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An Education at the Cemetery

An article appearing in Ancestry Magazine

"No, I’m not joking. We’re taking a field trip to the cemetery." I stood in front of twenty-seven startled eighth-graders. The room was filled with silence for a long minute before it was broken with a resounding, "Why?" Of course, I kept quiet a secret hope that I carried for the expedition, so I merely explained to the students that they could be assured of a fun day and that each of them would undoubtedly learn something new.

We began preparing for the trip several weeks before the actual excursion. I assigned the students research projects in which they determined average life spans through the years, figured typical funeral costs, and researched the costs of various types of headstones. When the day of the field trip arrived, the students anticipated some fun, and were prepared to learn more.

At the cemetery, we participated in an hour-long guided tour. Our guide pointed out the plots of some of the famous people buried in the cemetery. One of the highlights was the Dexter family mausoleum, which is often mistaken for one of the cemeteries four chapels. We learned that the mausoleum was intended to resemble a Gothic revival funerary monument. Designed in 1869, it boasts the only two symmetrical flying buttresses in Cincinnati, and is registered as a historical landmark. I saw the mausoleum as an opportunity for the students to learn its true purpose and to understand something of their local history. We spent most of the day exploring the cemetery’s many hidden treasures.

We also receive  some interesting comments from the visitors’ entries on the webpage guestbook . One visitor wrote: "As a little girl, my grandpa dug the graves by hand as part of his job with the county. It was sacrilegious to use machinery–disrespectful to the dead. My job was to move the lantern and hand him the pickax and shovel. I would go around to the graves and pull the grass or fix the flowers until dark. I was very sad to think the people there were forgotten–that once they had had loved ones and lives full of joy and sorrow."

When the time came to board the bus, the students were disappointed that their day had come to an end. One student who had been reluctant to take part in the field trip actually become one of its biggest proponents by the end of the day. "Can we come back in the spring?" he asked me.

Since the day I looked into those startled faces and explained my plans to visit the cemetery, attitudes have changed in my classroom. I have begun to take my classes to the cemetery every school year. In fact, new students walk into my classroom each year anticipating our visit to the local cemetery.

I have never revealed my secret hope to my students. Like educators everywhere, I want my students to learn valuable lessons for life. And this experience at the cemetery is my way of teaching a part of that. Regardless of what each student learns from the many handouts and mini projects I assign, I believe that each of them has come away from the cemetery with a new perspective and education about life, as well as a pleasant memory that will last a lifetime.


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