The first step to solving our mystery was to figure out what the gravestones could tell us. But where do you turn when you can't read the inscription on a tombstone? Begin by identifying the language. "Google" any place names you see on the tombstone. Look at surrounding tombstones and if many of them appear similar, bone up (pun intended) on the history of the cemetery to learn if it is commonly associated with a specific ethnic population or congregation. Any unusual tombstone symbols may also help point you in the right direction.
Google Translate is also pretty good at detecting languages, so try typing in the tombstone text directly, although this option doesn't work as well with the non-Latin alphabets such as Cyrillic or Hebrew (technically an abjad, not an alphabet). In this case, certain characters can help you identify the base alphabet (such as the backwards Cyrillic N = И) and a Google search (Tip: search for images!) will help you find charts to transliterate the characters into their Latin alphabet equivalents. Once you've done this, Google Translate does allow phonetic typing.
Once you have identified the alphabet and/or language, a number of good Web sites exist which specifically focus on tombstone translation, including lists of words commonly found on tombstones in a wide variety of languages along with their English translations. For Jewish tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions, begin with "How to Read a Hebrew Tombstone" by Warren Blatt on JewishGen.org which covers not only common words and phrases, but also includes sections on Hebrew abbreviations (online translators have trouble with these) and symbols, and explains how to correctly interpret dates written in Hebrew. The Pennsylvania Tombstone Transcription Project also has a great site titled Tombstone Inscription Translations which lists words and phrases commonly found on tombstones (born, died, here lies, months, days, etc.) in various languages, including Albanian, Croatian, Czech, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian/Latin, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Ukranian and Welsh.
A combination of the above helped my husband and I identify our intriguing tombstones as Serbian - the Овде почива at the top of most of the tombstone inscriptions transliterates as Ovde poc'iva, translating in Serbian as "Here rests..." The Serbian Cross on many of them would have made it much easier, however, if I had previously been familiar with it. There is also a marker at the entrance to the cemetery for the St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church in Monroeville...another important clue.
Of course it might not be long before a neat app called Google Goggles takes all of the work and mystery out of tombstone transcriptions! I haven't tried it myself as it is not yet available for iPhone (expected to be in the Apps Store by the end of the year), but for anyone with a Android capable phone, the Google Goggles app lets you send an image from your phone's camera and then runs a search on it - identifying everything from books to famous works of art. It will also run photos of printed text through Google Translate - currently available in only a few languages such as French, Italian, English and German - and provide you with the translation. Eventually the hope is to enhance the app to the point that you can send in a photo of a leaf, and have it identify the plant. If it can do that, I think it should be able to identify and translate tombstone text. Don't you?
More Fun with Tombstone Translation: Tombstone Cryptogram in Rushes Cemetery