Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Halloween Activity

When I was in college, I used to drive to a large nearby cemetery. I'd find a quiet secluded spot and that's where I studied. It sounds a bit macabre, but it wasn't. It's a beautiful cemetery, and it was a much quieter place to study than school, home, or even a park.

As I would drive around to get to my favorite spot, I was amazed by the variety of tombstones. I would often stop to read them and would wonder about the person buried there. So many times husbands and wives died within months of each other. Often, entire families were buried within a few years. I always thought 'cause of death' should be put on the stones. Why did so many married couples or families die in such a short span of time? Was there an illness or a natural disaster? What was happening in the world and in their lives at the time?

There are really only a few ways to find out. One is to visit the library to gather information from the genealogy section. Often times you can read obituaries in newspaper archives. A lot of information now appears on the Internet. Once in a while you can find a living relative who can answer your questions.

I think this would be a great activity to do with students, especially at this time of year (Halloween). Have each student or pairs of students find a tombstone and try to learn as much as possible about that person.

There was one monument that always fascinated me when I was in college. It was a huge monument to someone named Potter. At the time, I wasn't able to find out about this person, but have since learned a lot more about him.

His monument is beautiful. It's one of the largest in the cemetery. I started with a search on the Internet. From there I continued reading at the library. I found that Thomas J. Potter was vice-president of the CB&Q (Chicago, Burlington & Quincy) railroad and later the Union Pacific railroad. He died in 1888 at the age of 48, his obituary stating that he died from an illness caused by overwork.

An activity like this gives students a lesson in local history. In the case of Thomas Potter, they would also get a lesson in the history of American railroads. It allows students to do research from a variety of sources. The final product of their research could be in the form of a video clip, a blog post, a research paper, or an oral presentation to the class. The possibilities for research and final presentations are almost endless.


  1. Its a credit to you for turning a seemingly morbid act into such a wonderful learning experience. I think it's a great idea, irrespective of the time of year. In addition to learning local history, the students can gain a better perspective about life in general. Only one concern - this acitivty has to be for children above the age of 10 or 12. Others are a little too young. What do you think?

  2. I agree. Even with middle school age children, you would probably want to be careful, maybe even getting parent permission. Children that age can be very impressionable and some are very troubled. You certainly wouldn't want to add to that.