Research Report

Economic Display in tombstone and Life Expectancy Pattern

Megan Duersteler

Noemi Albor



            We tested the life expectancy between two categories of tombstone displays. One category was a flat tombstone, parallel to the ground and the other was a non-flat tombstone that would stand a minimum of 50 cm off the ground. We conducted this test to check for a significant difference between life expectancies of people of different economic status. To do this we used tombstones as economic indicators. Data was collected at a local cemetery. Ages of the deceased were obtained by subtracting the birth year from the death year. We did not find a significant difference in the life expectancy. A T-test revealed a 0.22 P-value.

Keywords: Life expectancy, economic status


            Our hypothesis is that the life expectancy of people of high economic status will be greater than those of lower economic status. People who have low economic status are usually not very well educated and may be more likely to have jobs that may require physical labor. On top of this, a study on socioeconomic position lead to show that people who live in poor areas have poor individual health (Robert 1999). As a result they endure more physical stress than people who are well educated. Worries about money can cause psychological stress. Physical and mental stress has been identified as predictors of illness (Custer 1985). People with low income often do not have access to healthcare or the resources to prevent illness. There two factors result in a lower life expectancy (Mirowsky and Ross 2000).

            This experiment was designed to test whether the tombstone of an individual, one of the last displays of economic status and capability, would reveal a difference in life expectancy. If the hypothesis is supported than the results would show that those individuals with a non-flat tombstone have longer life expectancy than those who had flat tombstones as they are less expensive than the non-flats. The less expensive, flat tombstones would represent the lower economic status and the non-flats would represent the higher economic status.

Methods and Materials

On Sunday, October 28, 2007 we collected data from Mount Olivet cemetery, Archdiocese of Milwaukee. This cemetery is located one block south of the Alverno College campus. Our standards were already set before collecting data in the cemetery. A ‘flat’ tombstone would be one with its entire top surface parallel to the ground; it would have no vertical height. A ‘non-flat’ tombstone would be one whose vertical height would be at a minimum of 50 cm at any point of the tombstone. The measurements were taken using a Westcott® meter stick. Any tombstone at, or higher than the 50 cm minimum would be considered affluent and thus a non-flat. The birth years and death years were recorded off of approximately 400 flats and approximately 400 non-flats. Any tombstone included had a birth year of or before 1920. If the tombstone reflected a birth year younger than 1920, it was excluded. Family plots were included. After collecting all the data, the ages of each individual were determined by subtracting the death year from the birth year. Once all the ages were found, they were all separated into bins of ten year increments. Next, this data was analyzed using Microsoft Excel 2003®. Once the life expectancies were calculated for both, a one-tailed, paired T-test was run. Figure 1 was also produced using Microsoft Excel 2003®


The life expectancies between the two groups of tombstones showed no significant difference. The one-tailed, type one T-test revealed a P-value of 0.22.



Fig. 1. Life expectancy at ages 0-105 between graves marked with a flat tombstone and a non-flat tombstone. A non-significant difference with a P-value of 0.22. 



The T-test showed that there was not a significant difference between the life expectancy of people with flat and non-flat tombstones (p = .22).   This data does not support our hypothesis that people with larger tombstones would have a higher life expectancy.  There are a few studies that challenge the idea that socioeconomic status affects life expectancy.  One of the opposing theories is that optimism and self-confidence can counterbalance the stress and health problems caused by low socioeconomic status (Mirowsky 2000).

Multiple studies have been done that show socioeconomic status does affect health, stress and life expectancy (Robert 1999).   This suggests that our methods were flawed and tombstone size is not a good indicator of socioeconomic status.  Size is not the only thing that is considered in the pricing of tombstones.  The material it’s made from and the amount of engraving change the price.  Also, factors besides socioeconomic status could affect tombstone choice, such as religious beliefs, vanity, or whether the tombstone was chosen by the deceased or a relative.  Many of the larger tombstones were actually family plots, so even if the tombstones were expensive the cost per person may be low.

Further research on the topic could include examining differences in life expectancies at different cemeteries.  There might also be a difference between life expectancies of people who are cremated and people who are buried.



Literature Cited

Custer, M. 1985. Stress, life events, and the epidemiology of wellness. Journal of Community Heath Nursing. 2:4; 215-222. Retrieved on 10.29.07 from JSTOR database.


Mirowsky, J., Ross, C. E. 2000. Socioeconomic status and subjective life expectancy. Social Psychology Quarterly.  63:2; 133-151. Retrieved 10.02.07 from JSTOR database.


Robert, S. A. 1999. Socioeconomic position and health: The independent contribution of community socioeconomic context . Annual review of Sociology. 25; 489-516. Retrieved on 10.02.07 from JSTOR database.