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History Hunters Cemetery Tour

This teacher-submitted, elementary-level lesson plan appeared in Badger History Bulletin. Please adapt it to fit your students' needs.

Author: Ruth Ann Montgomery, Eager Free Public Library, Evansville


Since 1970, the Eager Free Public Library has been conducting an after--school program for fourth graders. The cemetery tour is one of the successful projects, easily adaptable to a regular classroom setting when exploring topics in state and local history.


Students will become familiar with their local cemetery, learn to identify symbols on tombstones and learn about the lives of people---both outstanding and ordinary---in the community's past.

Basic skills include:

  • following directions
  • reinforcing map--reading
  • learning etiquette of cemetery visits
  • identifying symbols used on tombstones
  • developing interest in local social history
  • becoming familiar with the community's outstanding past personalities

Enrichment activities include:

  • tombstone rubbings (May not be recommended if the stone is in poor condition.)
  • tour of the cemetery
  • interaction with historical society interpreters

Desired Outcomes

  1. Students will become familiar with a local cemetery.
  2. Students will learn appropriate traditions for cemetery visits.
  3. Students will be able to identify and interpret common symbols used on tombstones.
  4. Students will appreciate contributions made by community's past leaders and how they shaped the community's growth and development.
  5. Students will be able to use tombstone rubbings as a documentary tool.


  1. Brainstorm with your class reasons that a cemetery makes an excellent place to conduct research.
  2. Prepare a brief history of the cemetery, or invite a local community historian to the class to share that information.
  3. Make copies of local cemetery map for each student (or student team), highlighting burial places of important people in the community and some tombstones with symbols that you want your students to notice. Background information about tombstone symbols can also be distributed ahead of time and discussed.
  4. With the help of your local historical society, prepare brief biographical sketches of each important person discussed, or arrange for volunteers to stand at the graves designated on the maps and talk briefly about the significance of the person buried there.
    When dealing with a large group, it may be desirable to divide students into small groups and create a route through the cemetery that will allow rotating through several starting points along the predetermined route.
  5. After finishing the tour of the cemetery, students will work in groups of two. They will select the tombstones which demonstrate some of the themes discussed in terms of community history, decorative symbols or other locally significant information to make their rubbings. The teacher and one student can demonstrate placing the sheet of newsprint over the tombstone. One partner holds the paper in place while the other takes a large crayon (minus the paper covering) and rubs the side of it carefully, but fairly vigorously, over the tombstone until the impression of the stone is visible. The rubbings can be displayed in the classroom.
  6. Students come away with an appreciation for the local cemetery as an important source of historical information, and something about those who have made an impact upon the community's history.

A Sample Sheet for the Cemetery Visit

Please do not walk on the graves!

Some things to look for:

  • Symbols: weeping willows, flowers, hands, lambs, angels, Masonic emblems
  • Shape of monuments: rectangular, obelisk, tree trunks, statuary--dominated
  • Markers made from various materials: bronze, granite, limestone, marble
  • Messages: "Budded on this earth to flower in heaven"
  • Number of children who died under five years
  • Earliest birth date in cemetery
  • Earliest death date in cemetery
  • Unusual first names
  • Military markers for different wars
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