Tombstone graphics

Happy equinox! The nights are lengthening, and the stores are starting to fill with Halloween merchandise. One of the cool things about living in New England is that there are lots of nifty old cemeteries to visit. If you’re ever looking for an authentic creepy autumn vibe, you can take a stroll and look at the headstones. Among the very old headstones there are common motifs that come up again and again, like the winged death’s head and the urn and willow. I always wondered what the dang deal was about these images, and a recent post on Peter Merholz’s set me straight. Not only is there a great paper about this topic available online (Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow by James Deetz), but it also has terrific data visualization graphics. A double bonus! Watch as the mysterious Death’s Head morphs into a Merry Cherub by means of cultural memetic evolution and geographic dispersal.

Here’s the big question: by learning about something mysterious, do you make it more or less mysterious?