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Graveyard Science – Creepy can be Creative!

Posted by on February 12, 2012

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If you are still struggling to motivate your child to complete this year’s science fair project – try a little “shock and awe”. Trust me, this will be the project all the science fair judges are pointing out to each other. It is another one of my original project designs (although see my inspiration below) so students relying on “they-who-must-not-be-named” (you know them, that website that comes up first in everyone’s search) doesn’t have anything like this one. At the very least, you will score points for originality:

Observation: People today seem to live longer.

Question: How have survival rates changed in the last 200 years?

Hypothesis: You have to choose and write this – it is just a prediction that answers the question (Increased? Decreased? OR Stayed the same?)

Experiment: Locate several graveyards of varying ages (or several sections of a very large cemetery). You will need 50 headstones from before 1900 (category 1), from between 1900-2000 (category 2), and from 2000 and later (category 3). In each case, you will record the birth year and death year on the headstones of the first 50 you find (make your own data sheet and bring a clipboard or record in your notebook). Also take photos for your backboard. If you want to get extra-creepy bring printer paper and crayons/pencils and make rubbings of familiar names to decorate your backboard later. NOTE: always be respectful in a cemetery

Results: Graph a survival curve for each category. Do this by putting AGE (age at death, so death year – birth year) on the x-axis and NUMBER OF PEOPLE on the y-axis. Starting with AGE = 0, How many people (out of the total of 50 per category) were still alive? It will be point (0, 50) unless you found infant gravestones. Then, in bins of 2 or 5 years (i.e. age 2, 4, 6, 8 or 5, 10, 15, 20 etc.) continue until you have accounted for the oldest person you found (point #, 0) in each category. Repeat for each section so that all three sections are represented by a line on the graph. Also calculate the average lifespan (i.e. age) in years (death year – birth year) for each category.

Conclusion: Does your data support your hypothesis?

Will this creep-out your science teacher? Do you think this relationship will hold in different parts of the country? How about in different countries? Depending on time and interest, this project could take as little as 1 weekend or as long as a year (if you travel often).

Note: this project idea was inspired by an environmental science laboratory exercise in Environmental Science: The way the world works by John P. Harley and Bernard J. Nebel.

37 Responses to Graveyard Science – Creepy can be Creative!

  1. Emily P

    This sounds like a great science fair project to do, but I am a little bit worried about the questions the judges will ask me. What are the variables and control? How can this help you in life? Thank you very much for the idea.

  2. Dr. Maille Lyons

    Hi Emily,

    For you variables, the INDEPENDENT one is the one that you manipulate (change) – so in this case it would be the age categories that you set up (category 1, 2, and 3 above). Your DEPENDENT variable is the one that you measure (or this case calculate = age).

    The CONTROL is a little trickier and depends on your hypothesis. If you hypothesized that people live longer now, than they did before 1900 then your control is actually category 1 (the oldest gravestones – because you are hypothesizing that as time as gone on, average age of people has increased).

    It could “help you” by inspiring you to learn more about WHY people live longer now

  3. Angela

    this is a great project. but im still confused about the graph!

  4. Dr. Maille Lyons

    Hi Angela,

    You don’t need the graph if you just want to compare the average ages, you can do that by comparing the average age for each sample. BUT, if you want to do a more in-depth analysis, then you would have the data to present survival curves (if you google that term you will see plenty of examples). The survival curves could lead to interesting insight as to HOW the survival trend vary (so more that just yes/no – for do they vary?). This will require you take the data and manipulate it by counting the number of individuals that are in each category. A category is an age range. 5 to 10 years (for example).

    Hope that helps,
    Dr. Lyons

  5. Samantha D.

    hi Dr. Lyons. This looks like a REALLY GOOD science project but how can i setup the procedure that sounds all intelligent and things? BTW i LOVE this project…it’s unique….

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Hi Samantha,

      Your procedure would include details of how you will find cemeteries of varying ages (may need to do some historical research, or ask local churches, or just search for them online); how many gravestones you will evaluate and how you will select them (first 20, every 3rd one until 20, all of them, etc. do some research on random, systematic, convenience, and haphazard sampling strategies) and what calculations you will make. If you describe what calculations you will do before collecting your data – you will have a better idea of what data to collect.

      • Samantha D.

        wow….ummm Dr. Lyons, i’m in the 7the grade and i didn’t really understand what you just said…would you mind dumbing it down for me?

  6. Dr. Maille Lyons

    OK – how’s this:

    Question: Do people really live longer now?

    Hypothesis (you need to pick one)

    1. As time has passed, people live longer
    2. As time has passed, people do not live as long
    3. As time has passed, people live about the same now as they did a while ago


    1. Find a large cemetery
    2. Find the oldest section and the newest section and one more in between
    3. Find the first 20 gravestones
    4. Calculate lifespan of EACH gravestone (lifespan in years = death date – birth date)

    Results: Calculate the average lifespan for EACH of the three sections

    Conclusion: Does the data support or not support your hypothesis

    • makayla brown

      thanks a lot that helped me a lot for my science fair project!! :p

  7. Samantha D.


  8. Rhonda

    I have a question. You say to find 3 categories. 1. Before 1900 2. B/T 1900 – 2000 3. After 2000. Are we grouping by birth yr or death yr? Seems that either way, almost everyone after 2000 would be a death of unnatural causes.

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Death year – so those that died most recently (after 2000) would not necessarily be of unnatural causes (lifespans will depend on when they were born), but the opposite is not true – if you grouped by birth year then that group would only include very young people (less than 12).

      Great question!

  9. Rhonda

    Thanks so much!

  10. Holli

    I have 2 kids in 5th grade this year and they were allowed to do their project together and they chose yours! We had a wonderful family day out at several gravesites which included former President Andrew Johnson. They loved using the crayons on the tombstones and we found a tombstone with their teachers name on use your imagination for that! My question is: by getting 50 more tombstones in an additional category of deaths before 1800’s found in Germany would that mess up the data because it is from Europe?

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Not necessarily – keep the data separate and see if the overall trends hold within the 50 (unless you know all 50 will be before 1800). If they are all before 1800, just make those 50 measurements their own category (pre-1800) for its bar on the bar graph. In your explanation of results, point out that those are from Europe.

      If you send me a photo of the backboard, I would love to post it here!

  11. Michael

    What would be the minimum of grave stones to count for each 3 groups, 50? …. 150 total. Or can it be less like 20 each for a total of 60 for all 3 groups.

    Thank you!

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      More is generally better, but if you can only find 20 then that could be sufficient. If the results do not show trends, then you can discuss that it might be because you did not survey enough in each age class.

  12. siena

    love the project

  13. makayla brown


  14. morgan

    This project is really great! It’s also really cool!

  15. Lizzie

    This sounds like a very cool idea! What can be done to raise the level of this project to AP Science in high school?

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Depends on what your guidelines are. You could look at how more than one variable affects the distribution of data collected. Cemeteries of different geographic locations, cemeteries of different religious affiliations, the average cost of a burial plot, the size of the cemetery, etc. Expand the collection to as many sites as possible (will take longer than a single weekend) and think about what variables would be look at: cost, size, location, civilian vs. military, catholic vs. non-denominational; rural vs. city; etc. The possibilities are endless!

  16. Lizzie

    Thank you!

  17. Akeshis

    Helped my 6 yr. old daughter do this for her 1st Science Fair Project due today! Still can’t wait to see her grade on it! Thank you for the great ideas! It gave her more insight on what really happens in time & death as well. Good lesson taught that we aren’t immortal creatures…lol Thanks again!! 🙂

  18. Hope

    What is the control for the experiment if your hypothesis is that the people who died between 1900 and 2000 lived longer than the people who died both between 1800 and 1900 , and between 2000 and 2015 the people from between 1900 and after 2000 have about the same average life span.

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Because of the way you have phrased the question/hypothesis, the control is technically the group designated as living/dying between 1900 and 2000. This is what you have decided in the “normal” or “do nothing” condition to which you will compare alternatives. Consequently, the “experimental” groups are those that lived either “before” or “after” – which is perfectly acceptable, although I highly recommend giving a reason for why this group is expected to live longer than those that lived before and after. For example – why did you think this group would/could have a longer lifespan?

  19. whittney s

    Do you have anything about germs

  20. kelsey

    how do i write a background on this please help

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      The Background is just a summary of the topic you choose. Here you could “research” lifespans and how they have changed with time.

      • Jim

        Can you expand more on how to complete the background?

        • Dr. Maille Lyons

          Depending on what attracted you to this project – look up information on that. It’s a good start. You can also look up death rates as a function of time in history – do we live longer? how much longer? why do we live longer? does everyone live longer or only developed countries? why or why not? what “things” affect how long a person, or a population, or a culture lives (on average).

          Hope that helps put you in the right direction 🙂

  21. Kimberly

    Dr. Lyons,
    We are doing this project and I am wondering about the line graph. The x axis is the dependent (age) and the y axis is the number of people, I thought the independent variable was the categories (the years, before 1900, after 1900, 2000 till now). Any help would be so appreciated!!!

  22. Gabby

    I for sure want to do this science project but a little nervous that it will be to simple due to the fact that I’m a high school freshman. What is the age group that this project is meant for? Do you think it will be fine to do or will it be to simple?

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