Basically the benefit you derive from a visit to a cemetery is entirely dependent on your preparation. As more and more cemeteries are digitally represented and inventoried online, you certainly need to do your homework well before you get to the physical cemetery. If you fail to find any record of the burials or the photos of the cemetery online, you should seriously consider taking the opportunity to contribute to one or more of the large online cemetery databases as part of your visit.
I am going to use a two visits to the Vine Bluff Cemetery in Nephi, Juab County, Utah and the Tanner Cemetery in Rhode Island, as examples of planning and executing a visit to a cemetery. Nephi, Utah is located about an hour's drive south of Provo, Utah (I now live in Provo). The Tanner cemetery in Rhode Island is located on the East Coast, about 2300 miles away. I have had some interesting experiences over the years in visiting cemeteries but I also realize that my visits would have been much more productive had I spent more time to adequately prepare for the visits.
Cemeteries can be both public and private. Some of the larger cemeteries have tens of thousands of graves. Others may only have a few and, of course, there are burial locations containing a single grave. Some grave sites are open to the public and others are located in areas required special entry permission. The cardinal rule in visiting graveyards or cemeteries is to do no harm to the markers or the surrounding area. Grave markers have been made from substances from wood to durable stone and through neglect and age, many are in a state of ruin. It is a tragedy when a genealogist's visit to a cemetery is marred by thoughtless destruction of the very information being sought.
Using my two examples, the Vine Bluff Cemetery is publicly maintained and is readily accessible during its open, operating hours. On the other hand, the Tanner cemetery in Rhode Island is on private property and access to the cemetery present a number of physical and practical challenges. Here is a photo of the grave marker (headstone, tombstone) of my great-great-grandfather, Samuel Linton and my great-great-grandmother, Ellen Sutton Linton from the Vine Bluff Cemetery.
Here is a photo from the Tanner cemetery in Rhode Island. This is the burial site of my sixth great-grandfather, William Tanner and his wives and some of his family members. He died in 1735.
You can hardly see the grave markers. Here is a closeup of one of the markers.
The Tanner gravesite is located off of the third tee at the Laurel Lane Country Club in South Kingston, Rhode Island. It might help to understand the condition of the Tanner cemetery to know that the burials date from the early 1700s.
The existence of the photo of the Samuel Linton grave in the two large online cemetery database programs raises some interesting issues. Do we really need to get in our cars and drive to the cemeteries? In the case of the Tanner cemetery, neither of the large online websites have a record of this cemetery, however there is a record of the cemetery, the burials and the exact location on the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission website. Here is a description of the gravesite from the website.
This burial ground is the oldest of three Tanner lots, located a thousand feet south of Laurel Lane, behind the green for hole number three of the Laurel Lane Country Club. It is 40 feet x 45 feet, in good condition, with no enclosure or historical cemetery sign. There are eighteen graves in this burial ground marked with fieldstones, six of which are crudely inscribed. James N. Arnold recorded this lot Nov. 10, 1880, his #233, “a short distance northwest from the above [SK 131] another yard of the same family in field without protection, rude stones.” He recorded nine inscribed and 18 uninscribed fieldstones, nine large and nine small [children], in what we have now divided into two burial grounds, SK129 and SK 130. The genealogy, William Tanner, Sr. of South Kingstown, RI and his Descendants by Rev. George C. Tanner (1910) has a plan of these three burial grounds on page 14 with the following text: This burial place of the early Tanners is on the original farm owned by William Tanner Sr., and in an open field near the ‘Great River’ [Usquepaugh River, aka Queen’s River] and a short distance from a walled grave yard [SK131]. The most north westerly grave is that of William Tanner, evidently, and marked with a rude granite field stone, with the simple letters, W. T. At the right are two graves, marked, M. T. and at the right of this, a second marked E. T. At the foot of these are four small graves, probably children of William Tanner, as the custom was to bury young children at the foot of their parents’ graves.” Eastward of these short graves are three graves, the middle one marked J. T., the one at the right with the marking indistinct, but may be J. T., that at the left, plainly marked S. T. There are undoubtedly the graves of John Tanner, son of William , and his first and second wife, Jean and Susannah.” Found, registered, and recorded by John Sterling & James Wheaton for a 2004 book on South Kingstown cemeteries. About sixteen paces west of the northwest corner of the walled enclosure and about twenty-three paces to the north are the graves of Josias Tanner, and at the right one marked A. T., Amy Tanner, and at the left of that marked J. T. one marked P. T., Phebe Tanner, wives of Josias [SK130].Here is the book mentioned by the website.
Sterling, John E, James Lucas Wheaton, Cherry Fletcher Bamberg, and Rhode Island Genealogical Society. 2004. South Kingstown, Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries. Greenville, R.I.: Rhode Island Genealogical Society.
It should be apparent that the first step in preparing to visit a gravesite is to determine its location and accessibility. Cemeteries often have schedules when they are open to the public and you need to determine whether or not there are any supporting records available. Just getting in your car and driving to a cemetery may be an adventure, but it may also be very disappointing. Our trip to Rhode Island occurred before most of the information now online was available and the descriptions we had of the location of the cemetery were vague. Now the same cemetery is marked on a Google map with the exact coordinates. You should also realize that visiting the cemetery could turn out to be a once in a lifetime experience.
Tune in for the next installment.