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Insightful, Safe and Respectful Research: Five Cemetery Do's and Don'ts

Outside of archives and conferences, few places offer more genealogical information than a cemetery.Learn how to find what you need, and how to leave the cemetery in a better state than you found it.


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Outside of archives and conferences, few places offer more genealogical information than a cemetery. Like a trip to an archive, library or conference, a visit to a cemetery requires a lot of preparation and knowing what to do and how to act while there. Here are five cemetery do's and don't's to make your next visit worthwhile for both your research and the cemetery.

1. DON'T just show up

Just because you may have driven by it a few times, doesn't mean you "know" the cemetery. Don't waste your time - find out as much as you can beforehand so that the trip, even if only half an hour down the road, will be as efficient as possible.

You will want to know:

- The layout of the cemetery, including maps and inscriptions

- Hours and any special rules

Larger cemeteries may have their own website with general information and a contact number for the more detailed, personal information you require. For smaller or closed cemeteries, you will have to do a bit more work. Instead of searching by church or town, I prefer to contact the local archives. The books and paperwork at my local archives provided me with the burial places of several local relatives, despite the different denominations and locations. Beyond what's in print, the people at the archives can be good sources on interesting local history and who to contact at individual cemeteries.

2. DO dress properly and bring the right equipment

Wear socks, long pants and a jacket to protect yourself from branches, thorns and critters. Wear comfortable shoes and bring a hat. Bring a few devices to record information with - a camera or a video camera, a tape recorder and pen and paper.

3. DO follow proper cemetery etiquette

Jackson Funeral Chapels of Indiana provide the following general etiquette tips on their website:

- Go during daylight: most cemetery hours are dawn to dusk.

- Don't drive on the grass and drive carefully around other visitors, who may not be paying attention

- Read the rules: most cemeteries will have a sign posted near the entrance outlining them

- Don't litter

- Clean up after any pets

- Avoid walking over or standing on graves

- Don't push other visitors into a conversation: you might be there for research, but they may be mourning and not in the mood to talk

4. DON'T damage the gravestones - it's easier than you think

"Gravestone rubbing is fun," notes the Association for Gravestone Studies on its website. "It is possible to collect some beautiful artwork that can be framed and displayed."

However, as the association also notes, rubbing can be controversial. It is outright banned at some cemeteries due to the fragility of the tombstones, so be sure to check whether it's allowed at the cemetery you will be visiting.

Even if it is allowed, the association recommends only choosing tombstones in good condition for rubbing. Any stones with cracks, blisters or signs of damage or repair should be left alone. If the tombstone makes a hollow sound when tapped, or if it is falling off its base, you should also move on.

Even if you are only trying to read the inscription or clean up the tombstone, you must be careful. The association says using flour and shaving cream will wreck the stones - the flour will lodge in little cracks and expand with moisture, while the shaving cream's emollients and other chemicals will damage the color. The association also gives a thumbs-down to using chalk, graphite or dirt.

To read an inscription without damaging a tombstone, make sure you bring a mirror, a flashlight and a camera. If the sun is out and shining, hold the mirror diagonally to the tombstone to cast a shadow over the writing. If that doesn't work, achieve the same effect with a flashlight.

You can also take a picture of the tombstone and invert its colors in a photo editing program (Windows Live Photo Gallery, Photoshop, etc.). "This will make the image look like an old 35mm negative and bring out the lettering," says the association.

If you must clean a tombstone, be as gentle as possible. The association says fresh lichen can be soaked in water and then gently prodded off with a gum eraser or wooden popsicle stick. If it doesn't come off - leave it! Do not attempt any cleaning with wire brushes, putty knives or metal files, or with vinegar, bleach, soap or detergent. You will do more harm than good!

5. DO give something back

While you likely can't professionally restore the cemetery's tombstones , there are many ways you can give back to a place that houses your passed on ancestors and has provided you with important genealogical information. Cemeteries, especially older or closed ones, usually survive thanks to a dedicated group of people (possibly volunteers) on a limited budget.

While you could always write a check, the Huntsville, Alabama Cemetery Department lists several ways cemetery visitors can show their appreciation:

- Volunteering to weed or plant flower beds

- Volunteering to litterbug or beautify an area

- Volunteering to do data entry

- Making a cash contribution to a foundation that supports the cemetery

- Spearheading a group clean-up or beautification project

- Donating trees, shrubs, or bedding plants

- Donating any other resources at your disposal that would aid in our mission

Cemeteries, which provide solace, peace and knowledge to so many families, face many challenges these days. As family historians, we have a unique appreciation of their work and importance. Let's show it by respecting their rules, learning their histories and keeping them in the best state possible.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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