Our journey begins. Since the times of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis some 100,000 years ago, when hominins began to bury their dead, human beings have been enchanted with the idea of an afterlife, immortality, and the supernatural (Ronen, 2012). However, regardless of the elapsed period of time, humans have been trying to cope with the “…horrendous, nonmanipulable aspects of human existence, the sense of finitude—which is to say, the human condition” (Tremmel, 1976). Thus, in an effort to fight this sense of finitude, we “immortalize” ourselves by erecting long-lasting monuments. At the same time, we are unknowingly constructing an enduring, intelligible record of that culture to which we belong—a record that is accurate, historically significant, and one which transverses time and space.
According to Dethlefsen and Deetz, cemeteries, both old and new, incorporate “…a remarkably sensitive record of change, representing successive generations, each with its own distinctive set of values and ways of perceiving the environment” (Dethlefsen & Jensen, 1977). They also pointed out that “…gravestones are probably unique in permitting the anthropologist to investigate interrelated changes in style, religion, population, personal and societal values, and social organization under absolute chronological control with a full historical record against which to project results for accuracy” (Dethlefsen & Deetz, 1966).
This is all made possible by the fact that burial sites exhibit the dimensions of space, time, and form (Dethlefsen & Deetz, 1967), and all the changes that occur therein are the results of overall changes in society. For instance, the stylistic changes that gravestones undergo, which includes its dimensions, materials, motifs, and inscriptions, can be construed as “…a function of changes in religious values combined with significant shifts in views regarding death…” and these changes occur “…at different rates and probably for different reasons” (Dethlefsen & Deetz, 1966). Also, the inscriptions found on the gravestones, consisting primarily of names, dates, and epitaphs, “…provide a unique literary and psychological dimension…” (Dethlefsen & Deetz, 1967).
As a result, the graveyard may be regarded as a microcosm—equally diverse, complex, and dynamic. Thus, an investigation of the “…overall funerary strategy of a culture can be very informative, and its study may yield hypothesis about the nature of the parent society” (Orme, 1981).
Next week in Part 3 of 5, we will visit a few of the cemeteries within close proximity of Ybor City.
Dethlefsen, E. S., & Deetz, J. (1966). Death’s Heads, Cherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries. American Antiquity, 31(4), 502-510.
Dethlefsen, E. S., & Deetz, P. (1967). Death’s Heads, Cherubs, Urn, and Willow. Natural History, LXXVI(3), 29-30.
Dethlefsen, E. S., & Jensen, K. (1977). Social Commentary from the Cemetery. Natural History, LXXXVI(6), 32-39.
Orme, B. (1981). Anthropology for Archaeologists. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Ronen, A. (2012, April). The oldest burials and their significance. Retrieved March 9, 2020, from African Genesis: Perspectives on Hominin Evolution: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/african-genesis/oldest-burials-and-their-significance/1B10F74654E37D2BC17D34C79E819134
Tremmel, W. C. (1976). Religion: What Is It? New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.