Gravemarkers, Cemeteries, and Memorials as Material Form and Context

Ann M Palkovich & Ann Korologos Bazarrone. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Studies of monuments for the dead reflect a wide range of interpretations. The Taj Majal, the pyramids of Giza, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the graveyards of Puritan New England, to name but a few, have been approached from architectural, archaeological, aesthetic, and genealogical perspectives. They have also been considered in relation to ideas about status, identity, ethnicity, and social history (e.g., see Bell 1994; Meyer 1992a, 1993; Parker Pearson 1999). With these diverse approaches, however, has often been embedded the assumption that gravemarkers signify individual interment sites that permanently record the identity of the deceased. In contrast, more recent studies have demonstrated that interment, place, and permanence are not universal, all-pervasive social practices. Rather than being frozen in time, cemeteries and memorials have been shown to represent dynamic collections of artifacts subject to the same practical, interpretative, and historical processes as any other cultural text. Furthermore, interment in cemeteries, the marking of individual graves, and the permanent sanctity of grave locations represent just one form of mortuary practice. Thus recent approaches to the nature of gravemarkers, cemeteries, and memorials provide us with a more complicated historical and sociocultural perspective by which to understand the relationship between the living and the dead as expressed through material culture.

In many Western countries, the rarity of gravemarkers prior to 1800 has been commonly attributed to factors of haphazard preservation. Some studies now suggest, however, that the use of permanent individual gravestones was but an occasional practice that became a social norm only after 1800 (Aries 1981:40; Badone 1989:135; Tarlow 1999:58). Prior to that time, individuals whose families sought to maintain continuity and a kindred connection with their ancestors were those most likely to have erected permanent gravemarkers. Particularly in Europe, interment occurred in a variety of locations, including family courtyards, rural property, and the floors of homes and churches. Final disposition of remains also took place in common graves, such as charnel structures or open garrets. Although European cemeteries did appear as early as the 12th century and were often associated with churches or other ecclesiastical structures, it is now understood that a wide variety of local and ethnically based community burial traditions were also practiced.

In Greece, for example, evidence for the practice of secondary burial goes back to the time of Alexander the Great. In contemporary Greek villages, burial continues to constitute a multistage process. Following 3 years of interment in individual graves, the deceased’s bones are exhumed, washed, and placed in community ossuaries or collective burial pits. Graves and markers are then recycled and used by other family or community members. Likewise, rural Greek death rituals are long, drawn-out affairs encompassing several years. In addition, photographs found on Italian gravemarkers must be understood within the context of Italian religious iconography and traditional desires to commune with dead family members through visual images (Danforth 1982; Matturri 1993). As another example, it is a Jewish tradition to add a small stone each time a visit is paid to a gravemarker, signifying conscious attempts to remember the deceased. Many of these diverse grave practices became further complicated when they were transplanted and transformed by waves of immigrants. Also, at various times and places, cremation has represented an alternative to ground interments. Although some cultures have encouraged this practice, others have considered it anathema (Prothero 2001). At the same time, major historical events such as the Civil War and World Wars I and II have brought about significant changes in the ways bodies have been cared for, memorials have been erected, and death has been perceived. Thus, cultural artifacts relevant to the dead must be understood as dynamically evolving within meaningful sociocultural and historical contexts (Laderman 1996; Farrell 1980).

Graves, Markers, and Cemeteries

Although gravemarkers have been the focus of much study, their meanings and their messages cannot be fully understood without recognition of the communities, histories, and sociocultural contexts in which the deceased lived and died. Gravestone studies highlight a central paradox—death as a fundamental human experience is juxtaposed with death as a contextualized, situated experience. Both the dead and their associated gravestones are inextricably linked to the social circumstances and historical times that create, give boundary to, reify, and express meanings, metaphors, and symbols (Kus 1992). As a result, a stroll through a local cemetery is likely to be both a familiar and an alien experience. For late 20th- and early 21st-century Americans, memorial parks filled with bronze markers flush to the ground appear familiar. Likewise, cemetery landscapes constituting slab-shaped, gray granite tombstones, sparsely decorated and identifying the deceased by name, are likely to evoke a sense of familiarity. Nevertheless, cemeteries may also contain imposing white marble tablets, elaborate epitaphs that recall vivid imagery, full life-sized statues honoring and lending prominence to the deceased who lies beneath, symbols, metaphoric references, and even styles of lettering that we may be unable to recognize. Because shifts in time and perspective alter our view of these grave forms, their verbal, visual, architectural, and material messages may not be readily evident. Graves and cemeteries are part of the constantly changing social panoply, and death is simultaneously a universal constant and a specifically contextualized experience.

The association of specific gravestone motifs with historical periods was first demonstrated by Deetz and Dethlefsen’s examination of New England Puritan gravemarkers (Deetz 1977; Dethlefsen and Deetz 1966; Dethlefsen 1969, 1981). These analysts argue that changes in the popularity of gravestone iconography were “a function of the changes in religious views combined with significant shifts in views regarding death” (Dethlefsen and Deetz 1966:506). Specifically, they showed that the gradual shift from death’s heads to cherubs, willows, and other benign images suggests that the earlier Puritan view of fearful death became replaced over time by more peaceful views of the afterlife.

Subsequent work has expanded previous characterizations of the relationship between representations of death and historical, social, and cultural context. Various critiques suggest that Deetz and Dethlefsen may have overgeneralized the patterns of observed changes in grave imagery and portrayed gravestone forms as mere passive reflections of the social order. Parker Pearson (1982), for example, points out that material forms are created out of dialectics among the living and between the living and the dead. These forms, then, represent dynamic attempts to express and reify the social order. He also argues that beyond an individual’s socioeconomic status at death, mortuary practices are meaningfully constituted in ways that selectively express a variety of social relationships, ritual requirements, and social values. In addition to conveying something of the deceased’s social identity, these expressions and their attendant material forms potentially capture a range of individual and social responses to death. Thus bereavement, memorializing, social status, social order, and views of death may be variously emphasized, incorporated into the material form, overlooked, or predictably ignored (Tarlow 1999).

A dramatic increase in the use of individual gravemarkers is evident throughout Europe and the British Isles from about the 1780s and into the 19th century. At this time, a wide variety of gravestones, from crudely incised fieldstones to finely carved slabs began to appear in cemeteries. Tarlow (1999:131-32) suggests that rather than being driven by economic or class distinctions, the remarkable fluorescence in the use of simple stones to mark graves seems to usher in a new period linking the living to the dead. A stone becomes both a public gesture and a place to demonstrate the importance of the deceased to the bereaved. Simple, enigmatic inscriptions, often just initials, did not link the recently dead to an ancestral lineage and would carry meaning only to those whose memory linked the dead to the living community. After the 1780s, stone markers seem to commemorate personal relationships and a sense of personal identity. Only after the establishment of permanent gravemarkers as a common social norm, does this practice become transformed and formalized by iconography and mass production of headstones. This was a tradition founded in the personal desires of remembering the dead, a distinct break from the earlier traditions of creating historical narratives through aristocratic monuments.

In more recent periods, trends in the size, material, and configuration of gravemarkers can be interpreted within the context of expanding Western capitalism. Many studies have identified significant shifts in American grave monuments over the last 150 years. Between 1850 and 1920, for example, gravemarkers demonstrated a clear reflection of status and social position. Wealth translated directly into expensive mortuary investments, family mausoleums vied for attention in American rural cemeteries, and successful American families erected imposing marble and granite monuments. From about 1920 throughout the 20th century, however, American cemeteries have reflected a decrease in cemetery marker investment, much greater uniformity, a drastic decrease in large family plots, and the social inconspicuousness of flush bronze markers. For many, this decrease in the visibility of death on the literal and cultural landscape has simply been a reflection of attempts to deny the reality of death. Speaking from an ideological perspective, however, McGuire (1984) argues that these changes indicate a shift from direct expressions of power and status to a masking of status, a denial of inequalities and power relations, and a misrepresentation of the true nature of social relations. Others have likewise provided more nuanced explanations, expanded our understanding of the multidimensionality of death, and sought to place death-related monuments within the larger context of historical, social, and cultural change. Consequently, rather than representing mere repositories of stagnant sociocultural norms, we are coming to understand the active role cemeteries play in American discourses about life, death, and society (see Meyer 1992a; 1993; Laderman 1996; Prothero 2001).

Cemeteries as Communities

Just as gravemarkers bind the living to the dead, so cemeteries are more than collections of gravemarkers. Cemeteries link the living communities that create, use, and maintain them to the collective dead who were once a part of these communities. Beyond denoting the deaths of single individuals, gravemarkers also reflect collective cultural representations. Lives, meaningful symbols, and practices of living communities are given material form in the communities of the dead. For many ethnic American immigrants, the cemetery served as a visual, formal, and symbolic representation of their community, its challenges, and its successes. The cemetery lent permanence and stability to lives that were being transformed, compromised, and Americanized. Immigrants and other marginalized groups struggling with processes of assimilation, sociocultural adaptation, and attempts to retain traditional cultures often found in their cemeteries, their monuments, and their customary death practices a powerful and eloquent space for the expression and negotiation of identity, values, and collectively. Thus not only do the living retain a connection to the dead through the material forms of cemeteries, they retain connections to themselves.

Richard Meyer (1992b) demonstrates that for contemporary Pacific Northwest loggers, gravemarkers serve as “the material equivalent of personal narratives and oral verse recitations” (p. 82) for members of an occupational subculture who possess a “rich and highly diversified body of esoteric lore” (p. 81). Describing the imagery and poetry that accompany such graves, including elaborately carved wooden markers with trees, mountains, and wooden statues of men holding chain saws, Meyer demonstrates that in the face of a rapidly changing industry, Northwestern loggers have used gravemarkers as a powerful form of public expression. Furthermore, although most gravestone studies in the United States have focused on the markers of Puritan New England, Ann and Dickran Tashjian (1992) have broadened our perspective of New England cemeteries by demonstrating the valuable insights they can provide into early African American communities. In addition, Gosnell and Gott (1992) have expanded the definition of death practices to include interactions with graves long after burial has taken place. Rather than gravemarkers, they examine the large variety of objects left as offerings at the cemetery throughout the year and conclude that these artifacts are “evidence of a dynamic and artful communication process based within family and community” (p. 234).

Thus contemporary cemeteries allow us to consider firsthand the manipulation of meaning and values when materially formalized. On the one hand, our very familiarity with these forms, in light of contemporary social values and beliefs, allows for recognition of predictable redundancy. This is a variety of “dead metaphor” (Tarlow 1999:41). The imagery of granite as a permanent enduring stone and the inscribed birth and death dates of the deceased telegraph the existence of the individual. A simple reference to mother or son encapsulates a lifetime of social relations and experiences. Such symbolic and visual conventions are familiar to us. These material forms offer metaphors for life and death to which “the audience is so accustomed that it requires no conscious process of understanding and evaluating” (Tarlow 1999:41). One can walk through a contemporary cemetery and understand the appropriateness of the symbolic and metaphorical references without ever being able to fully articulate their meanings. On the other hand, if one encounters a different style of gravestone, the embedded metaphors are likely to convey the sense of being from another time. Like the paradox of death’s universality yet highly situated social context, gravestones have provided a wealth of information about shifts in burial practices over time. They also present a densely layered set of situated metaphorical forms that are challenging to interpret and deeply entwined in the emphases one brings to bear on understanding them.

Commemorations, Monuments, and the Historical Dead

A central function of gravestones and cemeteries is to serve as material embodiments of memory. But although memorials appear to be permanent, memories are constantly changing. Therefore, dynamic dialogues between the living, the dead, and gravemarkers juxtapose complex connections of bereavement, living memories, transforming values, and time. Furthermore, loss of direct remembrance caused by the deaths of successive generations further complicates processes of memorialization and the interpretation of relevant material forms. In addition, historical events, changing collective identities, and shifting interpretations of history can be reflected in our cemeteries and memorials. In this sense, cemeteries can be thought of as having metaphorical life spans. Warner (1959) notes,

If a cemetery holds no future for our own deaths to mark our passage from the living to the dead—if we cannot project the life of our time into it—then its dead belong to the life of the past. The gravestones become artifacts that refer to the past; the cemetery becomes a symbol speaking of the people of the past to those of the present and stands for the regard of the present for its own past. (P. 320)

Thus a cemetery transforms from a place where the living grieve and mourn those they once knew to a place where regard for the dead takes on historical distance and ritualized significance. Cemeteries link the dead to the living so long as memory among the living is served. Once the surviving memory has likewise taken up residence among the dead, the immediate attachments to individuals and community are lost. According to Warner (1959), “The symbols of death say what life is and those of life define what death must be” (p. 322).

Monuments are venues for collective remembrance. Such connections to the past once primarily represented a form of metaphorical ancestry. Those with economic, social, religious, or political privilege sought to assert sovereignty over others using this material form. Prior to the mid-18th century, monuments were built to and for the elite as a material representation of preordained destiny (Lowenthal 1985, 1994). These monuments played a part in the constructed linear histories meant to assert the importance of specific times, events, people, and places. The sense of identity after this time began to shift from a sense of personal ancestry to a collective identity and shared, public heritage. Popular memory and identity tended to be episodic, consolidating views of the world and reifying its boundaries. An ahistorical sense of continuity among past, present, and future relied on oral traditions rather than permanent places for remembering (Gillis 1994). By the 18th century, the formation of nation-states required both the creation of popular common histories and the extinguishing of traditionally held boundaries, accomplished through an unspoken collective amnesia about identities. The rise of national commemorations and the construction of national monuments were purposeful ideologically driven strategies by which connections to the historical past were broken and new pasts were created.

The construction of some monuments to individuals were at times responses to the larger issues of the time. Monuments commemorating the French heroes of Bastille Day on July 14, for example, actually served to distinguish the backwardness of the “Old Regime” from revolutionary ideals. In the 1950s, Israel similarly invented traditions and monuments linking historical heroes associated with a glorious past to the nascent nation (Zerubavel 1994). African countries asserting their independence in the 1960s similarly formed national icons and symbols by erecting monuments commemorating individuals associated with significant historical moments. These monuments helped to form and shape a new collective memory essential to the establishment of a national identity.

American Civil War cemeteries also demonstrate the dynamic processes inherent in collective memorialization. The loss of 600,000 soldiers during the American Civil War due to battlefield deaths, wounds, and disease and the massive loss of life at particular battles touched nearly every contemporary family in some way. The intensity of the conflict even resulted at times in the sorrowful sentiment “Let the dead bury the dead” because soldiers and civilians alike were overwhelmed by the sheer number of corpses (Laderman 1996:105). There was a practical need to dispose of massive numbers of dead at the sites of battles, skirmishes, prisoner-of-war camps, and military field hospitals. In response, families demanded to know the site of interment for their loved ones or to have bodies returned to them for burial. As early as 1861, the War Department issued regulations for recording the death and burial of Union soldiers, including the marking of all military graves with “headboards” (Laderman 1996:118-19). Instructions to secure space near battlefields for interring the dead and the establishment of the first national military cemetery in July 1862 were also issued. At the same time, a florescence in the embalming of corpses fueled the funeral industry as the demand for the return of the war dead to their families steadily increased. Finally, the rebuilding of an American national identity through commemoration and monuments was galvanized with the assassination of Lincoln on April 14, 1865, and his interment in Springfield, Illinois, 20 days later. Thus the events and sacred places created by the conflict of civil war became ensconced in American discourse and enshrined in our material culture and forever altered the American landscape.

Early in the 20th century, as the ranks of surviving Civil War veterans thinned, Civil War cemeteries began a transformation from memorials of individual lives to places of broad historical significance. Rather than private graves, they became focal points of commemorations and public spaces where collective memories and shared events are given form and meaning. Providing an interesting contrast to the few marked graves of American Revolutionary War soldiers, massive cemeteries and even isolated graves of Union and Confederate soldiers dot the landscape of the eastern United States. Each marked spot bears witness not so much to individual lives as to the role those lives played in a significant national conflict. These memorials no longer evoke direct memories among the living but bring to mind and materially sanction contemporary narratives about the Civil War.

The Great War had a similar, transforming effect on Europe. France alone suffered over 1.3 million military deaths, and the extent of loss of life in that country raised contentious issues. For example, although massive military cemeteries to contain both the foreign and domestic dead were created, accounting for, memorializing, and noting those who were dead and “missing in action” became a problem. One response to coping with such vast numbers was to create massive memorials that listed the names of those who had died in specific battles. On the Menin Gate built to commemorate the battle of Ypres, for example, there are 54,896 names inscribed—”so interminably many, that as on the columns of the Alhambra, the writing becomes decorative” (Zweig from Berliner Tageblatt, September 16, 1928, quoted in Laqueur 1994:154). The wall memorial of Tyne Cot contains the names of 34,888 and is surrounded by 11,908 individual graves. The colonnades of the Ploegsteert Memorial list 11,447 names; the Duds Corner Memorial forms a walled courtyard with 20,589 names. The Thiepval Monument memorialized the dead from the Battle of the Somme, listing 73,367 names of soldiers whose exact resting place is unknown. Tens of thousands of other names are recounted on similar memorials. There are also the cemeteries, with an estimated 678,000 identical gravestones. In short, the task of memorializing became as massive as the loss of life itself (Laqueur 1994).

A second response was the creation of Tombs of the Unknown Warrior. The devastating reality of World War I included the vast number of unidentifiable dead and those who could not be accounted for, well over 500,000. Both the cenotaph—the empty tomb—and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior appeared in the 1920s as responses to these losses. Focusing on collective loss, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in its variant nationalistic forms created a symbolic space for the return of all war dead represented in the remains of a single individual. Bereavement and mourning became as classless as the remains of the interred soldier. Individual loss was now encompassed by public grieving and remembrance. The empty tomb took this hypernominalization of loss one step further by symbolically representing the generic body. The collective loss became represented as one and the same for all (Laqueur 1994).

At the same time, rather than a shared general meaning, World War I public memorials reflected a variety of conflicting discourses about the war dead. Responses to the war losses ranged from resignation and bitter acceptance to alienation and cynicism (Laqueur 1994; Piehler 1994; Sherman 1994). Throughout Europe, England, and the United States in the 1920s, individual communities began to erect monuments. Although intended to commemorate those who gave their lives in the war effort, these monuments were venues for continuing tensions about the scope of personal loss to individual communities and persistent demand for the return of soldiers’ remains. In England, rigid class and political divisions ruptured by the war were challenged and negotiated anew. In France, the emergence of the common solider as the most prevalent symbolic form on monuments became part of the fiercely contested claims to remembrance between national and community interests. In America, issues of black civil rights and women’s suffrage were the backdrop for monument construction as each group sought a form of equal treatment. Monument construction in the United States during this period also appears to have been a response to the economic conditions of the Great Depression and purposefully focused on commemorating the living and the deeds of veterans. The construction of bridges, roads, civic centers, hospitals, stadiums, and parks were dubbed living memorials that served to intimately entwine collective remembrance with economic recovery.

Monuments and events commemorating World War II reflect a very different sense of loss, resonating with the events of that time (Gillis 1994). The reconstruction of Germany and Japan emphasized a forgetting of militaristic activities. Citizens of both countries delayed openly commemorating their war dead well into the 1950s. On the other hand, the victorious nations found the celebration of heroism and sacrifice as important as commemoration, and emphasis shifted to surviving veterans and eventually to those who had provided support from the home front. Parades, veterans’ organizations, and living memorials predominated over the construction of monuments. Finally, all nations had to confront the horrors of the Holocaust and the massive loss of more civilians than soldiers during the war. Individual memory of those events began to find collective representation in the 1950s and continues to the present.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial provides yet another distinct example of the commemoration of war, in this case a military conflict that evoked both strong national dissension and ambivalence. The minimalist choice of listing the names of the dead, the absence in the original design of symbols associated with traditional war memorials, and the use of black marble attempt to acknowledge loss of life. The later additions of a flag and life-sized figures were attempts to legitimate those who participated in the war. In this monument, the inclusion of names personalizes the sense of loss. In so doing, it provides a public space for conflicting feelings and experiences associated with this war to coexist. Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991:417) note that the meanings of this monument are most importantly conveyed through its uses rather than through the juxtaposition of symbols. This form of operational meaning began during the early construction phases of the monument and persists as items continue to be deposited, photographed, collected, and stored. The monument has especially offered a public venue to express private feelings for those whose lives were touched by this war. How this monument will serve collective memory once the generation of Vietnam veterans has passed remains to be seen.

Monuments and Politics

Monuments to individuals may also codify explicit though veiled political sentiments. Various periods of renewed nationalism in America have witnessed the negotiation and renegotiation of monuments expressing dominant cultural values along with selective forgetting. Groups such as the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Emancipation Group each sought to shape collective memory of the past. The Emancipation Group sought to commemorate the “Freedman” as the personification of the Reconstruction ideals of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. At the same time, both northern and southern groups focused increasingly on the heroic deeds of local heroes, with the wording on monuments emphasizing the union on northern monuments and state sovereignty on southern monuments. Civil War imagery focused on themes of freedom and union represented through portrayals of Lincoln, heroism through a variety of military leaders often mounted on horses, friezes of battle scenes and soldiers marching to war, and the occasional representation of the common soldier (Savage 1994, 1997). In these cases, the monuments served to anchor collective memory not in the abolition of slavery, but in ideological differences. Furthermore, rather than facing the racial realities of slavery and dealing with the deep racial divisions of Reconstruction, the language inscribed on monuments from both sides speaks to reconciliation (Levinson 1998). The preponderance of Civil War statues to Lincoln or to Confederate generals use individuals to memorialize the dominant political sentiments of those times and continue to serve today as selective references to the past. Meanwhile, forgetting becomes reified through the selection of individuals to commemorate.

The sole monument to emancipation was the Freedman’s Memorial, designed by Thomas Ball and funded entirely by the contributions of free blacks (Savage 1997:89-128). After years of wrangling and the failure of earlier designs, Ball’s monument was erected in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1879, the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. Intended to convey the self-determination by which slaves actively participated in breaking the shackles of slavery, the memorial instead portrays a slave kneeling at the feet of Lincoln, having just realized his chains are broken. Frederick Douglass, who delivered the oration at the memorial’s dedication, in fact objected to the slave’s kneeling posture as unmanly, manliness representing to Douglass the opposite of slavery. Thus the intent to express freedom in the Freedman’s Memorial is ultimately subverted through the positions of its figures. The dominant representation of Lincoln further subverts the status of Freedmen.

Savage (1997:210) notes that monuments remain powerful symbolic elements in our landscapes precisely because they are built to endure, distilling a representation about the past long after the events, debates, and disputes that created the monuments have been forgotten. Perhaps precisely because monuments appear inert and permanent, these features are also subject to continual reinterpretation. The rapid tearing down of statues of Lenin and Marx throughout old Soviet Bloc countries in 1989 seemed to resonate with the removal of statues of Tsar Alexander III during the Bolshevik Revolution that brought Lenin and Marx to prominence (Verdery 1999). The Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans is another example of the renegotiation of a contested past (Levinson 1998). In 1874, a white supremacist group, the White League, sought to violently overthrow the local mixed race government of whites and African Americans. The battle of September 14, 1874, pitted the metropolitan police and a largely black militia against an armed group of White Leaguers. The White League ultimately prevailed and began a campaign to designate the site of the battle as “Liberty Place.” In 1891, a monument commemorating the deeds of the White Leaguers who gave their lives to overthrow the “carpet-bagger usurpers” and restore home rule was dedicated. By 1974, the issue of the memorial and the White League version of the Battle of Liberty Place it commemorated came to a head with African Americans, now a dominant political force in the city. The solution was to offer a new interpretation of the memorial by the addition of a plaque, “In Honor of those Americans on both sides of the conflict who died in the Battle of Liberty Place. A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.”

This rearranging of the political landscape often involves not only monuments and gravemarkers of prominent political figures but the very remains of these individuals (Verdery 1999). For example, Imre Nagy, a dishonored executed communist Hungarian leader, was honorably reinterred in 1989, drawing international attention. The remains of Prince Lazar of Serbia toured provincial monasteries during the reestablishment of the Serbian state to commemorate his roles in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The repatriation of remains from foreign soil—Polish Generals Bor-Komorovsky and Sikorski from Great Britain, the heart of Bulgarian Tsar Boris from Spain, Hungarian composer Bela Bartok from New York, and Bishop Inochentie Micu of Transylvania, who died in Rome in 1768—illustrates the importance and potency of collective memory in renegotiating connections to the past.

The public spaces shaped by monuments and the individuals they commemorate both mirror and are shaped by societal values (Levinson 1998). They are forums that articulate collective memory and popular consensus. They are also cultural sites in which the memorialization of selected individuals galvanizes debate and thus reflects the ways in which the past is contested. The creation, design, construction, modification, and destruction of monuments are neither a permanent testament to the past nor a static process. Levinson (1998) notes,

To commemorate is to take a stand, to declare the reality of heroes or heroic events worthy of emulation, or less frequently, that an event that occurred at a particular place was indeed so terrible that it must be remembered forever after as a cautionary note. (P. 137)

It is this process, rather than the inert structures themselves, that lends meaning both to monuments and to the events they commemorate.


Bereavement, remembrance, and forgetting are part of the poignant, sometimes bitter, processes that render both meaning and oblivion to gravestones, cemeteries, and monuments. According to Robert Musil (quoted in Warner 1985),

The most striking feature of monuments is that you do not notice them. There is nothing in the world as invisible as monuments. Doubtless they have been erected to be seen—even to attract attention; yet at the same time something impregnated them against attention. Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment. (P. 21)

Musil’s observation, made in 1936, speaks of monuments for any given time and place. Whether serving personal memory or collective remembrance, gravestones and monuments are erected by the living in response to the universal experiences of death, war, and tragedy. Yet markers and monuments as the very embodiment of this response in public landscapes themselves create a final ironic paradox.

Gravestones and monuments are created (though in some cases never formally built) as a means for people to make sense of and capture memories about both personal and collective responses to the tragedy of death. Those actively engaged in the creation of gravestones and monuments, as well as those excluded from the process, attempt to forge and manipulate icons and symbols to carry elements of shared meaning about the persons and events memorialized. Accounts of the creation of cemeteries and monuments attest to the often highly contested issues that arise in this process and suggest that the greatest meaning of these material forms is distilled and expressed during their design, construction, and dedication. Musil’s observation appears to ring true; at least in America, cemeteries and monuments generally do not endure as places visited by the living but are inert empty spaces in the landscape. Gravemarkers, cemeteries, and monuments selectively command our attention. They serve the needs of those whose direct memories of those events or persons are alive within them, as is currently the case for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They create public spaces for national rituals of commemoration, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and Arlington Cemetery. At the same time, they serve as venues for contesting received truths about the past, as does the Arthur Ashe Monument unveiled in July 1996 in Richmond, Virginia’s Historic District. This remaining paradox—that these memorials ultimately are inert material forms—then tinges our understanding of the universality of death in relation to human life and frailty. Remembrance and meanings about the dead and past events survive among the living only as long as the memories and meanings of these deaths are engaged and actively understood. These material forms serve memory, remembrance, and memorializing only when and as long as the living choose to engage them.