Hollywood Cemetery – Preliminary Thoughts

Hollywood Cemetery

I’m pretty excited about a new project we’ll be working on this year. We’re going to look at a local historically significant, but still active, cemetery through a variety of disciplinary lenses. Hollywood Cemetery is the permanent home of two presidents of the USA (James Monroe and John Tyler) and one president of the CSA as well as a variety of other interesting local people. Dr. Ryan Smith from VCU’s history department has already had students doing quite a bit of work with local cemeteries. Back Story also recently republished a podcast (Grave Matters) which mentions Hollywood cemetery quite a bit and is all kinds of good. Even the Girl Scouts have some great information on Hollywood Cemetery1. So that brings up the question- What can we do that hasn’t been done and how can we make this something really valuable to the community- both locally and at large?

SA Lacy

The Players and Their Lenses

Looking through the lens of sociology, Dr. Susan Bodnar-Deren will be helping us think through work around mortality, social status etc. by analyzing the data from gravestones.2 Dr. Bernard Means will be bringing an archaeological3 and 3D imaging background4 that he has honed in VCU’s Virtual Curation Lab. Dr. Ryan Smith will round out our professorial group with his focus on history. I will be playing the motley fool who is trying to create workflows, repositories, and visualizations of these data that make sense and are useful. In the end we hope to have the potential for at least one, and possibly more, interdisciplinary courses that focus on Hollywood Cemetery. Additionally we will create an interactive, informative, and interesting way for a variety of audiences to interact with the information we gather.

Open to the  public

I think that universities should focus more on how they take advantage of where they are geographically and use their courses to create value for students and community members because of their location. It is rare for non-educational organizations to have the energy, people, and time to attack a project like this. VCU is only minutes from so many historic areas. We could do a lot of good. Location is part of what makes VCU unique as a university. Here is a chance, one of many, to create real value for scholars and community members while driving student learning in valuable and interesting ways. Win, win, and win.

SA Lacy


  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Date of death
  • Implied/Defined Gender – guess based on the name or defined through statements like “wife of/husband of”

There’s the obvious data associated with grave markers (although even this varies a good bit).
From this we should be able to figure out the age at death and we should be able to divide the data by quarter decades and see it broken down by gender. I need to think through how make this most efficient technically. Currently, I’ve been playing with a Gravity Forms to WordPress post solution and then pulling the birth/death data from the Gravity Forms database. It may be more sensible to do that another way, maybe custom post types and custom metadata.

There’s also an entirely different world of additional data that reflects everything from the time period and religion to economic class and the age of the deceased. I need to consider the way this data will be used and the workflow in gathering it so that we get what makes sense with as little pain as possible. It is interesting how quickly I find I need better, more specific words than I currently have. Taxonomic considerations like this are always interesting. It may be that a chunk of these don’t matter but I find it helpful to start big and then slim down.

  • Type of marker – statuary? marker? mausoleum/shrine?
  • Construction material – limestone vs granite vs iron
  • Size
  • Iconography – engraved or the shape of the marker itself, same/different as other stones within the plot/locally
  • Stone location – family plot, top of the hill etc.
  • Epitaph
  • Descriptors – wife of, son of, etc.

The key is trying to think through how people will want to see and interact with this information. We have lots of audiences and I’d like to make a number of them happy through different interfaces but we’ll need the core data to do that. It’ll also be important to think through how to deal with incomplete data- grave markers without birth dates for instance.

Hollywood Cemetery Map

I can see at least three main interfaces – one would be focused on the grave markers themselves (something very visual with some sorting/filtering options), another interface would be built around an aerial view of the cemetery (current map is pictured above), and the third would be a data focused interface which may be modeled after GapMinder.

There would also be the possibility of writing posts that reference various grave markers in the collection. If we leave trackbacks on, we should be able to automatically interweave the resources (individual grave makers) with larger understandings/narratives simply by linking back to them in the larger analysis posts. I think that simple but also pretty interesting. It’d also be interesting to see how and how frequently different grave markers are used over time.

1 Warning- Word document

2 Already, I feel the need for better vocabulary. Grave marker maybe?

3 His Death and Burial course sounds pretty awesome.

4 Incorporating these types of files has led to all sorts of interesting 3D js library exploration.

Comments on this post

  1. Sarah Kye Price said on July 16, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Hi Tom…really interesting project! Michael Price (my spouse) forwarded me your blog since he knew I would be all about this project. I am in your building (in Social Work) and research in social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of bereavement. The role of Hollywood Cemetery as “sacred space” for families and communities…and how this may have shifted over time…comes immediately to mind. I have also done work specifically around infant/child deaths and how trends in infant mortality have shifted in cultural and familial significance across generations. Are you interesting in talking more/adding to this team of fascinating people? Would love to set up a time to talk if so. Thanks for putting this out there for thought and inquiry. Sarah

  2. Tom Woodward said on July 16, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Sarah- That would be awesome. We would love to have you. I’ll get in touch via email tomorrow and loop you in on some details.

    I knew knowing Michael Price would continue to pay dividends for years to come!

  3. Susan Bodnar Deren said on October 29, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    So tomorrow is the day, that the students in VCU’s Medical Sociology class (SOCY445) head to Hollywood Cemetery. We have been studying demographic (and epidemiological transition) and the social determinants of health –
    and it is now time to go out and collect our own data, to see if the demographic transition theory can be examined by looking at historical data – grave markers and birth / death dates over the past 150 years. Thanks to great work of Tom Woodward and the ALTLab, you have helped us move out of the classroom and into the field – in a truly 21st century way, by letting us immediately link our data to an open space (this website), which can be expanded upon in so many ways. We will let you know how it all works out – fingers crossed for a great day filled with exploration, analysis and learning. Susan

    • Tom Woodward said on October 30, 2014 at 10:05 am

      Looks like some issues with cell phone coverage and image uploads are occurring. I have some ideas on lowering the image upload size and some other ideas I’ll check out around ways to provide greater wireless bandwidth. My option of last resort is a full app answer which would sync back when you have decent connectivity.