Using our grave matter

Bereavement and Commemoration
December 3, 1999

The dead are the stock-in-trade of archaeologists. It is through them that we come closest to the people who lived in the past. Human remains from burials can tell us much about the populations of the past. But it is the method of burial and the associated material culture of death - coffins, grave goods and burial monuments - that are the clues to the belief systems and cultures in which these people lived. Early modern and modern gravestones might not be considered the stuff of archaeology but, in that they represent this material culture of the past, they are a valid source of research. In this short book, Sarah Tarlow takes as her starting point a detailed survey of the gravestones on the islands of Orkney to explore two related but quite distinct subjects: how archaeologists choose to interpret evidence for burials and burial customs, and the history of how death and bereavement have changed in early modern and modern Britain.

Tarlow argues that gravestones can make a material contribution to the understanding of change in past societies, but that this contribution can only be made if archaeologists recognise the importance of human emotion as a prime influence on burial practices. This might seem obvious but archaeologists have tended historically to shy away from intimate human experience, dealing instead in the recognition of power and control in society through the use of, or reflected by the use of, objects. Therefore a burial has been analysed in terms of what it might tell us about the social position of those being buried and those doing the burying rather than how those involved were seeking to express their grief at the death of a loved one.

The importance of emotion as witnessed through the symbols and wording of memorials is strongly argued, although Tarlow herself admits that the exact nature of emotion is still fought over by sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and medics. Although she fails to illustrate persuasively how personal grief can be recognised and understood in most archaeological contexts, she goes some way to illustrate the use of material culture metaphor: in this specific case, the images and design of gravestones, to indicate changing belief systems.

In her historical examination of Orkney burial rites, Tarlow identifies three major changes. The first came with the Reformation and the end of the concept of purgatory, which removes the hold the dead had over the living - through prayer for the soul after death.

The second came in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the widespread introduction of gravestones. Tarlow discusses the reasons for this change and although she accepts that several causes play a part including new wealth, the industrial revolution and social rivalry, she concludes that the influence of new theories concerning the importance of the individual and the associated concept of romantic love is the major factor.

Her third change comes after the first world war as a society comes to terms with the traumas of widespread, violent and distant loss. For all three changes she draws on the results of her "archaeological" survey as well as historical sources and theory.

This is a thoughtful study that attempts to deal with subjects of major import from a relatively parochial starting point. And this is perhaps its major weakness. To what extent can a study of the gravestones from post-medieval Orkney be used as a model for western culture in general?

Tarlow does not have the space to compare her Orkney examples with the wider world in order to show this. Nevertheless no one will come away from this book without new ideas and perceptions about the nature of bereavement, how it is commemorated through material culture and how these objects have been interpreted.

Hedley Swain is head of early London history and collections, Museum of London.

Bereavement and Commemoration: An Archaeology of Mortality

Author - Sarah Tarlow
ISBN - 0 631 20614 0 and 20613 2
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £15.99 and £50.00
Pages - 207

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