How to record information in a cemetery

April 7, 2012

I wish I’d had this article when I first began recording information in a cemetery. I would have saved me a lot of repeat visit from my forgetting which tombstone was at which cemetery.

How to record information in a cemetery

There are lots of online sites that offer online photos of tombstones. Just Google “online tombstone photos” and you’ll see what I mean.

There’s just a pleasure about visiting a cemetery if at all possible and get the information firsthand.

I began recording information in cemeteries when I was 15. My friends at the time thought that creepy. I did have a few who would tag along as back up. I’m not sure as a backup for what. It was just more comfortable having someone along for the journey.

There are only a few items needed to record a cemetery.

*Digital camera

*White chalk

*Small chalkboard

*Several spray bottles full of water


*Kneepads if you have bad knees

*One brick

*Toolbox to keep supplies in also offers a lot of advice on photographing a cemetery.

The digital camera is great for photographing the stones as you’ll know you got a good shot before leaving the cemetery.

I used to use white chalk to make the lettering on a gravestone stand out. It’s still a debate on whether chalk will harm the stone in the long run. Spraying water on a tombstone is now the preferred method as the surface will dry faster than the lettering and this will make the letters stand out.

The mirror is used to direct sunlight onto the tombstone. Many stones are easy to read with the eye but don’t photograph well. The mirror will provide sunlight, making the stone easier to read.

The chalk and chalkboard are used to record information about the cemetery and I recommend using them if you plan to visit multiple cemeteries. Use the chalk to write the name and address of the cemetery on the chalkboard and prop it up with the brick to the right of each stone. This way you won’t forget which cemetery each stone was from when you upload your digital photos for editing. The chalkboard can always be cropped out for the finished photo.

Be sure not only to photograph tombstones of those you know are related to you but also those surrounding them. Sometimes you can link these into family marriages. Some people photograph every tombstone in a small cemetery just for future reference.

I also like to photograph different views showing the entire cemetery. If there’s a church, I photograph it from at least two different angles.

Photograph any smaller stones for unmarked graves. This may indicate babies who were stillborn or died young. It’s difficult to determine which family some of these unmarked stones belong to, but at least you have it recorded.

Keep in mind some churches change location and there may be an older cemetery at the original site and the original cemetery may be a mile or two down the road from the newer one.

Be prepared to be approached if you’re on private property. Most landowners don’t mind visitors if you explain the purpose of the visit. I had the good fortune to visit the very private and hidden cemetery where my great-great-great grandmother, Mary Boggs, is buried off of Ruhama Church Road in Liberty, SC. Very few people know of its location because of its location inside a patch of woods. The landowners not only allowed me to wander the cemetery, they even took me to an even more remote cemetery down the road. I didn’t find any ancestors at the second site, which is good. Because in all of my years of searching, I’ve never been able to find it again!

I didn’t find any ancestors at the second site, which is good. Because in all of my years of searching, I’ve never been able to find it again!

If you’re sure an ancestor is buried in a particular cemetery and a stone can’t be located, don’t dismiss the person being buried in an unmarked grave. Ask the caretaker or church secretary if a record is available that marks the names of who’s buried there.

My dad’s parents are buried in an unmarked grave at the church they attended. If daddy hadn’t told me of it back in the 1970’s (he died in 1976), no one would know the location if there is no church record. Which sometimes there isn’t.

I love old tombstones where a person’s life story was carved in stone. Newer graves don’t offer the in-depth look at the pass the old ones did. Should you be fortunate enough to find such a stone, be sure to enter the inscription word for word into your genealogy software program. This type of information needs to be passed along to future generations.

Once you’ve recorded a cemetery, be sure to remove anything you’ve used such as empty drink bottles or snacks. Yes, you may find yourself eating or drinking while doing a large cemetery.

In closing, I’d love to tell you about my very first family cemetery experience. After trying for months to pry the location out of my mother, who feigned ignorance due to the remote location, my grandfather surprised me by taking me there.

As it turned out, he’d wanted to visit his family in their final resting place and no one would volunteer to take him. I still recall the day back in 1976 when we pulled up before a locked chain guarding the entrance to the cemetery. I was so disappointed as I turned to grandpa and said: “it’s locked so we can’t get in.” My eighty-something year old grandpa got out of my car, went over to the locked gate and pulled out the key to unlock the gate. We spent about an hour there just walking around as he explained the relationship between all of its occupants.

I still go there when I’m in the area. Grandpa’s gone and I’m one of the keepers of the cemetery. People leave small mementos on the graves and no one steals them. Every now and then a bad storm comes through and knocks them over. I’ll go around to each grave to be sure all of the small figurines are once again standing upon the graves.

This cemetery gives me a remarkable sense of peace. That’s how a cemetery should feel. Anyone who hasn’t recorded a cemetery should give it a try. It’s a unique experience, especially if you put your photos online to help others in the search for their ancestors. You never know when you’ll meet a distant cousin looking for the tombstone you just up


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