the presence of exotic artifacts and more grave goods than other individuals. For example, the Viking boat burials that consist of entire ships being buried in the ground with bronze weaponry is attributed to a chieftains, whereas the primary form of burial was a more simple inhumation or cremation with a collection of one’s belongings. In Roman Imperial necropoli, the wealthy built large crypts or columbarium for the remains of their family and household, and poorer individuals were buried in urns in the ground or simple single individual tombs. Often these practices vary over time as well, becoming more opulent in periods of wealth and restrained in periods of decline.

Even today there is variation in burial types due to economic constraints and individual wealth. A recent article from the Times discussed how cremation is becoming more popular. A recent study showed that while the increase in cremation was first attributed to reasons ranging from spiritual to environmental to hygienic, it is now mainly due to economic downturn. In 1990, 19% of people said cost was the reason they would choose to be cremated, that percentage rose to 33% in 2010. New eco-friendly or green burials are also cheaper, around $2,000, and are also growing in popularity for those concerned about the environment and money. On the other hand, those who can continue to have wealthy burials and funerals. Some individuals are chosen to be turned into diamonds, a one caret gem will cost about $16,000. Michael Jackson’s funeral cost $1,000,000 with a $25,000 casket and $35,000 burial outfit.

You can also determine wealth and changing economy based on cemetery grave markers. A study by Mallios and Caterino (2011) from the International Journal of Historic Archaeology examines types of grave markers from cemeteries in southern California during the 19th and 20 centuries. There were significant changes in the attitudes towards death during these periods that affected the ways people mourned and the expressions of death. The most dramatic of these was the shift from the 19th century Victorian celebration of death to the 20th century avoidance of memorialization. However, they note that the change was punctuated and accelerated by a number of dramatic historical events including war, disease, and economic decline. Grave markers offer a form of evidence as to how this change occurred and at what time.

Maryland Cemetery showing variety of marker types, via Clearly Ambiguous

Maryland Cemetery showing variety of marker types, via Clearly Ambiguous

The evidence used for this project traces not only variation between types but variation over time. This study used information from the San Diego Gravestone Project. The project began in 2002, recording known graves and cemeteries in the area. Over 100 burial grounds have been recorded. In order to analyze the change in grave markers, they categorized them into six broad types: total tall (obelisks, spires, columns), total tablet (tablets, blocks, pulpits), slant marker (marker angled at over 60 degrees), bevel marker (marker angled at 30 to 59 degrees), raised top (flat markers that are raised above ground level), and flush marker (completely flat with ground).

Each type was recorded by prevalence in ten year periods. During the first period, 1881-1890 there is a high prevalence of tall, tablet and slant markers. Slowly tall and slant become less popular over the next decade and tablet more popular. From 1911-1920 there is a dramatic shift. No tall markers are found, tablets decline by half and flush markers triple in popularity. From there on, flush markers remain the most popular style by a large percentage, tall markers never regain popularity, and all other forms are found in small percentages. Mallios and Caterino (2011) question why there is such a dramatic shift from a highly visible marker to one that is barely apparent. This period from 1910 to 1935 where a drastic shift in stone type and height appears is also the period of the first world war, the influenza pandemic, and the Great Depression. There was also a sharp decline in the use of marble and rise of granite markers, with concrete and metal gaining some popularity in the 1930′s.

Overall, they found that marker material and size correlated with economic prosperity and decline. During prosperity tablet and granite markers increased, and in decline concrete or metal flat markers increased. While some cemeteries showed a smooth transition with minor increases during economic decline, two cemeteries related to the poorest neighborhoods have dramatic increases in metal and flat markers during economic decline. While economic changes affect everyone, there is also differentiation in how much it affects someone based on class and social status.

Money and status aren’t the only determinants of grave marker or burial style. Fashion does play a role, and we must also consider general reactions to mortuary practices. While economic change does relate to smaller markers, it was also a period where there is a decline in funeral practices and general decrease in memorials of any kind. This relates more to death changing from something personal carried out by family to something medical taken care of by professionals- a change occurring during the early 19th century. This is why archaeology can be difficult- there are so many factors we need to consider when analyzing burials. Economy is just one factor.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgMallios, S., & Caterino, D. (2011). Mortality, Money, and Commemoration: Social and Economic Factors in Southern California Grave-Marker Change During the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 15 (3), 429-460 DOI: 10.1007/s10761-011-0152-z

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One response to “Money and Mortality: Shifts in Commemoration due to Economic Change

  1. Pingback: The Foraging Spectrum - and a spectrum of anthropology blogs | Anthropology Report·

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