Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dartmouth Traditions: Math Burial

In the 1800s students were required to study math for the first two years of their college career. According to Leon Burr Richardson’s History of Dartmouth College, beginning sometime in the 1830s the sophomores would celebrate the end of their math studies by burying their textbooks in a pseudo funeral on the Green. In 1874 the College forbade the burial of books. According to The Dartmouth,  students took this new rule literally and began practicing cremation instead.

It seems likely that the anti-burial rule was put in place to discourage the continuation of the practice, which appears to have been linked with some amount of drunkenness and rowdy behavior. The funeral was often conducted at night and William S. G. How (non-graduate from the class of 1856) noted in his journal that in 1852 the funeral took place at around 3 AM.

Dartmouth Aegis, 1884
The rites were quite elaborate. In 1884 the ceremony included a costume parade with students dressed as priests as well as robed and masked men holding a bier full of textbooks. Following the parade, a funeral service was enacted, complete with oratory and singing. The oratory and singing was followed by cremation of the bier full of books in a bonfire. It is not clear when the math funeral came to an end, but it appears to have continued into the 1880s.

A mock eulogy from 1852 is available as well as additional materials in the vertical file "Mathematics, burial of."

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