Gallaudet University is home to what may be one of academia’s most peculiar rituals. Founded in 1864, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is a private academic institution for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing. Embedded in the unpaved ground throughout the school’s campus in Northeast D.C. are small, rectangular stone and concrete markers with odd inscriptions, including dates and names. These markers are gravestones and represent a longstanding Gallaudet tradition: the Rat Funeral.
First-year students at Galludet have engaged in the macabre ritual since the early 1900s. According to custom (and the school’s official Student Organization Manual), students adopted a male and a female rat at the beginning of the academic year. They were then responsible for caring for and feeding the rats throughout the year. At the end of the school year, the class rats were euthanized and buried on campus in an elaborate funeral ceremony. The use of live rats ended in 1985 in response to protests by the ASPCA. The tradition carries on, but these days students bury only toy rats, or other items to represent their first-year experiences.
The Rat Funeral occurs at the end of the academic year and is an occasion of great solemnity. The rats are dressed and placed in a tiny coffin. Participating students, attired in black, form a funeral procession ending at the chosen gravesite. After offering eulogies and prayers, the participants inter the class rats in a freshly-dug grave, along with flowers and class mementos. The Funeral ends with placing an inscribed marker on top of the grave. Most Rat Grave markers include the names of the rats and the class year. Some are quite elaborate, with epitaphs and illustrations of the dearly departed rats.
Rats were chosen as the class mascots because the term “preparatory students” contains the letters “R-A-T.” In American Sign Language, the sign for “rat” is often used to refer to college freshmen, perhaps because of this longstanding tradition. It is thought that the Gallaudet Rat Funerals were preceded by a similar ritual involving ducks and attributed to the “duck” sound in “introductory students.”
Know Before You Go
Rat Graves can be found on the Gallaudet Mall and other unpaved areas throughout campus.