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Tiptoeing Through the Graveyard

Stories in Stone - Surveying the Cemetery


The highlight of any trip to the cemetery is reading the stones. Once you have taken that irresistible quick peek for your ancestor's headstone, however, you should stop and plan out your route around the cemetery. Methodical might be boring, but it greatly decreases your chances of missing something important when you're searching a cemetery for clues.

If the cemetery is not too large, and you have enough time, it can be very helpful to make a complete transcription of the cemetery. Even if you only make note of the names and dates on each tombstone, along with their location in the cemetery, this can save you a trip back in the future as well as help other researchers.

There is a lot of information and advice available on the proper methods for transcribing tombstones. While these can serve as great reference guides, there is really no need to worry about formality. The important thing is to make a note of everything that you see.

Make Your Visit Count

Write down names, dates and inscriptions exactly as they appear on the stone. It is very easy to make assumptions in the excitement of the moment, and it will be very beneficial to have an accurate record as you move forward (or backward as the case may be) with your research.

Be sure to sketch any symbols that you are unfamiliar with so that you can look them up later. These symbols or emblems may be valuable clues to membership in an organization which may have records about your ancestor.

Make a note of the physical relationship between tombstones as well. Family members will often be buried together in the same plot. Nearby graves may belong to parents. Small unmarked stones may indicate children that died in their infancy. Neighbors and relatives may also be buried in adjoining sections.

As you make your way around, be sure not to miss the back of the stones as they can also contain important information.

Another good way to record cemetery information is to use a cassette recorder or video camera as you move around the cemetery. You can read off names, dates and inscriptions easily and make note of important information, such as when you start a new row. It also provides you with a backup for any written transcriptions that you have made.

Pictures are worth a thousand words and are much better for tombstones than chalk or shaving cream. Use hand-held clippers to clear brush away from the stone and then use a nylon (never wire) bristle brush and plain water to clean the stone from bottom to top, rinsing well as you go. A bright sunny day and a mirror to help reflect the sunlight on the stone can really help to bring out the carvings.
More: Tips for Taking Great Tombstone Photos

Most important for your cemetery visit is to enjoy yourself! Visiting cemeteries is one of the most rewarding parts of genealogy research, so stop and take the time to commune with your ancestors.

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