Enliven history and public record research --in the cemetery
Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002
While much has been written about using the cemetery as a teaching resource for history lessons, its usefulness in journalism courses has been overlooked.
This project uses the cemetery and its inhabitants to pique interest in history and public documents. In fact, when students investigate a person—whose life has essentially been reduced to the elliptic inscription on a gravestone they find humanity among dusty documents and history comes to life.
Computers have journalism students more reluctant than ever to pursue the traditional paper chase in public documents. Add an historical component to an assignment and resistance increases markedly.
Thus, the challenge for teachers is to spark an interest in the paper version of document research—still an important tool of journalism. Likewise, if better journalism is fostered through an understanding of history, teachers should attempt to stimulate student interest in looking at the past.
Literally buried in cemeteries everywhere are stories that can enliven the history and/or public documents units in journalism courses. Some 15,125 people inhabited the cemetery used in this project, which involved students selecting a person to investigate through document research. This assignment also reinforces such skills as accurate notetaking, observation, and dealing with sources. Students also wrote a narrative news story about their subject's life and times.
Implementation Week 1: Assignment
Research a person buried in the local cemetery by examining public documents and related sources and write a story. Required: 10 sources or more.
Students find an area in the cemetery to walk among the graves, read the markers, and select a person. It's a good idea to check how far back local records exist. Given the resources in this locale, students were limited to people whose deaths were not before 1880.
Week 2: Historical research documents
Suggested order of research, location of documents, and information in the record follows:
Other record-holders: register of deeds to trace property ownership, election commissioner, the courts. The location of records will vary from state to state. Mortuaries and churches, although non-public, also may provide information.
- Obituary (newspapers, public or university libraries, historical society). Check for additional story about person's death.
- Other printed sources (newspapers, magazines, almanacs) for politcal, social, cultural context of subject's life.
- Cemetery records (cemetery office, historical society). Date of death and burial, cause of death, burial plot ownership.
- City directories (public or university libraries). Names, address, sometimes spouse and children, employer or profession.
- Census (government repository library). Recorded by family name, lists children, other residents in the home, and address, age and citizenship of household head. Sometimes lists married children.
- School census (county superintendent of schools, county clerk, historical society). Lists children, ages 5-20, in households by names and ages.
- Probate (county court, historical society). Hand-written wills (in older records). Lists heirs and addresses, executor, inventory of personal property, newspaper notices and bills. Adoption and guardianship records often included.
- Delayed birth records (county clerk, historical society). Legal document for people born before 1905, to obtain Social Security.
- Marriage records (county clerk). Indexed by year, then by name of either party. Couple's names, hometowns, ages, places of birth, parents, marriage date, witnesses, who performed ceremony.
- Military records (county veterans office). Records become public when veteran dies. Includes military discharge information, lists of veterans buried in the county, newspaper clippings, photographs, letters.
- Naturalization (historical society holds older records).
Week 3: Progress reports
Students report progress. Other students particularly helpful at this point because the research of entire class encompasses a variety of resources.
Class presentations/stones due Students introduce subject. Students encouraged to show sample documents, photos, newspaper clippings, and/or other relevant information.
Allow "debriefing" time be prepared as students may want to share thoughts about life—and death.
This assignment helped students connect information from documents typically mined by journalists with a person whose grave they had visited. Students were excited about their subjects' lives, not to mention the historical context: prices of food, gasoline and clothing, descriptions of local landmarks and businesses, movies and music, the weather and war. But there also was failure and tragedy: of the nine subjects, two committed suicide, one died at age 37 shortly after release from a mental hospital, and a 33-year old tuberculosis victim lived and died in apparent isolation.
Six of the students' stories were published in the local historical association newsletter. Their work also was featured in the organization's annual yearbook.
Poster Session Samples
Visual aids included sample documents as well as students' published work.