Digitally Mapping Graveyards

Over the past few weeks I have been working on mapping a cemetery in a Geographic Information System (GIS) as both part of a class and part of my own research. I received a number of question and comments on Twitter from readers asking how this was done and what exactly I was doing. What I want to share today is a little background on doing spatial analyses of cemeteries, and some projects that have already been completed using GIS.

Screenshot of the Riverside Cemetery GIS

Screenshot of the Riverside Cemetery GIS, each smaller square is a grave plot and the colors represent different sections

First, a little background on GIS and spatial analysis. A geographic information system (GIS) lets us create spatial maps in order to visualize, analyze, and interpret data to reveal patterns. Basically, we put spatial data (data with longitude and latitude, or other geographic coordinates) into the computer program, and it allows us to assess this data. Within this program, we can also digitize maps and give them spatial data. For example, I took a map of Anglo-Saxon burials, placed it onto a spatially located map in the program, and then digitized each burial into specific points. Another way of inputting data is with GPS coordinates. During my undergrad, my senior thesis involved taking GPS coordinates of historic grave markers, putting them into the GIS and assigning information to them. The goal of both projects is to determine why the cemetery looks the way it does- is it organized into neat rows? Or family groups? Or was its growth random and natural? The analytical tools in the program allow us to assess distance, spatial relationships, location patterns or other information. It can be used to understand space use in both historic cemeteries and modern ones.

There are a number of ancient and historic projects using GIS to interpret mortuary sites. Sayer and Wienhold (2012) argue that analysis of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries have been primarily based on the rich material goods found at them, but the spatial assessment is just as important. GIS can be used to test different types of relationships than traditional statistical methods or by simple visual assessment. Macroscopic or simple visual analysis has argued that cemeteries appear to cluster around multiple foci and these may be family clusters. For their investigation, they use four cemeteries that date from the 6th to 7th centuries CE. They assess burials using Ripley’s K function which measures clustering or segregation, and kernel density which creates a visual of holes and foci. The variables selected are presence of grave furnishings and chronology. They found that there were a number of large clusters present at each cemetery, some loose and some tight. The addition of chronology was important as the clustering only became apparent when it was accounted for. They argue that these cemeteries have plots that are made for large multi-vocational households and there is status differentiation within them.

Map of Cave Bioarchaeology GIS, Coded plan map of Lot IV in Arañas. Elementsare coded by skeletal divisions (cranial, axial, appendicular, or indeterminate), via Herrmann 2002

Map of Cave Bioarchaeology GIS, Coded plan map of Lot IV in Arañas. Elements
are coded by skeletal divisions (cranial, axial, appendicular, or indeterminate), via Herrmann 2002

Another historic analysis was done by Herrmann (2002) used GIS to analyze cave burials in Honduras. Understanding the deposition of bodies within caves can be difficult, and interpretations range from convenience to symbolic purposes. From the site of Cueva de las Arañas, he was able to use digital images of the cave and an overall map to create a digital map with every bone. Each bone was assigned data about its area (axial, appendicular, cranial), side (left or right), and type of bone. He argues that GIS allows analysis of the context and remains within the lab. It also allows for ossuaries (areas where  to be mapped in a coherent manner, allowing singular types of bones to be selected and analyzed. By creating a digital map of the cave, they can better visualize the distribution of bones and better interpret them. Based on the analysis of distribution of crania, tibia and femora, he concludes that it was likely that individuals were brought into the cave after already having decomposed and were placed as bundles within the cave. This is evidenced by the presence of single pairs of the long bones and a single crania in these piles found throughout the save.

For one more, check out my post on “Landscapes of Death” which discusses a really cool project to determine whether the location of burial sites around Lake Titicaca was random or had meaning.

GIS is also used in more modern cemeteries to map location of the deceased and to aid with cemetery organization. The Old Cohansey Baptist Cemetery, dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, in New Jersey was mapped using GPS and GIS in order to create a record of the cemetery (Mollick 2005). The cemetery lacked any historical information, and there were no maps. They used coordinates of each grave marker, and attached data on the individuals they could glean from the markers such as name, age, years, sex, and style of marker. Not only did this create a map of the cemetery and aid in its historic preservation, it allowed for analyses of the cemetery to understand distribution of grave marker types, genealogical relationships by identifying family plots as well as age and sex distributions. Most importantly, the project collected information on preservation in order to determine which areas of the cemetery were in most need of conservation and renewal. Another example of this is the Riverside Cemetery in North Carolina which was mapped using GIS to preserve information and protect the heritage of this historic location.

A very modern example is that of the City of Waukesha’s Prairie Home Cemetery GIS. This was developed using a Cemetery Information Management System (CIMS), a customized GIS specifically for cemetery management. The GIS allows for users to search for specific burial plots of individuals and gain information about date of burial, age, the funeral home, and the specific location in the cemetery. You can also see burial plots that are reserved for individuals, and ones that are open and not reserved. What will be great, is that as this cemetery ages and fills up (which it is pretty close to already) we will already have a GIS in place for historical research. (See screenshot below: red= current burial, blue= restricted burial, orange= sold, green= open)

Screenshot of the

Screenshot of the City of Waukesha’s Prairie Home Cemetery GIS

GIS is a great tool for doing spatial analyses of mortuary sites, both past and present. Honestly, it’s one of the best skills I acquired during my undergrad years and one that has become pivotal to my dissertation research. If you know of any good GIS projects, ancient, historic or modern, please let me know and I will add them to this list! 

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgSayer, D., & Wienhold, M. (2012). A GIS-Investigation of Four Early Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries: Ripley’s K-function Analysis of Spatial Groupings Amongst Graves Social Science Computer Review, 31 (1), 71-89 DOI: 10.1177/0894439312453276

Herrmann, Nicholas (2002). GIS Applied to Bioarchaeology Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, 64 (1), 17-22

Mollick, S. 2005. Mapping the Dead. Presentation at the ESRI Conference. Paper Available in Electronic Format.


13 responses to “Digitally Mapping Graveyards

  1. This was a great read. I’m learning how to use ArcGIS right now (though in an environmental science context) and it’s so neat to see how others are using it.

  2. Google “GIS cemeteries burials” to produce dozens of results.

    For example
    Spatial analysis of funerary areas, Edited by Ladislav Šmejda & Jan Turek is a whole collection of such studies of Czech burial grounds

    Spatial and social structure of the Bronze Age burial mound cemeteries in Bohemia

    Burial excavations at Kyzyl-Tas in the foothill regions of eastern Kazakhstan (Bronze Age nomads)

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  4. I’ve been following you for a few months. I am about to embark on a very similar project for my thesis research and when I searched for GIS Mapping of cemeteries, your blog came up! Thank you for your work, this is great and very helpful since I was still kind of confused about GIS. 🙂

      • Thanks Katy! The first part of my project is for my Digital Humanities class. I’m a first year master’s student in Public History. (BA was in archaeology but that was 13 years ago…a lot has changed!! LOL) Still trying to get my head around all these concepts – I have a blog at used for class blogging, but eventually will also house my thesis project. If you read it, feel free to give feedback! 🙂 Anyway, thesis project is still in infancy, but I hope to create in this class a way to digital map and analyze cemeteries that I then can use to create a larger project for my thesis. No time period, but the project for class I am using a couple of historic family cemeteries in Ohio that I’ve researched in my genealogy work. They have burials from around mid to late 1800s. I may fail at that and have to go w/ the township cemetery. I really don’t know what I am doing so this ought to be interesting! If you have any additional suggestions on things to read (I checked out your sources above, the Sayer/Wienhold article was excellent) that would be great. May I email you if I have a question? Thanks!

      • Sorry this reply is late- away on break! Feel free to email me with any questions. I did a GIS based study of a historic cemetery in Upstate NY and am happy to answer any questions!

  5. I have a customer that is looking for ArcGIS Personal or File Geodatabase template for mapping cemeteries in their town. I asked some Esri staff at the UC conference last summer for one and I think I surprised them. They said the did not have one yet. Can anyone point me to any resources?

    • I guess I need a little more info- do they want to just map, or do they want to do analysis? CartoDB and Mapbox are great ways of storing and visualizing data, but the actual analysis isn’t as robust.

  6. Great article on very important issue.
    Not many good solutions out there thoug (In terms of user interface and user friendliness).

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