It’s important to be able to record any cemetery transcriptions that you find accurately. So, you should always take notepaper, family group worksheets, or at least a reliable camera with you. That way you can accurately document any information that you find.
You should also keep in mind that even the smallest bit of information could come in handy during your family history research later on. So, rather than just recording names and dates of birth and death, you may want to record or take pictures of all information on a particular grave marker. You never know when information about cause of death, citizenship, physical description and even epitaph selection might be able to lead your research in a new and interesting direction.
Another thing to consider is that you may never get to see the gravestone that you are recording again. Maybe you will be lucky and it will be a local public gravestone. However, it may be a gravestone that you have to get special permission in order to view, or it may simply be so far away from your home that you can’t visit it again. Also, gravestones are subject to changing weather, vandals, destruction from animals, and other problems that could cause some or all of the information to be illegible at a later date. So, record everything that you see, and be sure to double check to make sure that you haven’t accidentally mixed up or missed any information on the stones.
If you want to be extra accurate, you can also try drawing a plot of the gravestones in the area. Many families were buried together. So, if you plot the grave locations and sizes, it may help you to identify how certain people were related to each other. Number each plot on the diagram and write a description of it on your worksheet or notepaper. If family relationships are unclear, write separate sheets for each plot and compare them to each other later.
Compiled records of cemetery transcriptions can be helpful in some ways, but they aren’t always useful on their own. Many of them may be missing information, contain typographical errors, or be organized in a strange way. So, it’s a good idea to draw or obtain your own map of the cemetery, record the inscriptions that you personally find, and then cross-reference that information with records compiled from other sources. That way you can get a more complete picture of how family members were related. That step is especially important if some graves have been defaced or destroyed between the time that the compilation was made and the time that you visited the cemetery yourself.
It’s also important to keep in mind that compiled records may not include epitaphs or extra information that is on the gravestones. Typically, those compilations only include names and dates. The missing extra information may be meaningful to your research, which is why you should go and view the graves with your own eyes whenever possible.
Reading and Photographing Gravestones
Before you visit any cemetery, you should contact whatever authority is responsible for that cemetery. If you aren’t sure who to contact, check with the local police or town hall. If they can’t give you permission to do your research themselves, they should be able to tell you who can. Be sure to explain why you want to visit the cemetery and what you plan to do there, such as transcribe or photograph gravestones. Most towns will grant you access to most graveyards, but they may require you to pay a small fee, and they may or may not require a town representative to escort you.
The biggest reason why towns often require that you get permission to visit old cemeteries is because they want to make sure that anyone entering the cemetery won’t harm the gravestones, either intentionally or accidentally. Many old gravestones have already been damaged by the weather and the passage of time. Any rough handling, abrasive brushing, or other invasive actions can add to that damage. So, it’s important to only use clean water and a natural bristle brush to gently clear away any moss or debris. You can pat the gravestone with a soft, dry, towel to remove the water when you’re done. Although, you should keep in mind that some towns may not let you clean or touch gravestones at all.
Most towns are more likely to allow you to photograph gravestones than to touch them or take etchings of them. However, photographs may not always capture enough detail. That’s why you should bring worksheets or notebooks so that you can copy data by hand, if necessary.
Some photographs of gravestones are artistically sound. That is, they look good. However, looking good is not necessarily the goal, if you are taking them for genealogical purposes. The Association for Gravestone Studies at 30 Elm Street in Worcester MA has created a leaflet called Daniel and Jessie Lie Farber, Making Photographic Records of Gravestones. That leaflet contains information about how to accurately take genealogical photographs of gravestones. For example, it describes how to set the lighting at a thirty degree angle for maximum legibility. It also talks about using a mirror as a light source, if necessary.
Another important thing to remember is that you should adjust your camera to the angle of the gravestone, rather than trying to adjust your gravestone for the camera. If you try to straighten a gravestone, aside from potentially getting arrested or fined, you could do major damage to the stone.
Once you have photographed the gravestones, if you have taken them with regular film, be sure to get archive-quality sleeves to store them in. Then, create labels for each photograph, but don’t put the labels on the photographs themselves, since the labels could damage them. If you choose to take digital photographs and store them on your computer instead, be sure that you make backup discs.
Special Problems Encountered When Recording Gravestone Data
Although many people make rubbings of gravestones, the practice is frowned upon by those interested in preserving those gravestones. According to Preservation of Historic Burial Grounds, Information Series No. 76, 1993 (Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1993), “Gravestone rubbing should be strongly curtailed or eliminated due to potential damage to markers. Irreparable and significant damage has been done by people who thought themselves to be both careful and knowledgeable. In addition to the damage caused by pigment residue, most visitors are not able to accurately distinguish between sound gravestones and unstable ones. Because of the potential damage, rubbing is best avoided altogether.”
Grave markers often wind up partially buried in topsoil or undergrowth. Some even fall down naturally or because of vandalism. That can make them difficult to find. It helps to carry some sort of probe ad gently poke it into the soil up to 10 inches at intervals to see if there are any buried stones in the area. Hedges and fence lines should be checked especially carefully. Some grave markers may also have been moved around within the cemetery. You may not be able to identify where a marker actually goes, but the information listed on it can still be useful. If you find any fallen markers, be sure to tell the proper authorities. They may be able to have the markers restored or replaced by experts.
Another issue you may encounter is two gravestones for the same person. One reason that may occur is if a footstone was made, as well as a headstone. Another possibility is that the original stone may have been damaged, a new one was created, and it was placed next to the old stone. The old stone may not have been removed for financial or other reasons. Sometimes a gravestone for a person can be found in a family cemetery, even if their body is not buried there. Another gravestone may be at the cemetery where the person’s body is actually interred. Finally, what looks like two stones for the same person may not be. They may belong to a father and son or mother and daughter who had the same name. If the name is fairly common, they may even belong to two unrelated people. For example, two gravestones in two cemeteries in the same town might say “John Smith,” but there might have been two different people by that name living in the area at that time.
Preservation of Cemeteries
Prior to doing any cemetery research, you should familiarize yourself with cemetery preservation efforts. The Association for Gravestone Studies (30 Elm Street, Worcester, MA 01609) has co-published Lynette Strangstad, A Graveyard Preservation Primer, which can help you to understand current cemetery conservation efforts in the United States.