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Necrogeography: A research assistant digs into the cultural significance of cemeteries

Cemeteries are spaces that, while ubiquitous, are rarely given much thought. But Samantha McLean, a student completing her Master’s in Conflict Studies, says there’s a wealth of history and culture to uncover.

“It’s sad to see that that part of our society is very much overlooked because cemeteries do serve an important cultural purpose,” explained McLean. “It’s a space for people to connect with recently deceased family or to find their ancestors and that helps communities connect the past with the present.”

McLean’s newfound appreciation for cemeteries comes from a literature review she conducted regarding the cultural aspects of cemeteries – from trends in epitaphs and gravestone art, to wider folklore and community building. In particular, she looked into how cemeteries can speak to the people and cultures who built them.

“I’d never thought of cemeteries or necrogeopraphy as a subject of research because I’m privileged to know my history. And if you know your family’s history, it’s something easy to overlook and not think about. That’s my privilege,” admits McLean. “But now I see how research like this can be important for some people from marginalized or oppressed cultures — it allows them to connect with their past, which may have been disconnected from them by force. This research allows access to part of who they are and that’s important because if you don’t know who you are, your roots, it can really create a hole in your identity. I’m happy that my research contribution can help fill in those gaps.”

Contributing to Broader Research

McLean conducted this research as part of her role as a research assistant for Anna Sheftel, then an associate professor in the School of Conflict Studies.

“Samantha’s literature review helped me with a great deal of background research, which has helped me get new projects off the ground and to situate the work within the wider field of literature,” says Sheftel. “It is always a pleasure to work with research assistants like Samantha. In doing research for me, bright students also bring their own perspectives and discoveries, and that kind of collaboration only makes our research stronger and more interesting.”

“Being a research assistant was all really interesting. I admired Anna as a professor, so it meant a lot to contribute to her work,” said McLean. “It was also great to gain research experience because it’s something that I hope to do as a profession.”

During her time as a research assistant, McLean also conducted research on the 2012 Quebec students protests and compiled transcriptions and documents for a round-table discussion regarding historical perspectives on COVID-19.

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