Planning a Trip for Cemetery Research

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Contributing Writer
Janet Wahlberg

There are specific strategies that you will want to employ while doing cemetery research in order to maximize your time and effort especially if you have traveled any distance to do this research. Some topics to consider are: what to bring, lighting, taking photographs, reading the stones, and general rules of courtesy to be observed. While most cemeteries are public, you may find that your ancestors are buried on private land. You will need to obtain permission from the landowner to visit.
It is important that you dress appropriately for exploring cemeteries. It is suggested that you wear long pants, long sleeves even in hot weather. This will provide you with some protection from mosquitoes, ticks and brambles. Sensible shoes are a must as the ground in most cemeteries is very uneven. A twisted ankle will certainly ruin your day.
The supplies that you take will be somewhat dictated by the location of the cemetery. If it is remote and poorly maintained, you will need clippers to trim back grass and other vegetation in order to read the stones. You will also want to take along a cell phone and a friend for safety.
A camera is essential regardless of where you plan to research. This will allow you to photograph as well as transcribe the stones. Please add extra batteries. In the days when we used film, I once photographed two-thirds of a cemetery before I realized that I did not have film in the camera. Dad was not impressed! When photographing older weathered stones, lighting can be a challenge. Try taking the photos from different angles and use a mirror or aluminum foil to reflect light diagonally across the stone.
Having a plan in mind prior to starting will allow you to coordinate the photos with the documentation. I start by photographing the area where I am working and then I make a sketch of the area on Grid paper assigning numbers to the various stones. Don’t for get to indicate the plots that are not marked. If you have an I-pad or a laptop you can enter the info directly into it.
Transcribe all information found on the stone exactly as it appears. If there are any unusual symbols that you are unfamiliar with, you will want to either photograph and/or sketch them. These may provide clues to an organization that your ancestor was involved in. You can then seek more information by looking in the records of that organization. Don’t overlook the back of the stone as it may contain additional information or symbols. And as I mentioned last month, check out the surrounding area for additional relatives that may be buried there. Also take note of any small unmarked stones as they may indicate children that died very young.
For those who wish to do tombstone rubbings, take the time to do some research on the proper supplies to use in order to get the best result and not damage the stone. Do not …I repeat do not use shaving cream or brushes to clean up a stone for rubbing or photographing as this can easily damage older fragile stones.
You will want to try to locate the cemetery records for any cemetery that you are researching as these can provide you with a great deal more information than the stones that you have been photographing and transcribing. If the cemetery is active, you need only to go to the office or the church that it is associated with. If it is not active, you might want to start by contacting local funeral directors, churches, or historical societies. Try to be very specific about where the cemetery is located, any name that might be on a sign nearby or the name of a church that is located adjacent to it as this will enhance your chance of success.
Happy hunting! Next month I may talk a bit about Social Media.