Spring is here again and after several months of not being able to visit cemeteries to help with my genealogy research, I have started visiting a few close to home. And found out just how rusty I have gotten and thought I should share some of my tips as I keep saying, “Oops, I forgot….”!
Cemetery Research: Eight Tools of the Trade
I have a pretty well-stocked kit in the back of the Jeep but over time, things have gotten taken out and used with other projects so I need to replenish some of my items. Here are some good things to take along, especially if you are visiting a location you’ve never been before and not sure what you’ll find when you get there.
- Soft bristle brush to sweep away leaves and grass from the tombstone
- A spray bottle filled with water
- A small spade
- Scissors to trim tall grass
- A long screwdriver or metal rod-type item
- Drinking water for you so you don’t get dehydrated
- Sunscreen and a hat to block the sun and protect the top of someone’s balding head!
- A cellphone
Plan Ahead and Be Ready For What You’ll Find
And here are some things to think about. I always plan out a visit and research the cemetery location, hours, and general policies (some actually do not allow photography, for example). I like to take pictures of the tombstones I was looking for and several of the surrounding ones because I have frequently discovered a married daughter, cousin, or other unexpected relation buried nearby.
On a recent visit to a very large (50,000+ burials) local cemetery, I was stunned to discover that many of the flat stones on the ground were sunken, covered with dirt and leaves and very hard (sometimes impossible) to find, even with the exact section and plot numbers (see image below).
I could not find several of the stones I was looking for and had to really work hard to uncover some of the ones I did find. What I was amazed about is that this was not an old, abandoned cemetery but a very active one a block from Wal-Mart in a major city! The first rule is to do no harm to any tombstone but I wanted to help preserve the stones I did find.
Using the tools in my kits, I was able to remove the dirt and grass and get a picture of the stones beneath. However without some very serious work, these stones will be overgrown again in a short period of time. I was glad I was able to get the pictures and am going to contact the cemetery to see what they are doing to prevent this from happening.
Other Things I Have Learned Over Time About Cemetery Work
It helps to have a Findagrave app on your phone but if you are in the middle of nowhere without a nearby cell tower, you’ll be very glad to have a printed or handwritten list of who you’re looking for! The app worked great in helping find the missing stones I mentioned above because we were able to use the cemetery’s own website and identify plot numbers of taller tombstones to see how close we were to those we were looking for.
I always lose track of time and boy, was I glad I had some bottled water with me.
You’ve probably heard tales of using shaving cream to make old stones more legible or ways to clean the stone. Well, I don’t believe you should use anything other than water on a stone but you’ll be surprised at how much it helps to spritz the text with a spray bottle to help read it. Another trick I like to do on hard to read stones is take a photo and then use my photo software to make a negative image of the words I can’t read. I can zoom in or out and use any of the photo effects without ever harming the stone!
For those adventurous sorts who are heading down to the holler to find a long lost family cemetery, don’t forget that the cemetery might be on private property and you’ll want to ask permission before visiting. Also don’t forget that snakes like to sun themselves on warm stones or may be hiding underneath a fallen one. If you’re heading to this type of location, wear sturdy shoes or boots, watch for poison ivy, and make sure you don’t get lost (that’s when you’ll want that cell phone)!
So, that’s what I do when I head out – what about you?