DECATUR – Unlike so many of the stones marking the final resting place of Civil War veterans in Greenwood Cemetery, the stone of Archie Ward is easy to read.
Born in 1844 in Tennessee as a slave, Ward fought in the Civil War, served as pastor of St. Peter African Methodist Episcopal Church and died in Decatur in 1916. As St. Teresa High School sociology students Maddie McNamara and Taylor Prasun copied down the information for their class project, they discussed Ward and wondered about him.
“I'd like to know more about his history,” Maddie said. The girls agreed that it was worth doing some research to see if they could learn more.
Greenwood is an old cemetery, probably the oldest in Decatur, and nearly all the names familiar to residents from schools and streets are represented there: Packard, Durfee, Millikin. Aged mausoleums and faded tombstones with the carvings faint from almost 200 years of wind and weather exist side by side with newer graves, surrounded by those whose deaths were in the 19th or very early 20th centuries.
It was that history that drew sociology teacher Mario Podeschi to suggest the project to his students as the first step in their first research paper: examining the headstones and the clues they could find on those stones that will tell them something about the people and the families of Decatur's early years.
“We are analyzing gravestones and looking for sociological explanations about them,” Maddie said.
The first step is simply collecting data, Taylor said, such as a name, age at death and so on. Then they look for religious symbols and the style of the gravestone, which can tell them a lot about the deceased and his or her family.
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“We are working toward our first big research paper,” Podeschi said. “Today we were reading 'The Big Book of Illinois Ghost Stories' (by Troy Taylor). It's written by a fellow Midwesterner, so I think when we finally settle on what our paper will exactly be about, it's going to be something like the historical facts.”
To keep their research as close to professional as possible, the students could also bring a research assistant along to take notes for them, so they were free to prowl and find the most interesting markers. Maddie and Taylor chose fellow student Mitchell Vandercar, who isn't taking sociology this semester.
“It just seemed like a really cool project, to put all the data together and make it into a paper,” Maddie said.
What makes it sociology and not history, said Taylor, is the focus.
“Psychology focuses on one person,” she said. “Sociology focuses on groups of people.”
Studying a cemetery and the headstones in it, she said, provides information about how people lived and interacted, what their beliefs were and what was important to them.
The students chose the Civil War section of Greenwood Cemetery because they wanted the oldest graves possible. Greenwood contains stones of almost every type, giving the students plenty of chances for studying customs and history.
Podeschi even found a cenotaph, an inscription attached to a stone in memory of a person buried elsewhere.
Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter