May 01, 2001 2 min read

A Grave Lesson

On a brisk fall day in Washington state, a small group of 11-year-olds walks to a local graveyard. Carefully, they pull back layers of ivy, revealing headstones that have not seen daylight for decades. The opening of Hollywood’s latest horror flick? No, it’s history period for Mary Metzger’s class at Chehalis Middle School near Olympia.

Each September, the students follow Metzger to Fern Hill Cemetery to begin a yearlong, hands-on lesson in the history of their almost 150-year-old logging town. Selecting names they find on headstones, they attempt to uncover the identities and stories of those buried as a way to learn more about the past.

First, they glean all the information they can from the site and make rubbings of the headstones. As the weather turns colder, the students head indoors to local libraries, the Lewis County Historical Museum research center, and the state library in Olympia. They comb through old census records for birth dates, immigration data, and family connections, among other snippets of information. Sometimes, the research includes interviewing the person’s relatives who still live in the area to find out more. Says 6th grader Julia Milovich, “Since Fern Hill is not a place where very famous people are buried, it is a challenge to find out facts long forgotten.” Megan Filler, her classmate, adds: "[It’s] really cool that I get to research dead people. It’s almost like trying to solve a huge mystery.”

In the spring, each student writes a historical fiction piece about a research subject’s life. The stories, along with rubbings of the headstones and other artwork, are bound in a book, copies of which are given to students, the school, the public library, and the local history museum.

Metzger began her Fern Hill Cemetery project in 1990, and so far her classes have explored approximately 150 of the 180 plots in the cemetery, documenting stones from as far back as 1861. While some students initially are nervous about working in a cemetery, Metzger says, she meets with parents and students at the start of the project to calm any fears. She also discusses appropriate cemetery conduct.

Metzger recently added a new component to the class, asking students to include histories of their lives in the 6th grade in their project journals. By making history lessons personal and helping students to “see how it relates to you,” Metzger says she hopes her students will “have an appreciation for family history. Someone else’s first, then their own.”

—Marisha Goldhamer