When it comes to teaching history, there’s nothing quite like letting the past speak for itself.
At cemeteries around the country, teachers can take advantage of this very option, tapping into educational programming that links monuments, gravesites, and even the local flora and fauna to history courses and more.
Conservancies governing these resting places offer programming for students of all ages — sometimes offering internships to older students — and will even develop unique lesson plans for educators who want something tailor-made for their specific grade or curriculum.
As to whether students may find the idea of visiting graves something of concern, experts say learners are often open, excited and eager to discover what lies above and beneath their feet.
“I find that when students come here, they’re not weirded out by being at a cemetery,” said Elizabeth Hunter, coordinator of educational programming at the Woodlawn Conservancy in New York. “They’re ready to learn.”
Art and preservation
The Woodlawn Conservancy serves as a nonprofit for the Woodlawn Cemetery, which is located in the Bronx and dates back to 1863. There, visitors can find historical figures from suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton to jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington, philanthropist and entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker to department store founder Rowland Hussey Macy.
A partnership with New York City Public Schools regularly brings students on tours throughout Woodlawn’s 400 acres. Visits can be tailored to history lessons around nearly any subject, including immigration, suffragettes and Black history, Hunter said.
“People worked so hard in their lives and curated beautiful legacies and monuments,” Hunter said. “And we take the approach of how fabulous it is we’re still learning about them 100 years later.”
One particular focus is on monuments. Students are challenged to think about what these memorials can tell visitors about the life of the person they represent and also how to preserve the materials used to build them.
Be it granite, marble or otherwise, preserving grave markers and monuments is a full-time endeavor for the conservancy — one that students can learn how to tackle, as well. Woodlawn hosts a trade program for young adults that runs 10 weeks and includes a landscaping and masonry tract. After high school, students can learn from master craftsmen and work directly on restoring some of the monuments. Some students can end up being hired by Woodlawn.
“We’re always asking high school senior guidance counselors for young people interested in going into trade programs,” Hunter said. “We tell schools to send your people our way.”
Ecosystems come alive
Rachel Walman, director of education at The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, said there are more than 570,000 permanent residents within its 478 acres, some of whom date back to 1732 and were reburied there. While students can visit to learn about the history of the people who reside there now, they can also learn about the wildlife that calls Green-Wood home.
“Students come to think about climate change and how we foster biodiversity,” Walman said. “It’s an incredible place to observe the more than 130 bird species that come through and migrate through annually.”
The cemetery has more than 7,000 trees, and with tours given year-round, students can track how the foliage changes seasonally. Additional topics that can be covered include why the cemetery is planting more native meadows than lawns.
“Lawns are tricky, because people associate cemeteries with lawns,” Walman said. “But lawns are not great and are associated with climate change.”
With its own environment educational director, Green-Wood Cemetery offers on-site programs and is piloting a middle school environmental education track. Students can come for single visits, or educators can book multiple tours for different grades.
For example, 6th-graders can learn about pollinators and their role in the food chain, collect seeds in the fall, and discover why butterflies, bees and other bugs burrow underground during the winter. Likewise, 7th-graders learn about early pioneers like Barry Commoner, a cellular biologist who helped foster the modern environmental movement, and Eunice Foote, the first to uncover how carbon dioxide traps heat within the atmosphere. In the 8th grade, students are encouraged to think about the role cemeteries play not just as resting places for loved ones, but as a home for other organisms.
“Considering Green-Wood is a cemetery, it needs to be aesthetically pleasing and make people feel comforted,” Walman said. “But it’s also a habitat. We’re not the only ones using this space.”
History as a collective memory
While the Green-Wood and Woodlawn cemeteries have robust educational opportunities readymade, any cemetery can be a rich learning experience for students. With a few tools and about a half hour, educators can transform their local cemetery into an interactive walking map for their classes — and find relevant applications to many subjects, modern or historical.
“We’re trying to make the national local,” said Jeffrey Smith, a senior professor of history at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. “You take the big picture and make it a living, breathing story.”
Smith worked to develop a series of free lessons that help educators use cemeteries to teach subjects from geology and history to English language arts and math. One of the lessons walks educators through the process of creating a digital map and QR code to mark gravestones visited as they tour a cemetery.
Smith said cemeteries are one of the best learning tools educators can use, getting students out of the classroom as they uncover how history has played out in their hometown.
Students might learn why certain occupations from the past no longer exist today. Educators can prompt learners to consider why one person is buried beneath a monument, while someone else is beneath a simple gravestone — and if that indicates their importance or not. Young students could even examine the role weather and materials play in why some stones appear crisp while others are hard to read.
“You can get them talking about how a place shapes not only our individual memories, but the way a community thinks about its collective memory,” Smith said.
Visiting a cemetery can open the door to stories from learners about loved ones they lost, which educators may want to consider — and prepare for — before visiting. But Smith holds that the experience of learning about local history can help them see the connection their world has to the larger one beyond.
“We want to create a sense of history in the place where you live, that this is your history,” he said. “Cemeteries can be daunting, but young people are curious about these places. After all, the cemetery is the great equalizer. Not only does every town have one, but people die in every town in America.”