Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Preparing to Search a Graveyard -- Part Three

There is a significant difference between a casual memorial visit to a cemetery to view the grave of a departed family member and a research visit by a genealogist. Although both visits may have an emotional impact on the visitor, the researcher needs to do quite a bit of preparation. Cemeteries can have the appearance of a beautiful, well-maintained garden or an abandoned and weedy lot. Here is an example of an abandoned cemetery in Rhode Island.

Stories of cemetery visits from genealogists abound with encounters with snakes and other wild animals as well as problems with brambles and poisonous plants. Here is a photo of the results of one such encounter.

I suggest the following check list of items you may wish to consider when planning a cemetery visit.

1. Locate the cemetery.

I will be writing more about this later, but if at all possible, the location of the cemetery should be determined before you start exploring. Even with a map and a description of the cemetery, actually locating the plot may be a real challenge.

2. Determine any local rules, laws, social customs, religious restrictions, and availability issues that need to be resolved either before or during the visit.

Almost all cemeteries, even abandoned ones, may have legal or other restrictions on their access. If the cemetery is a public one, it may be open only during certain hours of the day or days of the week. If is a private cemetery, located on private property, the owners may not allow access except by previously arranged appointment, if at all. Do as much research as possible about the cemetery and its location as possible before your visit. Be aware of any local customs or beliefs concerning cemeteries and cemetery visits. Even with adequate preparation, locating the cemetery and gaining access may be an adventure. You need to be aware of the weather conditions and whether or not you will need to walk or climb to reach the cemetery. Some burial grounds are located on church properties and access may be limited by the requirements of religious observances.

4. Arrive prepared to record your visit with a camera and notebook. 

It is a tragedy to arrive at a location for research only to find your camera's battery has expired. Be sure all recording equipment is available and in operating order. Here is a link to a good introduction to this subject that talks about some of the limitations on taking photographs that may exist. See "Cemetery photos: permission required?" from The Legal Genealogist.

5. Avoid doing damage to the cemetery grounds or the graves. 

Over the years, genealogists have employed a number of methods to enhance or record grave markers. These include rubbings with paper and chalk or charcoal, applying a variety of substances to the marker to enhance the visibility of the markings such as shaving cream and chalk. Using a brush or other tool to "clean" the marker so it can be viewed and so forth. All of these are very bad ideas and may cause permanent damage to the grave marker. I suggest this article from the New Hanover County, North Carolina GenWeb entitled "Safe Solutions for hard to read tombstones" for a good summary of the best methods of preserving grave markers from additional damage.

The cardinal rule should always be to do no damage in your efforts to view and record the contents of the cemetery or burial ground. Here are some websites with information about the language of cemeteries with definitions of some of the more common terms. The most complete list I found was an article entitled, "Terms used to Describe Cemeteries and Grave Markers" from the Indiana State Government.

“Cemetery.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, February 12, 2016.

“Cemetery Tip: Vocabulary Lesson.” Accessed March 19, 2016.

“Cemetery Tip: Vocabulary Lesson.” Accessed March 19, 2016.

“Cem_glossary.pdf.” Accessed March 19, 2016.

Knight, Rebecca. “Research Guides: Genealogy: Cemeteries.” Accessed March 19, 2016.

This is a series. Here is the previous installment.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, arrive prepared to protect yourself. Solid boots (6" not bad but 9" better), gaiters to prevent creepycrawlers from moving up pants legs. Pants of close-woven heavy material, not chinos or skirts. Long sleeves that button, not T-shirts. Apply insect repellent along beltline and any other tight spot, plus at wrists and neckline (chiggers are worse than mosquitoes). Broad-brim hat as tick deterrent, there are some great fold-up ones available from sporting-goods outfits; should be solid material, not loose-woven straw. Rain gear, at least a poncho. Gloves, preferably utility mostly-leather ones (not thin smooth ones). Heavy cotton ones might do in a pinch. Garden clippers to remove light weeds obscuring an inscription (use the gloves with these, could be poison oak or poison ivy). Long-handle tree trimmers for very judicious use if okay with property owner, or a nice length of sturdy rope to tie branches out of the way during photography. Machete for brambles? Not a weed-whacker unless you have written permission for use beforehand. Mirror(s) to redirect sunlight into shadowed spots. Piece of rerod 3 to 4 ft., to cautiously probe earth for buried marker (6" or 8" down most likely). Small garden weeding equipment to carefully unearth a marker (not shovel or spade). Try around a tree first, you might luck out; avoid damaging roots. Backpack to carry your equipment and spare charged-up batteries. These are just some basics.