Sunday, November 9, 2014

Role of Identity in Gravestones and Grave Goods

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs asserts that once a human’s basic, physiological needs–water, food, sleep—are met, attention shifts to higher needs pertaining to shelter, belonging, esteem and, at the very top of the pyramid, self-actualization. Once basic physical needs are rendered moot by death, the living default to imposing the upper levels of the hierarchy on the deceased.  

Graphic by J. Finkelstein (I created this work using Inkscape.)
GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The funerary process communicates love and belonging through the expression of grief for lost friendship and family connection. It allows the community to express the deceased’s individuality, esteem, and self-actualization by memorializing a lifetime of accomplishments through the process of obituary, eulogy, and funeral offerings such as photographs, models, and mementos that serve as representations of the deceased’s accomplishments, creativity, and morality.  

These acts carry through to the gravesite with the choice of gravestone design, use of epitaph, and the choice of goods left at the gravesite by family and friends. Through this material depiction of identity in the public forum of a cemetery, the living engage the memory of the deceased at the highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, communicating to the community at-large proof of social success and achievement beyond the most basic needs.
The grave of Harry "Brusher" Mills. St. Nicholas Cemetery, Lyndhurst, England.
Photograph by Jim Champion [
CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In the case of Harry Mills, of Lyndhurst, England, “better known as Brusher Mills,” according to his gravestone, epitaph in addition to a relief carving depicting Mill’s in action as a snake catcher, serves the ever-vigilant role of communicating the man’s community status to passers-by. The epitaph symbolizes the esteem—the respect paid to him by others—that Mills garnered during a life spent in the pursuit of living in “the primitive way...[that]…caused him to be an object of interest to many.”
Close up of relief carving on the grave of Harry "Brusher" Mills.
St. Nicholas Cemetery, Lyndhurst, England.
Photograph by Jim Champion [
CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Mills' epitaph reads as follows: “This stone marks the grave of Harry Mills, (better known as “Brusher Mills,”) who for a long number of years followed the occupation of snake catcher, in the New Forest. His pursuit and the primitive way in which he lived, caused him to be an object of interest to many. He died suddenly July 1st 1905, aged 65 years. D. Banks. Lymington.” 

Because of the detailed memorial erected at Mills’ grave by his home community, the snake catcher is now recognized worldwide and today inhabits the highest pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy as a folk character whose life and contribution to society continues to be recognized to a degree never imagined during his own lifetime.
Grave of Everett N. Sargent, Corinthian Cemetery, East Corinth, Maine.
Photograph by Kimberly Sawtelle, Oct. 2014
The American practice of memorialization through the public placement of grave goods, still allowed in many rural cemeteries but increasingly prohibited in urban settings, provides an opportunity for individuals to express familial ties, love, and belonging in an ongoing, ritual process typically staged on holidays and birthdays, as well as at times of seasonal transition. One such example is the grave site of Everett N. Sargent of East Corinth, Maine, who passed at age 71 after a long illness, according to his obituary published in the Bangor Daily News.

Detail of Everett Sargent gravestone.
Photograph by Kimberly Sawtelle, Oct. 2014
Sargent’s gravestone, though lacking in an expansive epitaph, like that of Mills, depicts an engraved image of a man walking behind a plow drawn by a hitch of draft horses. To one side of the stone stands a cast concrete colt outfitted with a leather halter that may have been hand-stitched. Grave goods placed around the marker include a number of toy tractors, angel figures, a small pumpkin (the month of examination being October 2014), and a variety of faded photographs of draft horses in action.

Cast concrete colt wearing a stitched leather harness.
Photograph by Kimberly Sawtelle, Oct. 2014
Given the assortment of offerings alone, it becomes obvious that the deceased was likely active in farming, if not with the raising of horses and it is within this identity and level of esteem that the family members choose to communicate with and commemorate Sargent in death. The importance of the gentleman to his family comes into even sharper focus when knowledge of the gravesite is juxtaposed with his obituary dated September 25, 2008, in which Sargent is noted as having owned and operated Sargent Riding Stables, specializing in training, working, and competing with draft horses. The simple epitaph in his obituary: “He was a wonderful man and will be sadly missed by his family and friends,” is poignantly reinforced to any observer of his grave.

While for Mills, image and epitaph combine to communicate and commemorate the deceased's degree of self-actualization—his respected ability as a problem-solver in his role as snake catcher—Sargent’s descendants utilize imagery and the offering of grave goods to mark his accomplishments as a horseman and patriarch. In both examples, concern for the upper levels of Maslow’s social hierarchy become superlative in the memorial process.

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Role of Identity in Gravestones and Grave Goods
by Kimberly J. Sawtelle is licensed under
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