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:
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
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.