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Transcribing a Cemetery

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Transcribing a Cemetery
©2007 Kimberly Powell

Stone is not permanent. Each day in a cemetery a little bit of history is lost. Erosion, soil movement, tree roots and other vegetation, and vandalism all take their toll on the gravestones and inscriptions. Unfortunately, this means there are quite a few cemeteries where the majority of the tombstones are now illegible. Some of these, thankfully, had their inscriptions preserved before they were lost for good by an individual or group who took time to visit the cemetery and transcribe the valuable information from each tombstone.

Transcribing a cemetery can be a very worthwhile and enjoyable project for individuals, families, genealogical societies and other groups. It's more than just a pleasant day in the cemetery discovering a little history. By creating a permanent record of the tombstones you are also preserving the names, dates, relationships, and other valuable information, some of which may not be recorded anywhere else.

Has it Been Done Before?

Before you rush over to your local cemetery and start writing, take some time to find out if someone has done it before you. Check online (especially with sites focused on genealogy in the area) and with the local genealogical or historical society to see if a formal or informal transcription has ever been done or is in the planning stages for the cemetery.

General Cemetery Information

Document the name of the cemetery and its location, providing as much detail as possible. If you can, provide directions from a nearby town or landmark, GPS coordinates, or both. If available, obtain a plat map of the cemetery from the sexton, or sketch one yourself, noting the compass points and the general placement of the markers. For anything other than a very small cemetery, you may need to create a master map divided into areas and sections, and then a larger, more detailed plan for each separate area.

Other things you may want to include:

  • a brief history of the cemetery as well
  • notes on the condition of the cemetery
  • approximate dates for which burials may be found (the oldest burial to the most recent)
  • a general overview photo of the cemetery and/or a photo of the cemetery entrance or sign

Tombstone Placement & Inscriptions

Before beginning your tombstone inscriptions, plan the direction and order in which you will work your way around the cemetery. If the cemetery is older and lacks an ordered layout, then you can still lay out approximate rows in your mind and on your map to follow.

Following the plan that you've laid out, copy the inscriptions from each gravestone in order. Write down everything from the stone exactly as it is inscribed. Do not use abbreviations where a word is spelled out, or interpret an abbreviation where one appears. Include any spelling errors. If you feel the need to add or correct information to the actual transcription, enclose it in square brackets [ ] to indicate that the information was added by the transcriber (yourself).

Things to watch for as you transcribe the gravestone inscriptions:

  • Dates can often be easily confused. An 8 may be read as a 6, or a 1 as a 4. When in doubt, use your fingers to try and feel the engraving. Sometimes spraying some plain water on the stone can also help to bring out the inscription without causing any damage to the stone. Letters can sometimes be difficult to read as well. The inscription in the photo accompanying this article is hard to read due to the fancy script that causes one side of the letter to be deeper than the other. At first glance, the name appears to be something like Liihky, when it actually reads Libby (look at the B in Jacob).

  • Copy down everything on the gravestone, no matter how insignificant. Check the back and sides of the marker, and look for a footstone as well. Sketch out anything that is hard to describe in words, such as unusual symbols.

  • Watch for family plots, and record these tombstones together as a group. Especially in larger cemeteries, you may find a large central family marker with the family name surrounded by smaller markers for the individual family members.

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