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Planning a Cemetery Trip


Copyright 2013 Tami Pelling. Used with permission

Copyright 2013 Tami Pelling. Used with permission

by Tami K. Pelling, PLCGS. Staff, The National Institute for Genealogical Studies

Just  as  many  of  our  ancestors  frequently  visited  cemeteries  on  Sunday  afternoon  to  enjoy  a picnic, tend to the care of a gravesite, or pay respect to their loved ones—we follow in their footsteps. A picnic in the cemetery as a child with my great aunt, Lucille, is a memory that I will always treasure.  Another  childhood  memory  that  I  hold  just  as  dear  is  traveling  from cemetery to cemetery with my mother and Lucille to place flowers on  graves of family members—every holiday, birthday, and anniversary—of course, during the warmer months. So now that it’s summer, you might be ready to plan your own cemetery trips.

But first, a bit of caution. Safety first!  It doesn’t matter whether you are visiting a big city cemetery or a pioneer cemetery surrounded  by  cornfields and  woods. Safety cannot be emphasized enough–take someone with you and bring a fully charged cell phone!

In planning a cemetery trip, the first item on the agenda is to learn the location of the cemetery or cemeteries you wish to visit and determine if they are located on private property, governed by a trustee, association, organization, or corporation. If you are unfamiliar with the area, you may wish  to  contact  one  of  the  local  funeral  homes,  genealogical  or  historical  society,  library,  or government office to determine ownership. At the same time, inquire whether the cemetery has an office along with contact information. It is important to remember if the  cemetery  is  located  on  private  property  and  the  landowner  does  not  allow  access  to  the cemetery,  you  can  be  charged  with  trespassing. The landowner should be contacted prior to the visit to gain  permission to access the cemetery and discuss any  restrictions.

Second, consider what your purpose in going to the cemetery. Do you wish to locate the gravesite of your ancestors? Are you looking to survey, transcribe, and photograph the cemetery? If your visit to the cemetery is to locate the gravesite of your ancestors, a cemetery map should be obtained. If a cemetery map is not available, print a satellite view of the cemetery from Google Maps. The satellite image of the cemetery will allow you to study the surrounding area. If children will visit the cemetery with you, remind them of proper cemetery etiquette. Children can be an asset—prepare index cards with the names of the individuals you seek. These items allow the children to help search for the gravestones, place and assist in their letter identification and/or reading skills. If your purpose is to photograph your ancestor’s gravesite or the entire cemetery, you should determine if photographs are allowed. Some cemeteries  may  not allow  visitors  to take  photographs—even  of  their  own family  gravesite. Many  small  inactive  cemeteries  do  not  have  a photograph  policy;  however,  it  is  best  to  be  prepared  prior to  the  trip. It would be most unfortunate to learn upon arrival that access to the cemetery will not be granted or photographs are not allowed.

Third, prepare your cemetery kit. Just like planning a research trip to the library, archive, courthouse, etc., you must be prepared and bring along necessary tools. With today’s technology, many people can visit the local cemetery with just one tool—their cell phone. With a cell phone in hand, you can do everything from use map and GPS features as well as take photographs, notes and upload data. BillionGraves  has  a  wonderful  app  that  can  be  used  in  the  cemetery  while  photographing tombstones. The app attaches the GPS coordinates to the photograph. Cemetery  notes  can  be  taken in  many  formats  while  utilizing  your  favorite  app.  Audio and video can be recorded. Family group sheets, pedigree charts, and family notes can also be viewed through an app.

My cemetery kit may contain more items than the average cemetery visitor. This cemetery  kit  list  has  been  compiled  over  many  years  of visiting,  transcribing,  photographing, plotting/mapping,  and  restoring  cemeteries  (restoration supplies  have  been  omitted  from  this list).  Everyone is different and, therefore, your cemetery kit will include supplies that are best suited  to your needs. Here are a few items from my kit:

Cemetery Kit

Road Map

Cemetery Map


Burial list of family members

Pedigree charts, family group sheets, research log


Notebook/paper or note taking app

Pen, pencil, pencil sharpener



Water bottle and snacks

First aid kit

Hand sanitizer


Hat, bandanna



Insect repellent

Cell phone and cell phone charger

Camera and extra batteries



Rubber gloves or gardening gloves (protect hands from bird droppings, etc.)

Bottled water and small spray bottle (wash bird droppings, etc. from stone)

Whisk broom (brush away grass and leaves)

Gardner knee pads (protect knees  from uneven ground and clothing  from dirt)

Pruners, shears (remove growth next to stone to aid in reading)

Small chair (you might wish to stay awhile)

Bag (to remove trash from cemetery)


Want to learn more about researching cemeteries? Check out our US: Cemetery and Mortuary Records course.

Category: Courses

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