Arizona Grave Markers and Cemeteries

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Dr. Jim Griffith

Life and death converge atop local grave markers — where lovingly crafted wood crosses and fences often are symbolic of the departed’s occupation. The markers are cultural narratives that honor ways of life and depict rich artistic activity, as this feature by Jim Griffith now explains:

An Introduction to Arizona’s Cemeteries

Several years ago I was with a group taking a folklore-oriented tour of rural Utah. With us was the eminent and well-loved folklorist William A. “Bert” Wilson. During a visit to a cemetery, Bert remarked that whenever he started to work in a community new to him, his first visit was to the local cemetery. There he could learn about the local occupations, ethnic mix, religion, class structure, and even hobbies.

Cemeteries are marginal places, used by both the dead and the living. While they are occupied by the dead, they are used by the living to make statements about their loved ones and, by extension, about themselves and their communities. This is why I follow Professor Wilson’s advice and always to try to visit the cemetery everywhere I go. While there, I take photographs — not in any systematic, focused way, but of markers that for one reason or another catch my attention. I find the smaller “bare earth” cemeteries more interesting than the urban “memorial parks” with their lawns, regulations, and uniform headstones, as they allow much more leeway for individual expression.

In this series I’ll be showing and discussing some of the statements concerning ethnicity and occupation that I have documented in our state’s cemeteries. A few of these statements are literal, more are artistic and symbolic. I find them fascinating. For this introduction, I have selected one “bare earth” cemetery and three sandblasted illustrations of hobbies. Relatively inexpensive sandblasted stone markers have become popular in recent years, and offer all sorts of possibilities, as these photos will show. The next installment will take us to the former lumber town of McNary, for a look at African-American grave markers

All the photographs in this series are by Jim Griffith.

"Bare Earth" Cemetery, Pearce

A “bare earth” cemetery, Pearce, 1989.

A team roper and guitar player

A team roper and guitar player, Rincon Cemetery, 1989.

A fisherman

A fisherman, Mesa cemetery, 1991.

A motorcyclist

A motorcyclist, Mesa cemetery, 1991.

1992    Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pímeria Alta. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, Chapter 5, “The Presence of the Dead, pp. 100-129.


  • Griffith, James “Southern Arizona Folk Arts,” Religious Art, p. 34 – 50 (The University of Arizona Press, 1988)

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