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Social Status in The Tombstones and How Wealth and Long Life Are Connected

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Trends and Inequality in Longevity

Throughout history, honoring the dead has been an important tradition, and one way to do so is by erecting headstones that are usually personalized. During the late 1800s through the early 1900s, life expectancy was much lower than it is now; “in 1842 the average age of death for gentlemen and persons engaged in professions and their families was 45 years, for tradesmen and their families, it was 26 years, whereas for mechanics, servants, and laborers and their families it was only 16 years” (Smith). Social status is displayed through the tombstones of the deceased, and throughout this essay, the correlation between wealth and longevity will be explored, as well as height and material of the tombstones depending on social status. Referencing the article “Socioeconomic differentials in mortality: evidence from Glasgow graveyards” by George Davey Smith and actual samples taken from Old City Cemetery will allow the dead to continue telling their stories of health and wealth, or in many cases, the opposite.

A visit to Old City Cemetery in Tallahassee, Florida to collect data for this essay provided a chance to research the differences in material used, height and extravagance in regards to wealth associated with each of the deceased beginning in 1829, when the cemetery was established. Just like George Davey Smith, I “set out to determine whether better socioeconomic status, indexed by taller obelisks, was associated with greater longevity during the period 1801-1920” (Smith). Right away, it became relevant that taller gravestones belonged to wealthier families, and as hypothesized, the dates on these particular stones had a greater amount of time between them than the shorter and less ornate stones. “One way the issue can be explored is through commemorative obelisks of a uniform design found in burial grounds in Glasgow. The height of these obelisks varies greatly, yet their shape remains standard. As the height would influence the cost of the obelisk, it is reasonable to assume that more wealthy descendants would be commemorated by taller obelisks” (Smith). Photos collected from Old City Cemetery paint a picture that back up this idea written about by Smith.

Another important factor in this research is the materials used to create the headstones. 43 photos were taken of headstones for this essay, and of these 43, 16 headstones were created with sandstone. “Granite was and is the most expensive of these materials and sandstone the least expensive” (Smith). The photos show that 70% of headstones created for people who died before the 1960s were made of sandstone or slate. As time moves more towards the late 1900s, early 2000s, many more marble and granite tombstones can be observed, which indicates that these materials may have become more widely available and prices may have dropped. The longevity of people with sandstone or slate headstones after the 1960s was shorter than those who had marble or granite headstones, showing that wealth and health did have a strong connection during this time period.

The Victorian Age was a time of new technological and business advances, thrusting the market into heights it had never been before, and with these advances came new attitudes towards children. The greed, dishonesty, and opportunism shown in the marketplace caused children to truly gain even more of an innocent glow than they had before. “As innocent beings, small babes were untouched by outside forces; they were not part of “the world.” And if they died, they were depicted in the cemetery in a way that would have been denied to them had they reached adulthood” (Meyer). The photographs obtained in Old City Cemetery show that this description rang true in Tallahassee. 12 of the 43 photographs taken were of children’s gravestones, and there is no question that these were more flamboyant than adult gravestones in the same time period. “The forms these gravemarkers took, and the props they utilized, placed them squarely in the realm of childhood—a realm totally removed from the adult world of men and the marketplace. Ultimately, children in the cemetery remained forever young, more notable for their deaths than their short lives” (Meyer).

In regards to gender differences displayed on gravestones, during the Victorian Age, men were the owners and operators of businesses, were active in the workforce, and were said to be the glue that held society together. Due to these reasons, one may assume that men’s gravestones would be bigger or more elaborate than women’s. While this was not the case in Old City Cemetery, a pattern of placing “wife of” after the lady’s name was quite relevant, as 90% of the women’s gravestones had this. Many of these also had titles like “loving mother” on them also. One can infer by dates on these tombstones that many women lived shorter lives than their husbands. This was largely due to death during childbirth, as women did not have good healthcare or resources to help them during this time in their life. Women were also second to their husbands when it came to food consumption in the household, so often women would go hungry, causing greater risk for death through health issues. One major health issue during the Victorian Age was yellow fever. This affected women more heavily during this time period because in poor families, they ate less, making their immune systems less resistant than men’s. “It is commonplace that Victorian society was obsessed with class. Burial arrangements could clearly reflect respectability and social aspirations as well as economic position” (Smith). It can be gathered that women’s place in society was likely due to their husband’s.

While many women’s headstones in the Old City Cemetery boasted titles in relation to their husbands or other family members, some men’s headstones linked them to certain organizations. One in particular that stood out was John R. Duval’s. Under his name was “First Grand Master of the M.W. Grand Lodge F. & A.M. of Florida Born June 8, 1790, died December 4, 1854, Erected by the Grand Lodge”. These titles mean that he was a free mason, which is an organization established mostly for fraternal relations as well as networking. Freemasonry involves elaborate secret traditions and rituals. Having a title on your gravestone establishes your status in society forever, and displays a sense of attachment to an organization, which is very important in society. Many other headstones said things like “village blacksmith”. “The idea of attachment, to place, family, employment, institutions, community, and neighborhood is very often discussed in public debate nowadays; and there is a strong presumption that it has declined over time. Rootlessness and a sense of ‘non-identity’ of having no established place in a community are repeatedly linked to social disintegration, crime, and an erosion of national, family, and regional loyalties” (Snell). It is interesting how a simple connection to a parish or organization is so important to society that it is even displayed on their gravestones forever.

While the height of the gravestones seemingly represented wealth with a connection to longevity, this could be for two reasons. “Either higher socioeconomic status, as indexed by height of obelisk, is associated with greater longevity, or living longer leads to greater accumulation of assets, which are in part exchanged for a larger memorial after death” (Smith). This was the most obvious component of Old City Cemetery, that the wealthier the family, the taller the headstones. Some cemeteries have rules and regulations dictating how big each memorial can actually be. An outbreak of yellow fever in Tallahassee caused the cemetery to have to square off each section of land to allow each of the deceased the same amount of space. This particular cemetery was segregated, separating the whites, which were buried in the east from the African Americans buried in the west, but no major difference in these two sections was noted.

In many instances, headstones in cemeteries are the only tangible things left to commemorate certain people throughout history. Many people who subsidized Tallahassee and helped make it into the city that it is today are buried at Old City Cemetery, and their status in society is still known through the height and décor of their gravestones. “Cemeteries and the stones within them are ways of remembering individuals who are no longer living. Not only do we need to remember the individuals buried there, but we need to understand why we bury individuals the ways we do and what that says about our societies” (Ritter). Titles on gravestones hold a very significant piece of society, as they are proven to create a sense of attachment to people, places, churches, or other organizations, which reduces crime and brings society closer so that we are able to collaborate on more things throughout history. In this cemetery as well as many others during the mid 1800s to 2000s places elaborate gravesites in memory of deceased children. This is because they never got to grow up and witness and possibly become the evils of the world. A child’s death is particularly sad, and these large memorials display the loss. While cemeteries can be sad and depressing for some, to others they are outdoor museums, brimming with history and characterizations of the past.

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Social Status In The Tombstones And How Wealth And Long Life Are Connected. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 28, 2021, from
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