Lecture Review – Dr. Richard Veit: “Stranger Stop and Cast and Eye: 400 Years of New Jersey Cemetery Evolution and Gravestone Design”

Dr. Richard Veit is an atypical historian. While most would discourage societies from “burying the past”, he wants them to do a lot of it. The professor is an anthropologist with a unique field of expertise. Dr. Veit studies the history of cemetery evolution and gravestone design. He unearthed this topic at the Historical Society of Moorestown on January 28, 2016.

This lecture was part of the Historical Society’s New Jersey History Speaks Speaker Series. While many history talks take place in lecture halls or library conference rooms, this one occurred in the living room of an historic home. I enjoyed the cozy environment at Smith-Cadbury Mansion. As I arrived early the Society’s President, Lenny Wagner, provided guests with a brief history of the home, itself. In a sense, the organization treated me to two informative discussions in one evening. (Full Disclosure: I’ve been a member of the Historical Society of Moorestown since 2006.)

Dr. Veit is currently Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. His knowledge of New Jersey cemeteries and gravestones proved these aren’t ceremonial positions. He entertained the group with an enlightening disquisition on the subject. It may seem strange to use a word such as entertained to describe an historical lecture on a topic so close to death, but that’s the right one. The professor presented material that could have been dry and dreary, in a witty and affable fashion.

The breadth of the lecture impressed me. Aside from elucidating 400 years of history, Dr. Veit’s comments covered the entire state. He explained that different parts of New Jersey had gravestone designs endemic to their areas. Of interest to residents of South Jersey he discussed the “Philadelphia influence” during the Colonial Era. This entailed the importing of marble from Pennsylvania for tombstones. In northern parts of the state, slate imported from New England became vogue.

I knew that grave markers benefited genealogists. My Great-Grandfather Mike Stephany’s showed me which unit he served in during the First World War. Dr. Veit displayed phots of some that contained much more detail that that. He jokingly referred to a few of them as a “resume”. Irish markers tended to describe where the deceased grew up in Ireland, when they arrived in the United States, when they married, how many children they had, etc. That would be a monumental source of information for anyone researching his/ her family history.

I learned something I never would’ve imagined. Tombstones served as early sources of advertising. Carvers would inscribe their names on the markers they chiseled. This may seem disturbing to modern sensibilities, but with the absence of photography and mass marketing, people did what they could to ensue name recognition.

In the midst of all these entertaining facts, the professor slyly snuck in some serious historical lessons. He explained how graveyards are a reflection of their historical times. During the Colonial Era, few markers contained crosses. People living in that time viewed them as a “Catholic” influence. While ubiquitous today, some 250 years ago crosses only appeared on some French graves.

The part of the talk that amused me the most concerned the mausoleums. They became very fashionable resting places for captains of industry around the dawn of the 20th Century; predominantly in urban areas. Dr. Veit displayed pictures of one he visited. He described it as having room for the deceased “and about thirty of his closest friends.” As the professor visited during the Holiday Season, the tomb contained multiple Christmas Trees and wreaths inside. To my eyes the ambiance and marble floors made it appear more like a mall than a burial place.

Dr. Veit began his remarks by calling cemeteries, “great sources of information.” Just how much information one can discover there amazed me. The amount of information the speaker possessed impressed me even more. I enjoyed the professor’s engaging jocularity and erudition. I’d welcome the opportunity to see him again. I just hope that time comes before he’s studying my tombstone.

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