Cemetery demography is an exercise used in many undergraduate ecology courses across the country to illustrate the use of life tables in population studies. This site contains data on human survivorship collected from local cemeteries by students at a number of colleges and universities; the data are posted here to be shared with students elsewhere. You may choose a section below of interest or scroll through the entire sequence.

Cemetery demography: background
Data sharing: reasons for the ESA data sharing project
Cemetery data sets: student-collected data

For further information, please contact Dr. Ernest H. Williams, Hamilton College. As of 2023, all the links to the data sets are still working. This exercise is also available in Spanish, accessible at the following URL:
translation: https://chicksx.com/blog/cemetery-demography-exercise


Cemetery Demography: Background

One way to learn about populations of living organisms is to examine age-specific rates of mortality and reproduction. Because accumulated age-specific information is often presented in life tables, life table analysis is a common component of courses in ecology or population biology. To illustrate this procedure, life tables are often prepared for humans using data collected from cemeteries (the data are year of birth, age at death, and sex). Available below are sets of student-collected data for use in survivorship and demographic studies.

Cemetery demography is an exercise used in many ecology courses across the country because it: (1) demonstrates the use and value of life table analysis, (2) uses data that can be readily collected, (3) produces results (patterns of human survivorship) that are of direct interest to most students, and (4) lets students answer questions they raise themselves. They can, for example, make various survivorship comparisons - males vs. females, early vs. late 19th century, urban vs. rural locations, northern vs. southern regions - as well as examine the change in survivorship patterns over time and the impact of major episodes of mortality (e.g., the Civil War).

While the details of life table analysis are available in various locations, one clear explanation is found in the book Experiments to Teach Ecology, published in 1993 by the Education Committee of the Ecological Society of America and available from the ESA national office, Washington, DC. This book contains an exercise titled "Cemetery Demography" which was submitted by Nancy Flood, Univ. Toronto, and tested and presented by Charles Horn, Newberry College. A cemetery exercise was also published in R. Brewer & M.T. McCann, 1982, Laboratory and Field Manual of Ecology, Saunders College Publishing.

Data Analysis. New for Fall 2011, I'm providing an Excel spreadsheet that makes all life table calculations based on the number of deaths entered for each ten-year bracket of births. Download the spreadsheet here.


Data Sharing

There are two reasons for sharing data in studies of human survivorship. First of all, the sets of cemetery data come from different regions of the U.S. and thus allow one to make interesting comparisons that can't be made with only one's own data. Secondly, and of equal importance, is that among students from different parts of the country who ask the same questions and run similar exercises, data sharing can make explicit the collaborative part of science. Thus, data exchanges can promote a sense of scientific community in which people engaged in scientific enterprises openly share their work.

The sharing of cemetery data began in 1992, with students from Hamilton College (New York) and Newberry College (South Carolina) exchanging their data (Ecological Society of America, News for the Education Section 3[2], October, 1992), and became a project of the ESA Education Section in 1996 (News of the Education Section 7[2], Fall 1996).


Cemetery Data Sets

The data available here have been collected from local cemeteries by students in ecology courses from colleges and universities around the U.S. Each data set contains summarized data: for each decade of birth, there are the number of deaths by decade of age for both men and women. Some information is also given about the community from which the data were collected and the date of the data set. As more data are collected in each area, the data sets may be updated over time. Raw data on human survivorship may be found elsewhere (see introduction above).

The following data sets are available online. You can download the PDF format. The PDF files require Adobe's Acrobat Reader which is free. To get the latest version click on this button: 

Data Set 1: Hamilton College, Clinton, NY.

Clinton was settled in, and the cemeteries date from, 1790, when settlers moved to upstate New York after the American Revolution. The data set has been built up by ecology classes since the mid-1980's and is nearly complete for the township of Kirkland. The setting is a small rural town with about 2500 residents. The current data set was compiled in 2011. (contact: Dr. Ernest H. Williams, ewilliam@hamilton.edu)

Data Set 2: Newberry College, Newberry, SC. 

The data are from the town of Newberry, South Carolina, a southern rural town of about 10,000, and were collected by an Ecology class. The current set dates from 1992. (contact: Dr. Charles Horn)

Data Set 3: Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. 

These data were collected in the towns of Wellesley and Natick, MA; although the towns were settled in the 1700's, the cemeteries were opened in the 1780's. The data were collected by Ecology classes through 1983. Those individuals whose birth years were after 1900 are represented only sparsely. These are towns with populations of about 30,000 each on the outer part of the Boston suburban sprawl.

Data Set 4: Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY. 

Geneva is a town of about 20,000 on one of the finger lakes in upstate New York. The data date from 1996. (contact: Dr. Elizabeth Newell, newell@hws.edu)

Data Set 5: Wilkes University, Wilkes Barre, PA. 

The data are from Hollenback Cemetery and date from 1996. (contact: Dr. Ken Klemow, kenneth.klemow@wilkes.edu)

Data Set 6: St. John's University and College of St. Benedict, Collegeville, MN. 

The data are from 4 small cemeteries on the campuses of St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict in central Minnesota. One data set is from the local community, while the other is from the brothers and sisters of the monastic communities. The second makes quite a contrast to usual cemetery data because these people led a very different life style and were not born into their communities. (contact: Dr. Gordon Brown, dgbrown@csbsju.edu)

Data Set 7: Carterville Cemetery, Carterville, Illinois 

The first burials began in the Carterville Cemetery in the 1840's before the town of Carterville became incorporated. The community was originally a farming community in a region of Illinois marked by rural poverty. Coal mining became the predominant industry in Carterville by the 1880's, and the cemetery marks the graves of many who died from coal mining accidents and related illnesses. (contact: Dr. Beth Middleton, bmiddleton@plant.siu.edu)

Data Set 8: Tower Grove Cemetery, Murphysboro, IL (Southern Illinois Univ.)

The Tower Hill Cemetery in Murphysboro, Illinois, was opened in the 1830's. Like nearby Carterville, the area was originally a farming region, though coal mining was also important in this region by the 1880's. Murphysboro had silicon factories in the 1920's that took a toll on the male population. In 1925, the world's largest tornado disaster occurred, when a Category 5 tornado killed hundreds of people in the region. As the county seat, victims of the tornado were shipped to Murphysboro by flat bed railroad car and buried in the Tower Hill Cemetery; because many of these people were not recognizable, hundreds of people were buried in unmarked graves and are not actually recorded via the birth and death records on the gravestones. (contact: Dr. Beth Middleton, bmiddleton@plant.siu.edu)

Data Set 9: Woodlawn Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA (Drexel Univ.)

These data were collected from Woodlawn Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA, in 1997 by a Drexel Univ. ecology class. One particularly interesting feature about the data set is that there was a 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Drs. Anthony Steyermark, James Spotila, and Douglas Ruby were involved with the data collection and compilation. (Contact: Dr. James Spotila, Drexel Univ.).

Data Set 10. Georgetown, TX (Southwestern Univ.)

These data were collected from a small cemetery by an upper-level ecology class at Southwestern Univ. (Contact: Stephanie Fabritius, fabritis@southwestern.edu)

Data Set 11. Brownwood, TX (Howard Payne Univ.)

This is a new, updated data set contributed in 2011 by Meagan Raschke.

Data Set 12. Aberystwyth, WALES (Aberystwyth Univ.)

These uncompiled data (a list in Excel rather than pdf format) are from a graveyard next to St. Michael's church in Aberystwyth. Fall 2009 data from Javier Gamarra (jgg@aber.ac.uk). These burials, which stopped around 1870,are from fishermen and their families .

Data Set 11. New York City (Barnard College)

The Barnard data are from NewYork's Trinity Church Cemetery, reported in 2004 by Hilary Callahan. She said this is the only active cemetery in Manhattan and is located at 155th St. between Riverside Drive and Amsterdam Ave. She added: "Note that Trinitty Church is actually located in the downtown Financial District; in the church, there is an even smaller and older cemetery. The newer cemetery was established in 1842 on farm land that formerly belonged to John James Audubon. Some of the headstones are older than 1842 because graves were moved from the churchyard downtown."

For further information or contribution of additional data sets, please contact Dr. Ernest H. Williams, Hamilton College. Last update 16Nov2011.