Friday, May 20, 2011

Planning a Cemetery Trip

There comes a time when a trip to the cemetery is in order to advance your genealogy research.  Some people take it as par for the course; others dread the thought, and then there are those of us who don’t need any excuse to set out for a cemetery.  But in order to make this a worthwhile adventure, there are some points to remember.

Getting Ready
Start with Research -
Find out what county the cemetery you’ll be visiting is located in. Discover what type of cemetery it is, rural, suburban, urban and plan accordingly.
Here are just a few sites to help you find a cemetery:
Find A Grave:

If it is a city cemetery, you will be contacting the cemetery sexton/superintendent or cemetery staff for information.

If it is a small, rural cemetery or one not found on the Internet, the county trustee is whom you should search for. 

If it is a church cemetery, you will need to locate the current clergy for information.

If it is a private cemetery, you will have to discover who owns the land and get their permission to enter.

Check with the county library, local genealogical and historical societies, and local funeral homes for cemetery locations and directions. Remember too, these are great resources to check out for records on your ancestors while you’re in the neighborhood.  Even local newspapers may provide obits with a mention of the cemetery.

But be aware of the spelling of a cemetery name – locals may pronounce and spell the cemetery name differently than others.  Both sets of my great grandparents are buried in Bedell Cemetery, far out in the country in southwestern Indiana.   In my research I’ve found the name spelled as Beadle – Beedle – Biddle, all indicating the same cemetery 

Now that you have a physical address, get a map and directions.  Many cemeteries have maps on their web sites.  Plan to use your GPS or get a map from the Internet.  Two great map resources are:
Google Maps:

 Plan, Plan, Plan –
Decide what you want to accomplish.  Are you looking to confirm birth and death dates?  Do you want an actual photo of the grave?  Is this your chance to look at burial and plat records?  Once you know why you’re going to the cemetery, what you’re looking for and how to achieve it, you will find that you get much more done. 

Schedule Appointments – 
If you intend to speak with the cemetery sexton, cemetery trustee or funeral home personal, set an appointment. Schedule time if you want to look through the burial records, cemetery deeds or see death certificates. Most of these people will be happy to meet and talk with you, but please have the courtesy to work with their schedules.

What To Take

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words -
Take a digital camera, an extra memory card and LOTS of batteries.  While stone rubbings and transcribing stones may be useful, you can’t argue with a photo.  This is exactly what was engraved on the stone. Be sure to get at least two shots of each stone.  One should be a long shot to include the general area and the other a close up.  You may also want to zoom in on symbols or epitaphs in order to see them better.  

Always check the backs of stones for any additional information recorded there. Go ahead and shoot surrounding stones.  These could be unknown children, in-laws or neighbors.  And be sure to shoot all of the stones you find that have the surnames you’re searching for.

Pack Your Bag -
Grab a reusable shopping bag and make it your ‘cemetery bag.’  In it, be sure to include a soft paintbrush for dusting grass and dirt off of stones, a soft toothbrush for cleaning out mud-filled lettering, and a spray bottle filled with water.  This will help to clear soil from the stone and allow for easier reading of inscriptions. Pack a notebook or cemetery log to record findings and descritions. Ancestry Printing offers a detailed downloadable cemetery log for free at:

Also be sure to take some food and water.  Nothing fancy, unless you’re planning a picnic.  Crackers or granola/candy bars are fine, just something to take the edge off of hunger.  And take plenty of bottled water to keep hydrated.

C’mon Partner –
Be smart!  Ask a friend to go along.  While we tend to think of cemeteries as peaceful, quiet vistas, you will find some located in remote, isolated areas, or in questionable urban locations. If the area does not look safe to you – DO NOT continue on. Follow your instincts.

Do not keep anything of value (computers, cameras) within sight in your vehicle.  If you intend to wander far, lock your vehicle and set your alarm. Be aware of your surroundings and those around you.  Be sure you have a charged cell phone on you at all times.  If you have to go alone, tell someone where you will be and when you will return.   ALWAYS REMEMBER - it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Dress Accordingly –
Wear comfortable clothing and dress for the weather.  You’ll more than likely be wandering around all day, so wear comfortable shoes and jeans.  During the warmer months, take a long sleeved shirt or jacket with you.  Carry insect repellent, keep an eye out for snakes, and do a tick and chigger check when you get home.

 The Cemetery
At the Gate -
Before you enter, take a photo of the cemetery sign and any buildings located at the entrance.  This will help you keep locations straight and provide you with a great record of your trip.  If there is a cemetery office, stop in and see what resources they offer.  Check for maps, brochures, notable burials, any tours offered, and get the general history of the cemetery.

Once, from the Top -
Take the time to make a general drive or walk through the cemetery before you get involved in your research.  That way, you know the general layout and have a feel for your surroundings. Find out the cemetery hours and abide by them.

Be Respectful –
Remember, you are in a cemetery.  Treat stones and markers with care.  If a service is going on near your destination, show respect and reroute until it is over.  Avoid doing anything that could damage stones, trees or plantings.  Check with the cemetery office regarding the rules.  Some cemeteries will not allow picnics, pets or photography!

Be Skeptical –
 Just because something is engraved on a stone does not make it so.  Check your cemetery findings against primary sources when you get home.  Gravestones can contain mistakes, just like any other secondary source.

Have FUN!
Take time to admire what’s there.  If the cemetery offers walking or driving tour maps, grab one and get going.  Once your research is done, plan some time to just enjoy being outdoors.  Shoot what you find interesting.  You will be amazed at what you can find in a cemetery – exquisite artwork, interesting architecture, landscaped grounds, poems and prose, the rich and famous; you can make it a day’s worth of interesting and enjoyable pursuits with a little planning.

It’s the weekend – go visit a cemetery!

~ Joy


  1. Joy,

    Great Blog post, with very good reminders.

    I spend a lot of time on Find-A-Grave before I make a visit. But, then I am usually there to take pictures from a Find-A-Grave Request.

    All of your points are very valid.

    Thank you,


  2. Russ and Frog Queen - Thanks so much for the comments! I will have to look more into Find-A-Grave and taking photos by request. Sounds like a great idea since I'm out there so much shooting.

  3. Thanks for the great post. I, too, love wandering old cemeteries and had to laugh when I recently discovered a distant ancestor was a grave digger!

  4. Thanks Nancy! I, too, would love to find a grave digger in the family ; )