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In the Classroom > Unit Overview
Lessons: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |

Research & Investigation Project (RIP): A Grave Undertaking
Lesson 2: Speaking in Grave Tones

Unit Central Questions: In This Lesson:

How can we use primary source materials to investigate the lives of some people in Deerfield, Massachusetts in the period 1780-1880?

Lesson Length
Key Ideas
Activity 1
Activity 2
Activity 3

Lesson Length

Social Studies - two class periods
English - one class period

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Key Content Ideas Taught in this Lesson and Teacher Background

Social Studies: Epitaphs, the inscriptions carved into gravestones, are primary sources that provide valuable information about an individuals' life, social status, family and the time period in which he or she lived. Gravestone art and various forms of mourning art found in Deerfield reflect a change in attitudes towards death, particularly the shift from fatalistic Puritanical points of view to the more romantic Victorian perspectives.

Girls at this time were taught domestic arts such as embroidery and sewing, painting, calligraphy, and other decorative arts. Sometimes these were taught in academy settings and sometimes at home. Girls often used death and dying as subjects for their domestic arts.

English: Many great American writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Wheatley, and Poe lived during this age. Their writings help to define American Literature and had a profound influence on the thinking of the day. Their use of language and the topics about which they wrote reflect many of the experiences, attitudes, values, and ideas of the people of their times.

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Intended Learning Outcomes

Students will understand:

Social Studies

  • what epitaphs are and how they were used in the period of 1780-1880.
  • that epitaphs and grave inscriptions contain information and provide clues about an individual's life, social status, and family.
  • the principal terms used to describe the symbols found in mourning art.
  • that the materials, iconography, "architecture," and text of gravestones changed as attitudes, culture, and fashions changed.
  • that the gravesites in the Albany Road burying ground and the Laurel Hill
    Cemetery will provide important primary documentation for their research into the life of their historical figure.


  • Through the exploration of a selection of poetry and prose that spans this time period, students will understand the writers' use of poetic language, and how their writing reflects the times in which they lived.

Students will be able to:

Social Studies

  • draw duplicates of assigned tombstones in either Laurel Hill Cemetery or the Albany Road Burying Ground.
  • identify the relative age of tombstones by their artistic characteristics.
  • identify and explain the meaning of common symbols (iconography) used in tombstone and other mourning art.
  • read and understand epitaphs, and extract factual information and infer from them understandings about an individual's social status and family.
  • develop reasonable and defensible hypotheses about cultural attitudes toward death and about some aspects of social life.
  • read and gather information from headstones and record it on worksheets and in research organizers.


  • recognize metaphorical language, rhyme scheme, heroic couplets, and iambic pentameter in selections of poetry.
  • recognize the theme of a short story of the teacher's choosing.

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In Preparation for Teaching

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Social Studies

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources



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Activities Materials in Context

Activity 1: Social Studies Class
Speaking in Grave Tones

A. Discuss what students observed about the gravestones and any questions that arose as they worked in Lesson 1 on their inscriptions, epitaphs, materials and iconography.
B. Distribute the epitaph packet "Over Their Dead Bodies."
C. Divide students into research groups, and instruct them to read the epitaphs.
D. Distribute the Epitaph Worksheet, and ask groups to complete them.
E. Discuss the results of the group work. The discussion should focus on inferences to be made from the categories on the worksheet. Attention should be paid to the following:

1. What do epitaphs tell about the people they commemorate?
2. What do epitaphs reveal about the people who wrote them or arranged to have them placed at the gravesite?
3. Can we make any observations about the time period (cultural attitudes, social life, religious beliefs, etc.) based on what we learn from the stones?

F. Ask students to take out their completed "Cemetery Research Organizers."

1. Instruct students to analyze the gravestone of their research subjects, using the above questions. (It is helpful to write these questions on the board or on a piece of paper to which students may refer.)
2. Instruct students to keep notes on their discussion in their "Cemetery Research Organizers."

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Excerpts from Over Their Dead Bodies: Yankee Epitaphs and History, by Thomas C. Mann & Janet Greene.

Worksheet: Epitaphs








Cemetery Research Organizers

Activity 2: English Class
A Look at Some Literature of the Period- part 1

A. Distribute Phyllis Wheatley's poem "An Hymn to the Evening."
B. Present some biographical background information on Wheatley:

  • Poet Phyllis Wheatley, 1753-1784
  • Born in West Africa
  • Kidnapped at age 7
  • Transported to Boston, purchased by John Wheatley (tailor) and his wife Susanne
  • Within 16 months she could read the Bible, and studied Greek, Latin, astronomy, physics, history, and British literature
  • First poem published on December 21, 1767
  • 1773 - Published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
  • 1778 - Freed. Married a free black man.
  • First significant African-American writer in America

C. Ask students to read the poem silently. List and ask students to look up definitions of any words that are unclear.
D. Read the poem aloud. Discuss it, with particular emphasis on rhyme scheme, heroic couplets, and use of metaphor.
E. Ask students to list different and old-fashioned words that provide clues about the time in which Wheatley lived. Discuss.
F. Distribute the "Poetry and Hymns Worksheet/Note Sheet."
G. Working in small groups, instruct students to complete the "Poetry and Hymn Worksheet/Note Sheet" for the Wheatley poem. Discuss.
H. Assign students another poem to analyze as homework, using another copy of the worksheet. Ask students to read and analyze the poem, research some biographical information about the poet, and list different and old-fashioned words that provide clues to when the authors lived. They should then complete the worksheet. Distribute poems and worksheets as necessary. Students may choose from the following poems:

Susanna Haswell Rowson - "To Time"
Walt Whitman - "A Noiseless Patient Spider"
Dr. Nares - "Amsterdam" (hymn)

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Phyllis Wheatley poem "An Hymn to the Evening"

Biographical information on Rowson and Whitman

Worksheet: Poetry and Hymns









Susanna Haswell Rowson "To Time;"

Walt Whitman "A Noiseless Patient Spider"

Hymn: Dr. Nares "Amsterdam"


Activity 3: Social Studies Class
Mourning Art Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries- part one

A. Post on the wall copies of gravestone drawings from students' "Cemetery Research Organizers."
B. Distribute the list of "Typical Mourning Art Symbols."
C. Distribute the "Mourning Art Matching Worksheet." Ask students to match the symbol to its meaning.
D. Distribute "Mourning Arts, Notes on Characteristics" note-taking sheet. Instruct students to take notes on the sheet about the characteristics of mourning art during the periods of Puritanism and the Great Awakening. Using Death and Dying in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries and on-line images of different styles of gravestones from the list of gravestones at Albany Road Cemetery and Laurel Hill Cemetery, present a lecture about the differences in gravestones (epitaphs, iconography, materials, etc.) in the period of study, including information about the changing religious climate, social life, and cultural customs and attitudes about death.
E. Instruct students to use these resources to fill out and check their matching worksheets.

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Typical Mourning Art Symbols

Worksheet: Mourning Art Matching

Mourning Arts, Notes on Characteristics

Background Essay: Death and Dying in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries


List of gravestones at Albany Road Cemetery and Laurel Hill Cemetery

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