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Death’s Heads, Winged Cherubs and Weeping Willows

July 17, 2012

By Bob Keeler

I’m just home from the 2012 Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS) annual conference. This year’s program, entitled “In Every Conceivable Style” Diversity in New Jersey, was held at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. The conference kicked off with a full-day bus tour of cemeteries in central New Jersey, ranging from the colonial era at St. Peter’s Churchyard in Perth Amboy, to contemporary markers for members of the Chinese Romany communities at the Rosedale/Rosehill Cemetery in Linden. In spite of 100 degree heat and East Coast summer humidity, a good time was had by all as our annual “week at cemetery camp” got underway.

The next three days were a whirlwind of workshops, field trips, lectures and classroom sessions, all focused on our shared passion—gravestones, cemeteries and every manner of related cultural behavior. Many of the presentations this year dealt with the American Civil War, since we’re in the midst of the sesquicentennial commemoration of that pivotal event. Other highlights included:

  • A fine demonstration of slate carving by David Gillespie, a South Carolina stone carver who dresses and works in eighteenth century period style;
  • A fascinating overview of the history of the hearse, by Mark Nonestied, one of our conference hosts and organizers (along with Richard Veit from Monmouth University); and
  • Presentation of a clear process for organizing, planning and carrying out preservation efforts in historic cemeteries. While Margaret Puglisi’s work has focused on Garden Cemeteries in the American South, much of the process she outlined would be perfectly applicable to cemetery preservation efforts of any age in any location.

Bob Keller (right) and Charlotte Powell at the Miller Cemetery near Albany, Oregon.

The Saturday bus tours divided our conference attendees (about 112 in number) into three groups. One bus headed to the Newark area to visit two large Victorian cemeteries—Mount Pleasant, being New Jersey’s oldest cemetery in the Rural Cemetery Movement style. Another bus took aficionados of death’s heads, winged cherubs and weeping willows to visit colonial era cemeteries in the Elizabeth and Westfield areas. A third bus headed to Woodbridge and Perth Amboy to visit several cemeteries with interesting folk markers representing a number of different ethnic communities.

As always at AGS conferences, the informal Late Night presentations, enlightened, enthralled and entertained. The silent auction produced its usual, friendly bidding wars, raising much-needed funds to support the organization, and the awards reception and banquet reminded us of friends no longer with us and of the hard work so many in this field carry out, deserving of recognition and honor.

You can check out the entire conference program at the Association for Gravestone Studies website. Also, the AGS annual conference is coming to Oregon next year, so mark your calendar now to come to Willamette University in Salem on June 18-23, 2013!

Bob Keeler is a professor of Anthropology at Clackamas Community College and is a member of the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries.


Oregon Heritage will offer workshops July 20-21, 2012 in Burns on strengthening volunteer programs and cemetery maintenance and repair. In conjunction with the workshops, the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries will also meet in Burns. All of the events are free and open to the public. Find more information at the

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