Burying the Young: The Tropes of Coping in a Nineteenth-Century Cemetery


The icons and epitaphs on tombstones in a typical late-nineteenth/early twentieth century Southern graveyard illustrate the tropes employed by the grieving to cope with what modern people would see as unfathomable loss. As statistics show, around 1/3 of infants did not live until their first birthdays, and half of children born between 1850 and 1900 did not live long enough to reproduce. Their tombstones show, however, that grieving families could call upon a number of common tropes for comfort. Based on an analysis of tombstones in Sunset Cemetery, a cemetery in Shelby, NC, founded in 1841, this presentation will highlight epitaphs that include verses from hymns such as Fanny Crosby’s “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” and Margaret MacKay’s “Asleep in Jesus”; popular poems such as Longfellow’s “Resignation”; and the ubiquitous phrase “budded on earth to bloom in heaven,” a staple of tombstones sold through the Sears catalog or carved by local artisans. In addition, common tombstone designs such as grave cradles and fingers pointing up to heaven present condensed arguments about the safety, security, and continued existence of babies and children. The Spiritualist movement, which began in 1848, furthered the notion that the dead both thrive in the afterlife and remain in contact with their loved ones. Sociologists have described nineteenth-century strategies for dealing with loss a matter of dealing with “broken hearts” and contrast these formulas to the “broken bonds” model recommended to contemporary people, who treat grief as an illness and mourning as sentimental indulgence. Perhaps modern people have much to learn about death, grief, and mourning from those who managed them better than we do.