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Social Relationships And Death: Imagery And Language On Grave Markers

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Death confirms and perpetuates rather than transfiguring or challenging the existing social values that pertain to gender. According to a study by Malkiel (2014), in comparing obituaries, there was a higher number of men whose obituaries were accompanied by their photographs, as compared to those of women. Such inequalities are an indication that there were gender differences despite the increased perception of gender equality following women’s movement in 1960’s. If such equality had been achieved, there would be a balanced presentation in death notices or obituaries.

In yet another study, Campo-Ruiz (2015) found out that there has been a change in male bias over the years. In regard to obituaries, gender bias reduced with the introduction of occupational descriptions. Although the number of photographs for men remained higher than that of women, the proportion for both sexes was similar. Since the study was conducted in the West, there is a possibility that the progression period had brought some form of equality. Moreover, between 1960s-1970s the wave of feminists led to a gain to women who joined the labor force.

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The present study offers an alternative to investigating sexual-biases after death. The study involves comparing the writing on men’s and women’s gravestones. This method of date collection is both valid and reliable. It is also representative of the community-biases than regional or national newspapers. This is because the inscriptions on the stones represents many individuals in a relatively smaller community (Abel, 2018). Other scholars have used a similar strategy where they have compared the number of times surnames appeared on gravestones of women and men, respectively. They also studied familial relationships as described in the inscriptions as a form of gender bias. The results were similar to those obtain from the investigations of obituaries (Abel, 2018). This study employs the same strategy to determine changes in regard to gender bias that have occurred over a period of 100 years.


Data was obtained from Hillcrest Cemetery in New York City. Located at Heuvelton, the grave markers at Hillcrest cemetery were photographed and transcribed entirely by Anne Cady (2001). In the present, there are 15% and 8% Irish and German inhabitants, respectively. All the photographs of the grave markers were examined. Ideally, a comparison of the photographs and transcriptions identified less than 9% error rate, that were mainly on the spellings of the deceased’s’ names. A lot of effort was put on using primary data as obtained from the stones. However, when it turned out to be indecipherable, transcriptions by Cady were used.

Excel sheets were used to transcribe the data. The categories included first name, second name, gender, and year of birth, year of death, marital status, relationship, and maiden names. Surnames were said to be present when they appeared after the first name. However, surnames on family tombs were not considered as surnames because they were simply a representation of those buried in the tombs. Repetition of surnames in various male tombs helped to distinguish females and males. Marital status indicated was expressed through the relationships that appeared on the tombs such as “his wife”. In some other adjacent tombs, there were tombs markers as “mother” and father, respectively. If they bore the same surnames, with birth dates ranging within 15 years, it was assumed that these were spouses.

The main criteria that was used to establish sexual-bias were the absence or presence of surnames, which indicated familial relationship like “wife”, “son”, among others. Also, in respect to women, having a maiden name before the surname appeared among the married women. Chi Square and Fisher’s exact test were used to analyze data statistically.


A total of 3683 inscriptions were legible but some of them did not contain relevant data. In most of the tombstones, only the date of births was present. In some other instances, death had not been effectively inscribed. In addition, death dates were not readable. Dates of death were only visible on 3547 names. The other entries had either the age at death or the birth date. The earliest date of death was markers as 1825, while the most recent date was 2001. Apart from 13 inscriptions, the other transcriptions showed that buried individuals had been born before or during 1940. 3673 tombstones had gender indicated on them and the percentages of females and males were equal, recording 1837 males and 1837 females. Comparison was done only for those who died when they were over 16 years old. The total number of deaths were 1520 for females and 1554 for males.

More women had their relationships indicated on their identified tombstones. Specifically, relationships were indicated on 1127 female tombstones as compared to 253 male tombstones. A total of 1421 women tombs had the marital status identified. Wives were referred to as “His Wife” to indicate possessiveness. In total, 741 tombstones had been identified with that title. The other possessive name was “wife of”. In one of the tombs, a dead woman had been identified as “The wife of Chuck”. Those referred to as “The wife of” had their ages ranging between 24-110 years. On the other hand, those identified as “His wife” were in the age bracket of 14-98 years. In contrast, there were fewer men being referred to as “husband of”. Specifically, these were 7 tombstones with their ages ranging from 58 to 88. 72 and 70 females and males were referred to as father and mother, respectively.

Most of the surnames were linked to males, accounting for 1833. On the other hand, the females who had surnames transcribed were 374. There were 100 girls who had died before age 2 and out of these, only 19 had surnames. On the contrary, 75 boys out of 180 who had died below the same age had surnames. 215 married women had surnames. This was a relatively small number because the total number of married women was established to be 1421. 90 of these women had lacked maiden manes but they had surnames. 542 of the married women had no surnames but they had maiden names. The rest did not have either maiden or surname.

To successfully examine sexual bias trends, surnames were categorized into three. The first category was 1851-1900. This was followed by 1901-1950 category. Finally, there was the 1951-2000 category. The number of males in each category was 350, 702, and 660, respectively. This was compared to 337, 685, and 377, respectively for females. The percentage of women with surnames in the three categories was 4.0%, 17.1%, and 24.8%, respectively. For the men, the comparable percentages were 40.1% 40.5%, and 32.6%. There were significant changes during the three periods, but the changes reduced during the third category. During the first period, the percentage of women who bore maiden and surnames was relatively low, at 2.6% but in the second epoch, the percentage increased to 5.7%. In the third category, the figure was at 4.7%, which was a significant decrease.


Unlike death notices and obituaries, inscriptions of tombstones rarely attract the attention of the public. However, they are more of commonplaces that commemorate local news makers, as well as ordinary citizens in a similar manner. The transcription contains minimal information regarding the deceased (Abel, 2018). Among the common information contained in tombstones includes the deceased’s name, year of birth, and the year of death. There could be some additional information such as the place of birth, title, and the relationship such as father, son, daughter, or mother. The additional information requires an additional cost thus the implication that it is of social significance regarding the social values of the living.

In the previous studies, researchers have used death notices and obituaries to study gender bias. They help to observe change in terminal passages. Applying this rationale, this paper had established historical changes, concerning gender bias that has happened in female-male equality (Malkiel, 2014). The changes are evident from the various indicators of gender relationships. To assess gender-bias, the researcher used indication of an existing relationship and presence of surnames on the tombstones. It was found out that most of the male names were accompanied by surnames, unlike most females who lacked surnames. This trend was also identified among infants where by more males before two years of age were found to have surname son their tombstones, unlike their female counterparts who lacked the names.

The finding that women were mainly acknowledged through their relationship with the living or with their husbands. In this respect, married women were found to receive titles such as “His wife” and “wife to”, and “wife of”. The increase of women bearing their maiden names was an indication that women were increasingly being considered as worthy individuals whose recognition was increasing (Campo-Ruiz, 2015). They did not merely have a relationship with their husbands.


Indeed, gender bias is clear at death where men are highly recognized, and women are seen as belonging to men. However, history shows that the trend has been lessening. Future studies that are like those comparing death notices and obituaries ought to be conducted in various geographical areas to determine whether the historical changes are confirmed to some regions or whether they are widespread.


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