Summer 2017 general studies course to focus on history and culture of American cemeteries

April 06, 2017

Author: Phil Dignan

A tree with pink-flowered colors hangs over a gravesite at Congressional Cemetary. Several other gravesites are in the background.

The gravesite of gay rights advocate and Vietnam Veteran Leonard Matlovich is located in the Congressional Cemetery's LGBT section. Dr. Pajka's GSR 220 students will visit Congressional Cemetery and several others in the D.C. Metro area this summer.

When Dr. Sharon Pajka was a kid, she wanted to be a tour guide.

"I wanted to be like those who walk through cities like New Orleans with a large umbrella for tourists to follow."

Pajka, an English professor at Gallaudet, has followed that dream. A resident of Richmond, Virginia, she established the River City Cemetarians, a group of cemetery-enthusiasts (over 170 members) who recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. Pajka schedules monthly tours for the group, with each tour exploring among other things the history, art, and culture of area cemeteries. Pajka recently organized a tour of Richmond's Hebrew Cemetery, which according to the historian that gave the tour includes the only Jewish military cemetery in the United States.

From her research as part of the Gallaudet Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Initiative, Pajka has gained an increasing interest in the interpretation of space. In spring 2014, she enrolled in The Valentine Richmond History Center's Guide School through the University of Richmond's Professional and Continuing Studies program, where she received a master guide certification.

Since going through a training program and developing her own tour script, Pajka leads tours in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery, which includes two United States presidents, and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Her second official tour of the cemetery was presented in American Sign Language to members of the Virginia Baptist Conference of the Deaf during their annual conference with this tour, she is able to discuss Davis's family connection to renowned deaf artist John Carlin and share information about American novelist Ellen Glasgow, who preferred written correspondence since she struggled with face to face communication due to her deafness.

"All of this has been very rewarding for me personally as a way of sharing what I love and giving back to the community," said Pajka. "When I was asked to consider developing a GSR 300-level course, I had this in mind.

"Pretty much everything I learn makes its way into the classroom."

GSR 220: The Dead, Cemeteries, and Cultural Memory, to be taught by Pajka this summer, will explore the historical and memorialization aspects of American cemeteries. She will use readings that provide perspectives from a wide range of studies, including historic preservation, archaeology, anthropology, history, art history, death studies, and literature. Students will visit local cemeteries and conduct virtual research on others.

"We will be looking at how the design of cemeteries and monuments reveal our politics and cultural memory," said Pajka. "Because of that, I selected metro-accessible cemeteries that offer a different focus."

Pajka's development of this course coincides with her current study with the University of Richmond's graduate program in Public History, where her pursuit of a graduate certificate is providing her with a foundation and a professional credential to become a public historian in digital scholarship, humanities, and historical interpretation.

"I believe that continuing my own study in the field will benefit the ongoing development of my GSR course as well as give my students another example of a life-long learner."

Pajka started developing a GSR 300 course focusing on dark tourism, which is directed to sites associated with death and suffering, for the spring semester. Although a relatively new interdisciplinary field of study, she explained that it has a long history going back to the Roman gladiator games and visits to the catacombs.

"I'm pretty sure that many will consider this just another ‘weird' course... but I take this seriously and plan to tackle some challenging topics such as cultural memory, interpretation and authenticity, and political and moral dilemmas in remembering our heritage, especially aspects of our painful past."

Pajka did face some challenges in developing this summer's GSR 220 course. She expects her students to do the same during their studies.

"A course on dark tourism feels a bit heavy for a summer class. So I proposed the GSR 220 course on The Dead, Cemeteries, and Cultural Memory, and I'm actually enjoying developing this course more. There are certainly some darker elements, such as the establishment of Arlington National Cemetery, but history can be hard."

One example of how Pajka plans to challenge her students is for them to research the Mount Zion Cemetery, Female Union Band Cemetery, and Colored Union Benevolent Association (CUBA).

"We're going to have to discuss why that cemetery is in the dilapidated condition it is in while the traditionally white cemeteries are in pristine condition."

Visits will include Arlington National Cemetery to explore the U.S. Civil War's impact on this cemetery's location and the fight to allow female pilots from World Wat II to be laid to rest here; Congressional Cemetery to tour its famous internments, its LGBTQ section, and the cemetery's dog club; Mount Zion Cemetery to discuss the history of African-American cemeteries; and Rock Creek Cemetery to study its artistic qualities.

Pajka will incorporate TED-talks, including: Lux Narayan's "What I learned from 2,000 obituaries," anthropologist Kelli Swazey's "Life that doesn't end with death," artist Jae Rhim Lee's "My mushroom burial suit," architect Alison Killing's "What happens when a city runs out of room for its dead," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amanda Bennett's "We need a heroic narrative for death," and memory-manipulation expert Elizabeth Loftus's "How reliable is your memory?"

While this is designed as an interdisciplinary course that will have students grappling with some challenging content, Pajka also sees the course offering them a chance for reflection.

"Cemeteries are open-air museums including sculptures, artistic stonework, and craftsmanship that you just do not see anywhere else," said Pajka. They hold a record of attitudes towards death and dying... I don't think the learning in this course is going to stop once grades are posted. I think this content is relevant to their lives and will stick with them."

To learn more about the General Studies program, click here.

Photos by Phil Dignan