October marks that time of the year when we dress up as ghouls and goblins, decorate our homes with spiderwebs and skeletons, and indulge in all manner of frightening things. As a nod to these spine-chilling 31 days, the IDHH is featuring the fascinating use and art of tombstones and other grave markers. As diverse as the great variety of funerary traditions around the world, grave markers serve not only the utilitarian purpose of demarcating the physical space where an individual might lie, but also reflect the social values and traditions of a specific period or people. Cemeteries and other burial places held great significance from the earliest days, as providing a place for the dead was thought to be an important family obligation. This significance would eventually extend to larger communal graveyards and burial places as inclusion in these spaces became exclusive to community members, often excluding foreigners, criminals, and other unwanted groups.
The tombstones and grave markers within these communal spaces have communicated a number of ideas to visitors over time. As a work of art, the craftsmanship and skill in the construction of the tombstones can be an aesthetic pleasure in its own right. Such artistry leads people to create gravestone rubbings with charcoal and to capture graveyard scenes through painting and photography. The construction and grandiosity of these markers may also impart a sense of prestige or wealth, such as in the image below of Carrie Eliza Getty’s large tomb in Chicago. Of course, tombstones also act as a memorial to previous generations, prompting us to seek out the histories of those buried there, like of the Mabie family and their influential 1840s circus show in Wisconsin. Whether viewed as art, icon, or historical marker, tombstones offer a (spooky) glimpse into the values and customs of those who are no longer with us.
Here are a few of our favorite items featuring tombstones from across the Midwest:
As the weather and humidity in central Illinois make it feel more and more like the temperature is over 100°F outside, the IDHH is highlighting the proverbial “dog days” of summer. While the phrase “dog days” or “dog days of summer” might be somewhat familiar, just what are these days and how did this expression enter our cultural lexicon? From an astronomical point of view, the phrase refers to the annual phenomenon in which the bright star Sirius rises into the sky at the same time as the Sun. This heliacal rising allows viewers to see both the Sun and the Sirius star simultaneously, leading to the belief that Sirius intensified or added to the Sun’s heat. In the Northern Hemisphere, this simultaneous rising may be seen during the hottest months of the year, in July and August.
Hellenistic astrologers in the Mediterranean were aware of the star Sirius, calling it the “Dog Star” due to the way it followed the constellation Orion into the night sky. The sweltering and humid weather in the Mediterranean during these months would often cause people to fall ill, and so the connection was made between Sirius’ heliacal rising and its effect on the populations below. A variety of detrimental effects to human activities were attributed with Sirius’ rising such as lethargy, fever, and bad luck, as well as the belief that this hot period brought out madness in dogs, further reinforcing the notion of the “dog days”. While we may no longer blame a summer fever on the “dog days of summer”, there is no denying the potent influence of a heat wave in July to inspire lazy dreams of a nice afternoon spent on the water. Between numerous lakes and ponds, miles of river, and spots like Navy Pier on the shores of Lake Michigan, Illinoisians have plenty of ways to cool down during the hot summer.
Below are a few of our favorite items highlighting ways to enjoy the “dog days of summer” and beat the heat: