George Mason University history professor Mills Kelly, by his own admission, always has liked cemeteries, in part for what they tell us about the past.
Now, he's designed a course designed to get his students out among the gravestones. He calls it "Dead in Virginia."
Looking for a new way to teach old things, Kelly requires students enrolled in the 300-level historical methods course to choose a family cemetery in or around Fairfax County and dig up as much information as they can about those buried there.
The students will post the fruits of their search -- including photos, maps and descriptions of people -- to MyCemetery.org, a free and open database website that Kelly created for the course that can be used by others who are seeking information about people who once lived, worked and died in Fairfax County and its environs.
"History has usually been taught through writing papers," Kelly said, which is not the goal of this course.
Students receive this "warning notice" at the top of their syllabus: "This course is not your normal historical methods course ... In this class you will get your hands, your shoes and probably your pants dirty."
Kelly said he also hopes to teach his young students how to use a few old-fashioned sources of information, the kind that long have been the staple of historians abut aren't necessarily available through the click of a mouse -- newspaper archives, land records, marriage certificates and documents created in legal disputes.
Students have become more reliant on using Internet-based research rather than historic documents, said Kelly, who is in his 10th year teaching at Mason.
Before sending them out to study the cemeteries on their own, Kelly gave the students a trial run, handing them a photo of the headstone of Helen M. Swann, who was born Oct. 15, 1855, and died Oct. 2, 1856. She was buried in Prince William County. Students were to return to class the following week with as much information on Swann as they could find.
Kelly had taken a photo of Swann's headstone in 2008, but otherwise knew nothing about her.
"A couple of students came in and said they couldn't find anything," Kelly said. "Well, that's because you can't Google it."
Senior history major Kim Harney, 25, chose to study a cemetery near the Frying Pan Spring Meeting House in Frying Pan Farm Park, which is more than 200 years old, according to the Fairfax County Park Authority.
"I was drawn to the fact that there are no required essays in this class; that's virtually unheard of in history," said Harney of Herndon. "We're required to go out and physically find a cemetery."
Because it is a senior seminar class at Mason, "Dead in Virginia" has a limited enrollment. Most of the 20 students in the class are juniors or seniors.
Because of the interest he's received in the course, Kelly plans to offer the course with limited enrollment during summer 2012. He added the course has a waiting list, with a number of those vying for a seat coming from the community or non-majors.
Kelly's students recently visited the City of Fairfax Regional Library's Virginia Room, which boasts a collection of regional history and genealogy records, legal resources, maps and more. Students were aided in their research by Mary Lipsey, president of the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association, a nonprofit that aims to preserve and restore local county cemeteries and thereby help to maintain local history.
Fairfax County is home to 415 known cemeteries, Lipsey said. The oldest known headstone in the county is in the Scott Family Cemetery in Centreville, which carries the date October 1799, she added.
"We're constantly adding more cemeteries to the list," Lipsey said. "A lot of these are family cemeteries. In fact about 75 percent are family cemeteries. It's incredible the number of them."
The information students will supply on MyCemetery.org will be linked to the association's website and will add to the supply of records and research on local cemeteries, she said.
"It's another piece of our history that isn't written down anywhere else," Lipsey said. "I was amazed at their enthusiasm. If someone would have told me in college that we were going to study cemeteries, I don't think I would have been as excited."