McNair/Gateway Scholars Program USC

Crystal Perl

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Major and Classification

Religion

Faculty Mentor

  • David Sloane, Ph.D.

Department

  • Policy, Planning, and Development

McNair Project

"Interviewing Stones: A Field Survey of Gravestone Styles, Los Angeles County 1850-1900"

Until now, analysis of 19th century gravestone trends in Los Angeles was impossible. Studies on the material culture of death, including gravestones, cemeteries, and cadavers, in the United States were almost exclusively limited to the Northeast (Laderman, Sloane). Consequentially, primary data for Los Angeles was not available. This project opens the discussion of early Los Angeles gravestones and concomitantly, their cultural implications, for the first time. Within the remit of the study, six historical cemeteries are visited and surveyed for gravestones with inscriptions between 1850 and 1900. Over three hundred gravestones are found to fit this description and thereafter, seventeen attributes, including shape, material, dimensions, symbols and epitaphs, are recorded for each individual gravestone. As expected, the exercise yields a considerable quantity of data and has to be examined with the aid of over thirty graphical comparisons. The graphs are then interpreted using multi-disciplinary perspectives, ranging from such traditional disciplines as history, anthropology and architecture to the metaphysical, such as the study of American awareness of death and human mortality. This paper chooses one of the academic perspectives, specifically the cultural history of Los Angeles, in order to scrutinize the data collected for three of the attributes, design, symbols, and epitaphs. It emerges from this analysis that Los Angeles gravestones adhere to two distinct trends. A large portion of the data expresses continuity with the gravestone trends of other American metropolises while an additionally significant portion of the data divergences by fervently clinging to traditional styles and motifs. This historical interpretation of the dataset lends insight into the mindsets of the Los Angeles residents not readily available in conventional histories. It is anticipated that future use of the unique dataset will answer even more fascinating cultural questions on the City's unusual past.