GenToday-L Archive

A Visit to the Cemetery

by Shirley Hornbeck

PUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION in the December 1999 edition of GenToday-L

Here are a few tips to make your visit to that old cemetery a pleasant experience. You will be lucky if the cemetery is in a well-kept, suburban area, and is well documented by a local church, funeral director, or county courthouse. Unfortunately this is usually not the case. A good county map may show locations of cemeteries.

Marriage, birth and death certificates should be consulted first. These will pinpoint your ancestors in time, as well as provide you with the proper names. The locations listed on these records may assist you in finding the place that they lived and possibly where they died. Church records and obituaries may be your best bet for finding burial sites for your ancestors. Sometimes funeral directors may also be able to provide you with burial information.

Deeds and Grants should be checked. The GRANTEE index at the local County Courthouse will be invaluable for determining places of residence as well as Probate records. You may also find a plat map of the cemetery at the County Courthouse or a local historical society. These plats are drawings of the cemetery, much like a floor plan of a house, that indicates not only who is buried in the cemetery, but the exact grave site within the cemetery. When searching for the cemetery that contains the remains of your relatives, remember that most people were buried within 5 miles of their homes. Prior to 1850 particularly in rural areas, many people were buried in small, privately maintained cemeteries, located on the family property or in cemeteries associated with the church of their particular faith. If the cemetery is still maintained, you should contact the caretaker, church secretary or pastor, or other official before you disturb any plantings, dig away dirt or grass from around a head or footstone or atte mpt to lift fallen stones.

Before you go trekking into the woods, you need to be properly prepared for the excursion. Build yourself a "Cemetery Kit" and consider first protecting yourself. You need to wear clothing appropriate for the terrain and weather that you will be facing. Wear protective clothing (jeans or work pants, and a flannel shirt are advisable). It may be hot out, but don't be tempted to try to make your way through heavy overgrowth wearing shorts and a "T" shirt. A wide-brim hat can be a lifesaver on a hot sunny day. Be sure you have good walking shoes or boots and thick socks. Don't wear thongs, sandals or canvas. Make sure you have plenty of drinking water and perhaps some snack foods. You would also be well advised to take enough water to enable you to wash off your arms, legs and face once you return to your car. Use plenty of insect repellant on your shoes, socks, and pants legs and consider treating your skin with repellant. Be sure to bring a small First Aid Kit and possibly a Snake Bite Kit. First Aid Kits for campers will be light and compact and probably available at most department stores or sporting goods stores. Don't forget the sun screen blocker cream or lotion. Beware of poison ivy or poison oak. The other caution is yellow jackets and bees. They are attracted to the sugar in open cans of soda and half eaten fruit. It is especially painful to take a swallow of soda pop and find that a yellow jacket was drinking in the can and is now in your mouth.

A few tools will also come in handy. In areas that are particularly wild or overgrown, a machete will just about be a necessity. You will need something to break a trail through dense brush. You also need to take a small set of hand garden tools including a small garden shovel and hand held hoe. The two tools will be needed to clear grass and dirt away from headstones and footstones that may have sunk. And lastly you should take some kind of wooden pry bar. You will find that some headstones may have fallen over and if lying face down will have to be turned. A pry bar will help you do this. I suggest wood, such as oak, as metal instruments may scar or fracture the stone. Include a pair of heavy canvas gardening gloves in your kit. Another good idea for the tool kit is a four-foot rod of reinforcing bar (rebar) used for probing for sunken headstones.

A great way to save your memories of that visit is with a video camera. Take extra batteries and extra video tapes with you. Video taping creates a record of the condition of the tombstones at the time you visited. Some tombstones may not be readable in five or ten years but the video tape will always be there. Why not do a test taping at a local cemetery to develop a technique before you embark on your trip to that distant cemetery. If you don't have a video camera, take along your tape recorder and a couple of cameras instead. A tip for photographers is to bring a roll of aluminum foil with you and set it up to reflect the sunlight onto or away from a poorly lit stone - or better yet - use a large mirror. Take along lots of film and have one of the cameras loaded with black and white film. Take pictures with both cameras in case one doesn't come out. Hopefully one of them will have a long cable release or take along a friend to help you. A tripod would be most helpful. Once you set up your came ra and focus as best you can, use the mirror to reflect light onto the stone and take your pictures from different angles with the mirror placed in different locations. You should definitely make a written record of what is inscribed on the headstone and the footstone if there is one as photographs will often fail to pickup all of the inscriptions on the stone.

Whether you take photographs, rubbings, or both, you may need to clean the stone first. You can try a block of Styrofoam to clean off lichen and moss which damage stone. When cleaning a stone, remember that you must not cause any more damage than is already there. Most accumulated dirt and debris can be removed with a brush. Select a brush that is soft enough to not damage the stone but strong enough to remove clods of dirt. Or use your garden tools to remove grass and dirt from the base of the stone until all of the inscription is revealed. Don't dig farther than necessary as you don't want to cause the stone to topple over. You may need to use a little water to get dirt out of the inscriptions. Plain water and gentle scrubbing from the bottom up does wonders for removing soil and most lichens. Soap is not recommended for cleaning gravestones.

Rubbings are perhaps the most popular way to record headstones. There are many techniques for making rubbings and many materials that can be used. Make some trips to a local cemetery and practice making rubbings using different materials and techniques until you are happy with your results before you make a potentially expensive trip to a remote cemetery. Take something to sit on, especially if there are chiggers around, or use a small stool if your knees are stiff.

A "leave-behind" might be several miniature pedigree charts in a small glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. I use a copy machine that reduces a 4 generation pedigree chart to index card size. Be sure your name and address are on each one either with a stamp or a sticker or type it on the back. Put a few of these in a jar and leave it by the headstone.

Be sure to clean up the site before you leave. Once you get back to your car rinse off your arms and legs using either water or a gentle antiseptic. If you have ever had chigger bites you will understand why this is advisable. Once back to the hotel or your home, be sure to wash thoroughly and apply astringent all over. Be careful of tics that you may pick up in the woods.

This is only a portion of the entire article. You may read it all at my This and That Genealogy Tips page.

Suggested Reading:

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  • New Orleans Cemeteries
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  • The Architecture of Eternity


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    The Genealogy Lady established the "Genealogy Today" newsletter in April 1997. She answers questions online at, and sells books at her Genealogy Book Store.

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