Hal Hassen is an archaeologist. He directed the Cultural Resource Management Program for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources from 1990 to 2015. He is coauthor, along with Dawn Cobb, of the Illinois Historic Cemetery Preservation Handbook. Dawn Cobb is a bio-anthropologist. She has been the director of the Cultural Resource Management Program for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources since 2016 and is a Research Associate at the Illinois State Museum. They recently answered some questions about their book Cemeteries of Illinois: A Field Guide to Markers, Monuments, and Motifs.
Q: What are some of the ways burial grounds have changed over time in Illinois?
Hal Hassen & Dawn Cobb: Burial grounds have become larger in size and people are now buried in areas surrounded by strangers. Small burial grounds were located on family farms and contained immediate and extended family members. Today most burials occur in urban areas supporting tens of thousands of graves. This shift mirrors demographic changes from a rural agricultural society to an urban, industrial, and service-oriented economy.
Q: What’s the difference between a burial ground and a cemetery?
H & C: The word cemetery comes from the Greeks and means dormitory or sleeping place. With the advent of the Rural Cemetery Movement in the mid to late 19th Century cemetery developers wished to convey the image that the deceased was “sleeping” or “at rest” rather than the more direct and bleak reference to being dead.
Q: How do burial grounds serve as a window into the social and economic conditions of different time periods?
H & C: Changes in marker materials and styles were an outgrowth of consumerism during the 19th and 20th Centuries. As merchants had access to a wider variety of items these objects were effectively marketed to the consumer through catalogs and advertisements. Some of these products were mass produced and everyone had access to them no matter what their economic or social status. This is no different from how cars are sold today.
Q: What are some of the different types of burial grounds found in Illinois?
H & C: Beginning with the small rural family plot, Illinois also has large commercial urban cemeteries, church graveyards, and memorial parks. Illinois also has institutional cemeteries associated with 19th and early 20th Century county poor farms.
Q: How do burial grounds provide a unique opportunity for ordinary individuals to interpret human behavior through material culture like a historian or archaeologist would?
H & C: Grave makers inform us about the individual who is buried but also about the individual(s) responsible for buying the marker. Thus, in Illinois when we see a marble marker with a death date of 1825 we know that it is a replacement marker because marble was not available in Illinois until after the 1850s. Therefore, someone decided to spend the money to purchase an expensive marble marker long after the death of their loved one. Knowing the chronology of when marker types appear is similar to knowing the chronological changes associated with prehistoric pottery or stone tools as studied by archaeologists.
Q: What suggestions do you have for the novice burial ground visitor?
H & C: Visit small burial grounds and take your time walking through them. Begin to recognize the materials and styles you see. Although the burial grounds are small they will still contain differences. After spending time in the smaller burial grounds, you will be better equipped to understand the differences you see in larger cemeteries. Also, there may be an aspect to the marker or burial ground that is particularly interesting. For example, you may focus on folk art or sandstone markers. Then when you visit other burial grounds you may seek these out and experience the excitement of finding what you are looking for.