Big Jim: Cemetery art

2013-10-22T00:00:00Z 2013-12-19T11:46:39Z Big Jim: Cemetery artJim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

For this blog, I’ll be visiting our rural cemeteries – graveyards without lawns and caretakers, in which the families of the dead are responsible for the decoration and maintenance of the graves. I’ll be looking specifically at home-made grave markers.

As in the case of the boundary art, I’m not seeking masterpieces or even strikingly original statements. This is folklore, and folklore falls into patterns reflecting the community that produces it.

I am also celebrating the human ability to create using whatever materials are at hand. In the case of the boundary art, these include such recycled objects as old motorcycles and horse shoes. In the cemeteries, we find plumbing pipe, rocks…and yes, horse shoes again.

Of course there are more than recycled monuments in the cemeteries. Many markers are the work of local blacksmiths, woodcarvers, and other craftspeople. However, there is so much to talk about that I’m ready to restrict myself to recycled materials today, leaving the rest for some future time.

Let’s begin with crosses. The simplest way to make a cross is to take four lengths of plumbing pipe and a four-way join, and put them together. You don’t even need a pipe threader if you have access to a hardware store. You can fill in the ends of the pipe with ready-made caps, or you can get decorative and use old door knobs, oiling cans, or anything else handy. If the simple cross is too stark, you can fill the gaps with curved designs of metal straps — decorations from old screen doors can come in handy for this. And there you are, with a pretty something created from nothing.

Pipe cross with doorknob finials, Harshaw-Duraznos, Arizona

Cemeteries are places where the living communicate with the living about their dead. The basic message of any marker is, of course, “we care.” But more can be — and often is — said, still by using recycled materials. If you find a cross or even a grave fence made of horseshoes, you’re entitled to suspect that the occupant of the grave was a cowboy, or at least an avid horseman.

Cross and fence of horse shoes, private ranch cemetery near Tucson

And there is one marker in the Arivaca cemetery that consists of a cement casting of a washtub surmounted by a cairn of mineral-bearing rocks, all cemented in place. A tobacco can is thrust between two of the rocks, and a plaque on top of the monument tells us that the dead person’s nickname was “Klondike.” It looks as though an old prospector’s survivors built him the last claim monument he would ever need.

Mining claim grave marker, Arivaca, Arizona

Fascinating, moving places, these cemeteries. But they are best visited in the daytime, for reasons that will appear in the next blog.

Photos by Jim Griffith.

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About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail

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