Field Guide

Grave Goods

Grave Goods are items of spiritual and personal significance placed on a grave. They consist of broken pottery, dishes, shells, pebbles, or personal items of the deceased such as a favorite plate or a clock showing the time of death. Grave goods are found on the graves of many ethnic groups, including those of African, Native American, Jewish, and Scottish descent. Items are sometimes broken so that, while they are broken to this world, they remain spiritually intact, much like the deceased. Thus, they are more readily available to the deceased.

In cleanup efforts, take care not to miss or dismiss these items. Much of what may be identified by the uninformed as litter has considerable cultural and spiritual significance. Unless everyone involved with the project is aware of their nature and significance, considerable historic traditional material may be lost. Historically and culturally, grave goods are important aspects of the graveyard. At one site, a group of college students were sent to a graveyard to identify items of significance. Not understanding the nature of grave goods, they reported back that the site "was not interesting. All that was there were a few gravestones and lots of trash." They had completely missed the grave goods on many graves and, without further education, would have discarded them, considerably diminishing the historic integrity of the graveyard.

Expense is one reason archaeological surveys are often bypassed in making graveyard preservation plans. While it is true that archaeological surveys can be costly, it is possible that a state may provide an archaeologist's services on a limited basis or can refer a group to possible sources for obtaining funds. Or an archaeologist may be willing to make a limited survey as an education project connected with a university program.

Taken from A Graveyard Preservation Primer, 2nd Edition written by Lynette Strangstad, published by AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2004. This book is a must for every cemetery preservationist!!!