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How to Record a Cemetery

By Steve Paul Johnson, July 10, 2000

At least twice a week I am asked for advice on how to record a cemetery. There are perhaps many ways to accomplish this, and many experts have their ideas of the best ways to approach it. What I hope to do here is to provide some guidelines, and allow the recordist to make their own refinements.

Tools of the Trade

At the very minimum, you the need the following tools:

  • Notebook
  • Pencil

Though, my personal choice is a combination of using a digital camera and a Palm handheld computer. See the following articles for detail:

Other useful tools include:

  • A brush to wisk away dirt and grass clippings
  • A lawn chair to sit on while you're taking a break
  • A bottle of water (or Gatorade)

Choosing a Cemetery to Record

While it would be useful to produce recordings of all cemeteries, some cemeteries are more worthwhile than others. Genealogists and historians are more interested in the older cemeteries, because the information is more valuable. Cemeteries in rural areas are often more difficult to contact and visit, and thus are higher in demand.

Active cemeteries have a sexton in charge of maintaining records. People can call the sexton to get records. Inactive cemeteries often do not have an official sexton, and especially not "abandoned" cemeteries. Thus, recordings of such cemeteries become highly valuable.

Inactive and abandoned cemeteries are often situated on private property. Before setting about to visit and record such cemeteries, take care to gain permission before entering the grounds.

A cemetery that you plan to record may have already been recorded by someone else. Don't give up the idea of recording it yourself. Each person records a cemetery in their own way, and your work might prove to be more valuable. It may also be that the previous recording is being restricted by access fees (such as a book, or commercial database), and thus producing a second recording, one that will be freely accessible, will prove to help many researchers.

Photographing the Cemetery

My preference is to take several photographs of the cemetery at large, capturing the view of the tombstones, and the extenuating scenery. This illustrates the condition of the cemetery and adds another dimension to the overall presentation. It also freezes the scenery in time, preserving the look of the cemetery for future generations to enjoy.

Providing photographs also helps the family history researcher get a feeling of visiting the cemetery. Visiting a grave is perhaps the closest one can ever get to meeting an ancestor. But in reality, many people don't get the chance to visit a grave if the cemetery lies thousands of miles away. If they could see a photograph or two of the cemetery, they can at least get a feeling of what it would be like to be there.

Directions on how to get to the Cemetery

If you were to find an ancestor on a cemetery recording, you'd think about visiting the cemetery at sometime. Thus, it's necessary to provide directions on how to reach the cemetery.

Start by noting an easily identifiable landmark, or highway. Note the mileage between turns. Try not to use "left" and "right" when describing turns. Instead use "north", "south", "east" and "west". This is because "left" and "right" are relative depending on which direction one is coming from.

Find out the address to the cemetery, or the nearest cross streets, or landmarks. If you have GPS Device, mark the latitude and longitude coordinates. (see our article How to use a GPS Device).

Please also read our article, "Location, Location, Location!" about recording cemetery locations.

What Information to Record

As a general rule, record all information on the tombstone. Certain epitaphs, however, may not be worthwhile to record. For example, "Rest in Peace" does not necessarily have to be noted. But epitaphs that provide information about the interred should be recorded. For example, "Beloved Wife and Mother" has genealogical value, and also provides additional identifying information.

Unidentified Markers

Every cemetery will have some grave markers with no inscriptions or unreadable inscriptions. It is necessary to note how many of these graves exist. Otherwise, if a reader did not find their ancestor listed, they might conclude that their ancestor is not interred there. But if they knew there were unidentified graves, they would not make such a conclusion.

Double Graves

It's very common today to find more than one person interred in the same plot. Usually, the people were a married couple. But it's common to find sisters and parent and child occupying the same plot.

When you find such a grave, you should list each person separately, but add a note indicating that they share the plot with another person, and identify that other person's name. This tells the reader that some kind of relationship exists between the two. If the two people were a married couple, there will usually be an inscription of "Wife" and "Husband" by each person's name. If these inscriptions are not there, do not make the assumption they are married.

Fraternal Organizations

Grave markers sometimes includes the logo of a fraternal organization. Making a note of the organization is helpful, though is not critical. A recordist may not be able to identify all the symbols and logos, and would probably do more damage to attempt a guess.

Sexton Records

After recording the tombstone inscriptions, you can contact the sexton to view their records. The sexton may or may not be willing to cooperate. Some sextons have even gone so far as to shoo recordists off the premises. Thus, it is a good idea to record the tombstone inscriptions before making your presence known.

The sexton will often have more information than is necessary to record. There is often information of the surviving family. It is not appropriate to note the names of living relatives. You may find the person's occupation, cause of death, last known residence, military affiliation, etc.

What is important is to record enough information to sufficiently identify the interred. If all you were able to get from a tombstone is the person's name and death year, it may be necessary to get the sexton's record to get the person's parents, spouse, or siblings (but only if deceased), as a means to sufficiently identify that person. The person's occupation, or place of birth, may also be necessary.

Obtaining sexton records is not mandatory when producing a cemetery recording, but is very beneficial towards obtaining sufficient identifying information.

Plot Information

Noting the exact burial location of each interred will provide the reader the ability to find the grave when visiting the cemetery.

The problem, however, is that such information is difficult to derive, if you do not have access to the sexton records. If all you are able to record are the tombstone inscriptions, it is difficult to identify the sections, rows, and grave numbers. If you were to make educated guesses, you would more than likely produce errors and cause people to get lost.

Thus, capturing the plot information should only be done if you have sexton records.

To Sort or not to Sort

Perhaps the biggest argument among cemetery recordists is whether to sort names in alphabetical order, or to list names in the order by which they are buried.

By sorting the names alphabetically one can easily find their ancestors. This becomes apparent with large cemeteries. But listing the names by burial allows readers to see who is buried next to one another. Relatives are often buried next to each other, or in close proximity. If one were to find two Smiths buried next to each other, one would presume the two were related. If the names were sorted alphabetically, this information is lost.

One way around the dilemma is to make a note on a person's record that they are buried next to another. Another way is to note the plot information.

If the cemetery has a small number of graves, perhaps 20 or less, it's probably best to list the names in the order by which they are buried. Though keep in mind, that Cemetery Records Online still prefers to sort the names alphabetically for the sake of consistency.

Cemetery Description

If possible, perform some research of the cemetery you are recording, and write a short history of it. Indicate the age of the cemetery, current ownership, the ethnic and religious background of the interred.

Describe the conditions of the cemetery. You might make a note of how well the grounds are cared for.

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