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Tiptoeing Through the Graveyard

Visiting the Cemetery

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When heading out to the cemetery for some tombstone research, a little advance planning can really help to make your visit a success.

Best Time to Visit the Cemetery

The best time to visit a cemetery is in the spring or fall - especially if it is one which is neglected and overgrown. Brush and grass will not be as high in the spring, which will help you to discern holes, rocks, snakes and other obstacles before you trip over them. Sometimes the season can have an impact on whether you even find the cemetery at all. I have located several family cemeteries in the southeastern U.S. which are situated in the middle of cornfields. Needless to say, it is nearly impossible to find such cemeteries when the corn is taller than you are!

What to Bring to the Cemetery

The well-dressed cemetery researcher wears long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, sturdy shoes and gloves to help ward off critters such as snakes, gnats, ticks and mosquitoes. If the cemetery is in a wooded or rural location you may also want to bring along a hoe to help cut down brush and a friend or fellow researcher for safety. Even if it is broiling hot when you visit the cemetery, the long pants and sturdy, comfortable shoes are a good idea.

Clues Beyond the Tombstones

Whether the cemetery is public or private, you should do a search for existing records. Most commonly known as sexton's records (a sexton is a caretaker responsible for the cemetery), these records can include burial registers, plat maps and plot records. These records will vary greatly by country and time period and may not exist, but never assume! A sign outside of the cemetery may be able to point you to its caretaker. Turn to the local phone book to contact area funeral directors or churches. Check with the area library or historical/genealogical society for tips on possible record locations. You may be surprised by what you can find.

One last thing - before you visit a private cemetery, be sure to get permission from the land owner!

Plan Ahead for a Successful Cemetery Visit

  • Dress appropriately

  • Bring paper, several pencils, a camera and plenty of film

  • Consider bringing optional items such as a digital camera, video camera, tape recorder or handheld computer.

  • Extra batteries for anything that may need them!

  • If you plan to do any tombstone rubbings, then be sure to bring the appropriate supplies

  • Water, rags and a soft nylon bristle brush for cleaning stones, plus clippers for clearing away grass and brush

  • If you are looking for unmarked cemeteries, you may want to bring a map so that you can mark their locations as you locate them

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