Written In Stone

I. Summary

For centuries, people have marked graves and commemorated the dead. Stones were originally used by prehistoric man to keep wild animals from digging up the gravesite. Today cemetery markers are artifacts, and when studied like an artifact, will reveal historical information. In addition, the inscriptions and accurate dating on the tombstone disclose even more insight to the past. In this lesson, students learn how to investigate tombstones at a local cemetery for historical information. Students will investigate tombstones for historical information, make stone rubbings, and use this secondary source reference to obtain primary sources.


II. Objectives

  • Students will draw conclusions, make predictions, and practice making environmentally responsible decisions
  • Students will acquire knowledge, clarify thinking, record information, synthesize information, and enhance historical thinking
  • Students will learn how to examine tombstones and treat them as artifacts, gaining information that can be instrumental in investigating the community's past or an individual's genealogy
  • Students will make gravestone shadings, record and interpret information
  • Students will learn to respect and appreciate artifacts from history


III. Materials Needed

  • Cemetery background information sheet, research logs
  • A local cemetery to visit
  • Paper, pencil, charcoal or chalk sticks
  • Large sheets or rolls of paper


IV. Procedure

1. (Class 1) The teacher will introduce this project by sharing the streaming video the History of Writing.

History of Writing

Gwen tells us about the history of the written word.

2. Discuss with students why they think writing became important. Discuss with students why stone was used. Ask students if they can think of a modern stone with writing with historical impact.

3. The teacher will then discuss tombstones as a type of artifact. A tombstone bears historical significance to the past. Discuss symbols that are often placed on a tombstone. Compare this writing to the first writing.

4. Ask students if they have ever put their handprints in wet cement, ever written graffiti in a public place, or ever lost a personal belonging. Discuss what it means to leave personal history through fingerprints, footprints, hair, DNA and personal belongings.

5. Discuss the less-obvious ways that we leave our imprint on history. Cemeteries are sometimes personal and sensitive issues with students that may have lost loved ones. Although it is good for students to work through grief, some students may be more at ease with this subject than others. Therefore, providing a chance to discuss their memories will help with the sensitivity of this lesson. Students can also discuss records of our data as less-seen historical prints.

6. Discuss tombstone inscriptions as a way to identify interests, values, or personal traits. Discuss what you learn about these people and about history through the tombstone inscriptions:

  • Alexander the Great's tombstone inscription: "A tomb now suffices for him whom the world was not enough."
  • Wyatt Earp and Josephine: "That nothing's so sacred as honor and nothing's so loyal as love."
  • Sir Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald: "So we beat on, boats, against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
  • Robert Lee Frost: "I had a Lover's Quarrel with the World."
  • Thomas Jefferson: "Here is buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence...."

7. Ask students to comment on what they know of the history of tombstones. Ask students to brainstorm clues that one can obtain from a tombstone (dates, spouses, interests, etc). Ask students how this information might be beneficial (researching genealogy and researching town histories).

8. The teacher will cover background information titled "Cemetery Information" with students. The information on the History Detectives site on artifacts will also be very helpful to students as they approach the tombstones as artifacts.

9. (Class 2) Before the students go on a field trip to a local cemetery, read the information on History Detectives site titled "Taking a Field Trip" for more vital information on taking class trips.

10. Visit the 2004 Lesson Plan entitled "Before We Travel, We Research" from the History Detectives site. Have students research documents (primary sources) that may provide more information about gravesites. Students should click on the links and peruse the checklists for tracking people under the Do It Yourself link.

11. Divide students into groups of four students. Roles will be given to each student in the group. One student will be the investigator. One student will become the gumshoe. One student will be the private eye. One will be the detective. The investigator will use clues, observe, and decide which data should be recorded. The gumshoe will record the data. The private eye will encourage students with comments like "good job" and "great idea," will remind students of rules when needed, ensure that the students are respectful of the cemetery, and will be the link between teacher communication and the group. The detective will be the student that gives the presentation upon returning to class.

12. (Class 3) Prepare students for the trip by demonstrating tombstone rubbings. Explain to students that they will take a large sheet of paper, place it over the tombstone, and rub the charcoal pencil or chalk over the stone. To provide a simple demonstration, put paper over a penny and rub a pencil over the penny.

13. Explain rules and procedures for the cemetery visit (see background information). Take this opportunity to talk about aging tombstones and how best to preserve the information. Shaving cream has traditionally been used to clean tombstones and to ensure that the inscription can be read. Discuss that acidic solutions can deteriorate the stone. Today, battery-powered black lights are being used to read those tombstones that have not aged well.

14. Provide students with forms for gathering and organizing information gathered from the cemetery.

15. Explain proper behavior in this solemn setting. Also, teach respect for history and the artifacts there.

16. After students have been prepared with the needed background information, the trip has been organized, and the proper research has been completed, your class will be well prepared for their excursion.

17. (Class 5) Once at the cemetery, students should use their research log to record locations of gravestones and names. The gravestone will be a lead to other records, such as newspapers obituaries, churches, funeral records, courthouse records, and military or pension files. Visit the History Detectives site for hints for finding and using these documents.

18. The students will create a stone rubbing. Working in small groups, the students will put a large sheet of paper over a tombstone. Using chalk or a charcoal pencil, have students rub the charcoal on the paper over the tombstone, being careful to take note of images or letters.

19. (Class 6) When students have returned to school, have them work in small groups and share their collected data. Have each small group present their findings.

20. As a concluding activity, have students write an obituary that might appear in a paper for the death cartoon character of the students' choice. Let the students design a monument or headstone for that cartoon character. Display these. 


V. Classroom Rubric for Assessment




  Partial Mastery   Mastery
Understanding data collection: of primary sources, tombstones, and interviews   Student kept little or no records of data.   Student kept adequate records of data.   Student kept complete, neat, and organized records of data.

Neatness, originality, and completeness of all written tasks.


  No or few written tasks were completed.   Most written tasks were neat, original, interesting, and complete.   All written tasks were excellent, neat, original, interesting, and complete.
Demonstration of teamwork and environmental responsibility   Did not attempt to work as a team nor to model environmental responsibility.   Attempted to work as a team and to model environmental responsibility.   Excellent teamwork and awareness of environmental responsibility.
Presentation to class   Lacked subject material mastery and no or little presentation.   Presentation demonstrated knowledge of subject material and was presented in an interesting way.   Presentation demonstrated mastery of subject material and was presented in an interesting way.


VI. Extensions and Adaptations

  • Encourage students to continue with their research. Students can research the following topics in relationship to the cemetery: how dealing with death has evolved through history, the different death customs and attitudes in different countries, and genealogy.
  • Hold a career fair to acquaint the future investigators to jobs that use clues. Invite an archeologist, a geologist, historians, reporters, technicians and others.
  • Have students research other epigraphs.
  • Encourage students to research preservation of artifacts.


VII. Standards From McREL



Standard 1. 7

  • Writes expository compositions (e.g., synthesizes and organizes information from first- and second-hand sources, including books, magazines, computer data banks, and the community; uses a variety of techniques to develop the main idea [names, describes, or differentiates parts; compares or contrasts; examines the history of a subject; cites an anecdote to provide an example; illustrates through a scenario; provides interesting facts about the subject]; distinguishes relative importance of facts, data, and ideas; uses appropriate technical terms and notations)


Standard 1.11

  • Writes reflective compositions (e.g., uses personal experience as a basis for reflection on some aspect of life, draws abstract comparisons between specific incidents and abstract concepts, maintains a balance between describing incidents and relating them to more general abstract ideas that illustrate personal beliefs, moves from specific examples to generalizations about life)


Standard 4.1

  • Uses appropriate research methodology (e.g., formulates questions and refines topics, develops a plan for research; organizes what is known about a topic; uses appropriate research methods, such as questionnaires, experiments, field studies; collects information to narrow and develop a topic and support a thesis)



Standard 3.1 

  • Establishes and adjusts purposes for reading (e.g., to understand, interpret, enjoy, solve problems, predict outcomes, answer a specific question, form an opinion, skim for facts; to discover models for own writing)



Standard 2. 2 

  • Understands historical perspective
  • Understands that specific individuals had a great impact on history


Standard 2. 3

  • Understands historical perspective
  • Understands that specific ideas had an impact on history


Science: Standard 13.1 

  • Understands the scientific enterprise
  • Knows that people of all backgrounds and with diverse interests, talents, qualities, and motivations engage in fields of science and engineering; some of these people work in teams and others work alone, but all communicate extensively with others


Standard 1.4: 

  • Uses a variety of strategies in the problem-solving process
  • Formulates a problem, determines information required to solve the problem, chooses methods for obtaining this information, and sets limits for acceptable solutions


Standard 3.1: 

  • Uses basic and advanced procedures while performing the processes of computation
  • Adds, subtracts, multiplies, and divides integers, and rational numbers


Standard 1. 3: 

  • Knows the characteristics and uses of computer hardware and operating systems
  • Connects via modem to other computer users via the internet, and on-line service, or bulletin board system


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