Dying in a New World


Students visit the Old Burial Ground near Harvard Square to learn about early American gravestones and the cultural and artistic traditions that affected them.


  • Students will learn about the religious purposes and meanings of the visual features and setting of early American gravestones.
  • Students will be able to use visual evidence to make observations and comparison, and formulate early hypotheses and interpretations.
  • Students can articulate how setting affects the value of objects/art.
  • Students will be comfortable discussing historical objects.

Class: USW-12: American Encounters: Art, Conflict, and Contact, 1560-1860

Introduction/Background:  This course introduces students to early American art from a cross-cultural perspective.  To learn about early American gravestones and the cultural and artistic traditions that affected them, students visit the Old Burying Ground near Harvard Square to view gravestones dating back to the 17th century.  This was the first discussion section of the semester, and so was important to set the tone for the class and give students practice in discussing history and art through the use of objects. The original lesson plan and detailed background information is attached for another description of the procedure.


Before Class:

  • Students were instructed on the syllabus to browse an online gravestone database, Farber Gravestone Collection online (link), and read an article about the meanings of New England gravestones, Jason D. LaFountain, "The Stamp of God's Image" (attached).
  • The TF prepared a series of guided discussion questions regarding the gravestones (see attached lesson plan).

During Class:

  • Students met the TF at the Cambridge Burial Yard. As they arrived, the TF introduced themself and told students to browse the gravestones.  As Christopher Allison wrote, “when I taught my three sections, it was in the middle of snowstorm—quite the effect!”
  • For the first five minutes, the students walked around the burial ground, orienting themselves to the objects placed within.  The group then reconvened. 
  • As this was the first section of the course, the TF tried to set the tone of the discussion by urging students to make basic observations and ask questions to start. The TF asked students which gravestones grabbed their attention, and why.
  • Then, the discussion moved from basic observations to more sophisticated interpretation. The TF had prepared a discussion on two of the gravestones (one of which would later be on their exam). However, student interest in particular gravestones also drove which gravestones the group focused on together. The instructor made sure that a few select gravestones were always covered (such as a rare enslaved person's stone - and one of the most famous stones in the Cambridge burialground).
  • Students were amazed by the instructor’s trick" of revealing the engraving on the stones–picking up a handful of snow and rubbing it across the stone, revealing in white every depression into the stone.  This also reiterated the idea of printing—and the materiality of the etched stones—so important for the activity. 
  • As they walked through the graveyard, students worked together as a group, with some prodding by the instructor, to assemble a list of visual elements that they should know how to identify. This list, which the instructor prepared in advance, included: Pillars (invokes Temple); the “frame” (the pillars and frame combination is known as the pillar and tympanum composition – based on the composition of doors and windows, an architectural space that suggests transition from life to death).; Composition of Text; Elegiac Urn and Willow (1780s on); Color (changes in sun, moisture, etc.); Skulls; “Momento Mori” and other death phrasing; Material (mostly slate here); Cherubs; “Portrait” of Deceased; Wings; Size of stone & arrangement of the elements; deep carving; circular forms, including flowers, breastly gourds, etc (invoking life cycle, fertility, transformation).
  • After learning how to visually analyze the stones, and discussing the social and religious meanings of the gravestones from students’  reading, the group warmed up in nearby Christ Church Episcopal Church, next to the burial yard.  There, they talked about the connections between the two spaces (the dead are commemorated in both, both involve ritual, the practice of living and gazing at the material vestiges of the dead outside the window, etc.). 
  • Students then discussed the politics of having a graveyard next to a church. The Teaching Fellow then discussed the stakes of this issue by telling the story of the political violence that had broken out during the American Revolution over the Anglican church—trying to destroy it and remove the body of a deceased British soldier from the burial ground. 
  • Finally, students were to look outside the window and consider the built environment of the broader space–Harvard across the street, the Cambridge Common across the other, and the churches. 
  • The Teaching Fellow finished with a few announcements, and reiterated the takeaways from the lesson–1) use visual evidence to make observations and comparison, and formulate early hypotheses and interpretations; 2) articulate how setting affects the value of objects/art; 3) be comfortable with free-flowing, collaborative discussion over objects.



Farber Gravestone Collection - link

LaFountain, Jason. “The Stamp of God’s Image”. A new literary history of America. Eds. Marcus, Greil, and Werner Sollors. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. 44-50. Print.

Comments from the Instructor:

Allison described why the first few minutes in which students wander the graveyard are important: “Let students orient themselves before you launch into discussion.  Even though they read about gravestones prior to coming to the burialyard, they did so on a more abstract level.  Let them encounter the realness of the actual objects—and then ask them to bring together the abstract concepts with real-time close looking of gravestones.  It is very powerful.”

This method of engaging with history and art has many benefits for student engagement and understanding. As Allison writes, “Too many sections are chained to a table, around which readings are dissected and discussed.  In Art History courses, most sections are taught in galleries in museums, in which art has been decontextualized and curated with labels.  In this activity, students still did their reading, and still saw art and discussed it,  but they were able to apply the concepts they read about to actual objects they could touch and experience in their original context and environment.  The result was an encounter with history and art far more embodied and rich than other models of section teaching.”

Submitted by Christopher M.B. Allison, Teaching Fellow, American Studies, with credit to Jennifer L. Roberts, Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University


Recipient of the Spring 2015 ABLConnect Teaching Innovator Prize

lesson_plan.docx42 KB