Michigan college course takes students to graveyard

Zahra Ahmad
Flint Journal

Flint — Sweating profusely, Tim Riley and four of his classmates, finished gently scrubbing and piecing headstones back together in a cemetery dating back to 1847.

It was September 2017, a month that saw a lengthy stretch of record heat, and Riley said he’d been eager to get the job done.

University of Michigan-Flint students spent half of their semester in Old Calvary Catholic Cemetery. They collected data such as birth and death dates, stone type and conditions of headstones before pulling them from the ground and preserving them, the Flint Journal reported.

“I like how factual history is,” Riley said. “I’m fascinated by the record of how things have developed throughout history. The preservation aspect of the class really sparked my interest because I like hands-on work.”

Their work came as part of a cemetery preservation and interpretation class, taught by Thomas Henthorn, which was created with the purpose of combing historic study and civic engagement.

“The class is based around neglected historical sites,” Henthorn, a professor at the University of Michigan-Flint, said. “Old Calvary is the oldest existing cemetery in the city that is still in use.”

First students learn about American traditions surrounding death and the history of cemeteries.

Riley said when cemeteries were first established, the deceased was buried near the family’s home, but as cities grew larger, rural cemeteries grew to be more popular. As interaction lessened, upkeep with the older headstones was ignored, Riley said.

In the field, the students documented the information and conditions of the stones, which they used to fill out a sheet provided by the Michigan State Historic Preservation Review Board.

Taking a look at the conditions of the grounds and stones reveals a lot about the time period they were created in, Henthorn said.

Certain stones don’t weather well and information can be lost. Stones can tell the demographic change in Flint, Henthorn said.

“The oldest headstones are often Irish or French Canadian,” Henthorn said. “Then you start seeing more German and Eastern European stones as time passes. This shows us the migration and immigration patterns that makeup Flint’s history.”

It can also unveil patterns of economic development.

“The oldest stones are very modest, but as we enter the 20th century we see more expensive and extravagant stones showing that people could start to afford these things,” he said.

Next, they assess what needs to be done to the stone and the grounds. If the stone needs to be repaired and cleaned, they begin by finding the pieces. Afterward, they clean all the pieces by gently scrubbing the stones with soap.

“Never do anything you can’t undo,” Henthorn said. “This is the most important rule to follow.”

Once the cleaning is finished, the stone is repositioned and the broken pieces are repaired with a lime mortar. The result, a headstone that’s much easier to interpret, which is key to the second part of the class.

Symbolism is an important aspect of understanding the history behind a headstone. This wasn’t something Riley considered when walking through a cemetery before taking Henthorn’s class.

“The symbolism on a headstone tells us what the deceased wants us to know about their life,” Riley said. “Whether it’s a heart, a vine or a tree, it was placed there for us to interpret. It can be difficult at first to interpret the symbolism, but when you do, you can really see what person’s life was like.”

Symbols on a gravestone are meant to give a window into the individual’s life. For example, a tree with stunted growth and a broken branch on a stone means the individual died during a period of growth.

“Or a lamb on a headstone would symbolize a child’s death,” Riley said.

The design of a headstone also unveils a glimpse into who the buried individual was.

“Military headstones, for example, are uniformed with insignia of a particular branch of the military,” Riley said. “They’re all pretty standard in size and make but the design will tell you what branch they belong to.”

A family buried in the cemetery, the Coggins family, was studied by the class in the fall. The class placed signs near the family’s graves letting visitors know the site was being preserved for research.

Anthony Coggins, a Holly High School social studies teacher, was walking through the cemetery researching his family’s headstones when he came across the signs.

“I was shocked,” Coggins said. “I’d been studying my family’s lineage for a while now since I started this project in 2013.”

Nearly 30 of Coggins’ family members are in Old Calvary Cemetery. Coggins began exploring his family’s history after a back surgery had him resting for six to eight weeks.

Coggins found that five generations ago, his great-grandfather and great-grandmother along with their three kids migrated from Ireland to Canada. They passed through Canada into New York, where his great-grandfather passed away and is buried.

His great-grandmother and her five sons passed through Canada again before settling in the Flint area, Coggins said.

At his parish, St. John Vianney Church, Coggins made mention of the preservation efforts to Father Firestone who pointed out Henthorn and explained what the professor’s class was doing.

“It’s incredibly important to preserve our historic sites and classes like this are bringing it to the forefront,” Coggins said.

Henthorn began teaching at UM-Flint in 2010 as a Wyatt Endowed Professor of Public History.

After researching Old Calvary Catholic Cemetery and talking to Firestone about the feasibility of working on the headstones there, Henthorn initially started a preservation internship program.

Henthorn turned the internship program into a class a few years later.

“We’ve cleaned about 200 stones so far,” Henthorn said. “It’s an upper division class that we started offering in 2017 and had five students enrolled. Because it’s offered in the fall we’re able to work up until the first frost in October.”

The class is funded partly by the Wyatt Endowment and by a parishioner from the St. John Vianney Church. Henthorn said he plans on expanding the class to preserve other cemeteries in Flint but it will require additional fundraising.