Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Hand in Hand Til Death Doth Part: A Historical Assessment of the Clasped-Hands Motif in Rural Illinois1

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Hand in Hand Til Death Doth Part: A Historical Assessment of the Clasped-Hands Motif in Rural Illinois1

Article excerpt

An inherent challenge of historical research is that history is reconstructed as it is and not as it was, filtered through the norms and knowledge, the cultural lenses of a later time. Harriet Martineau, the first to systematically treat sociological methodology in 1838, noted that to understand and reconstruct cultural values and beliefs, what she termed "morals," of a particular time and place, one"... will find no better place of study than the cemetery, -no more instructive teaching than monumental inscriptions. The brief language of the dead will teach . . . more than the longest discourses of the living. . . . An inscription . . . presents a summary of the morals of the age and class to which it belongs."2

The "morals" or values and beliefs of any community influence and constrain a consumer's composition of a gravestone, including motif and expression of socio-demographic/biographical data. In that manner, gravestones reflect what was considered "good" or deemed acceptable and appropriate by community values and beliefs. We analyze a particular gravestone motif (clasped hands) and its socio-demographic contexts from mid-nineteenth century, rural Illinois in order to reconstruct and recognize the motif as it was and not as it is. To ensure the reconstruction of a single context and not an amalgamation of multiple contexts, we examine the motif from one community (as represented by a single cemetery), Charleston, Illinois. Hence, the clasped-hands motif is examined within a particular community (Charleston) and time (1861-1883), yielding a historical intimacy not had with a broader study of motifs.

Gravestone motifs, as iconographie expression, have been approached as material culture, studied as funerary art, as artifacts of various time periods or geographic areas, and as the products of particular stone carvers.3 Theoretically, gravestone motifs, as representations of nonmaterial culture, are best framed by symbolic interactionism and structuration.4 While the former assesses gravestone motifs as symbols, the latter considers the process and social constraints (that is, values and beliefs, the "morals") of selecting motifs, frames inherently connected.

Typically, it is assumed that the meanings of motifs are fixed and universal, as if any in question merely await the discovery of scholars for the elucidation of taphophiles.5 However, meanings of gravestone motifs, as expressions of symbolic communication, are socially constructed and involve the norms and values of place and time, as well as the dynamic interaction of producer, the deceased, the one who selected the motif and the (historical or contemporary) observer. The meaning of any gravestone motif can then be fixed only to the extent that the meaning is shared by all actors or agents, a fundamental tenet of symbolic interaction.6 Motifs are then selected because of appeal and popularity congruent with the values and beliefs of the community.

In addition to the socially- constructed appeal of the symbolism of gravestone motifs is structuration that acknowledges the interrelationships between agency and structure.7 This goes to the process of socially constructing popularity, both enabled and constrained by the rules and resources (for examples, technology, economics, social class, ethnicity, gender, age, marital status and so on) of time and place. The selection of a motif is a matter of agency (what agents do), influenced and constrained by social structure, including the assessed propriety of motifs via community values and ideologies, ethnicity, social class, economics, technology, and so on.8 Agents then select gravestone motifs, though not completely as they please, but in the context unique to the time-space structuration.

The clasped-hands motif is examined to extend our knowledge and appreciation of this particular motif and to illustrate an assessment of motifs, generally, as symbol selected within the rules, resources, and constraints of structuration so that motifs may be reconstructed and recognized as they were and not as they are. …

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