Cemeteries Support Learning about Local History & New England Culture

Cemetery Studies Reveal Local History and Speak to Life (and Death) in Centuries Past

Through self-guided tours, special exhibits, and seasonal events, families can explore local cemeteries in order to deepen their understanding of community history. With some local cemeteries pushing their 400th birthday, western Massachusetts’ burying grounds are filled with opportunities for hands-on community-based learning.

Accompanying fall’s spook-filled Halloween celebrations come opportunities to explore and learn about cemeteries and graveyards across western Massachusetts. Filled with stone markers that chronicle a community’s history, local cemeteries can provide visitors with a look deep into the past. Some local communities have been existed for over 300 years, and gravestones in such places speak volumes about centuries past. Everything from the names of buried people to the style of the stone can tell visitors something about the time period to which that a headstone dates back. And on top of learning about the history of a place, visitors can celebrate and honor the things that members of generations past have contributed to their present day community.

A study of a local cemetery (or a few of them!) can help students to understand how individuals’ life stories contribute to the re-telling of history. Photographing and sketching gravestones is a fun way to introduce the study of headstones, and can help children learn that cemeteries don’t have to be scary. Studying the beauty of hand-carved headstones into a similarly beautiful art-producing activity adds to the intrigue of a cemetery, but decreases the fear factor. 

To broaden and deepen independent cemetery studies, browse through resources offered by The Association for Gravestone Studies. The locally-based organization offers resources for learning to preserve and conserve cemeteries, support for decoding the symbolism found on headstones, and extensive online archives. Cemeteries a bit further from home, apply what you’ve learned by exploring nearby burial grounds to images historic headstones from around New England.

Families wishing to engage in self-guided tours of a historic cemetery can visit Longmeadow’s Olde Burying Yard section of the Longmeadow Cemetery, where a collection of headstones serve as a museum chronicling the town’s history. Some gravestones can be explored via virtual tour, while others must be located in person. Historic Northampton offers virtual tours of the city’s Bridge Street Cemetery, a 300-year-old graveyard that is the final resting place of many notable Northamptonites.

In addition to self-guided studies of cemeteries are many upcoming opportunities for community-based learning surrounding cemeteries. From walking tours to stone carving, these intergenerational community events offer a wide range of exciting learning opportunities!

Archaeology Day in Deerfield – Visitors to Historic Deerfield on October 17th can enjoy a guided archaeological tour of the village, as well as the historic Old Burying Ground. This special event is part of Massachusetts Archaeology Month, and will take place from 10am-12:30pm on Saturday, October 17th, 2015. 413-774-5581. 84B Old Main Street. Deerfield, MA. (FREE)

Ghosts in the Graveyard – An annual offering from the Longmeadow Historical Society, Ghosts in the Graveyard is a spooky tour of a historic cemetery open to guests of all ages. Participants should meet in the Longmeadow Cemetery behind the First Church of Christ at 6:30pm on Saturday, October 23rd, 2015. 763 Longmeadow Street. Longmeadow, MA.

SpiritWalk – Part of the Sheffield Historical Society’s SpiritFest, SpiritWalk is a daytime tour of the historic Center Cemetery, through which families can learn about the town’s history and the folks whose lives are memorialized through the cemetery’s graves. Held from 2-4pm on Saturday, October 24th, 2015. 413-229-2694. Berkshire School Road. Sheffield, MA.

Historical Tours of Forestdale Cemetery – Learn about Holyoke’s founding families and the realities of life and death in the 19th century on this guided tour of the city’s Forestdale Cemetery. City historian Penny Martorell will lead a flashlight tour at 6pm on Friday, October 30th, 2015, and a daylight tour at 3pm on Saturday, October 31st. 413-322-5660. Rock Valley Road. Holyoke, MA. ($)

Old Burying Ground Tour – Visit Historic Deerfield for a tour of the historic burying ground, dating back to the early days of European settlement in the Pioneer Valley. Led by a master guide, the tour will highlight important pieces of Deerfield’s history and will take place at 11am on Friday, October 30th, 2015. 413-774-5581. 84B Old Main Street. Deerfield, MA. ($, passes available at local libraries)

Gravestone Carving – Watch the art of gravestone carving firsthand at Historic Deerfield! Carver Karin Sprague will demonstrate her craft from 10:30am-4pm on Saturday, October 31st, 2015. 413-774-5581. 84B Old Main Street. Deerfield, MA. ($, passes available at local libraries)

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