Surveying a cemetery is one of the basic tools in the amateur genealogist’s bag. Practice will improve the techniques, and context is hugely important: you probably will make different gear choices to wander through your church’s graveyard than for an expedition to a remote burial a couple miles from the nearest forest service road.
- Plan ahead.
Spontaneity is all well and good, but a cemetery survey is a task with a beginning, a middle, and an end; it will probably involve hours if not days of physical effort. Map your route to the cemetery. If possible, acquire a map of the cemetery, so you can pre-plan the most efficient route through the cemetery without missing any blocks or plots of grave markers. If you cannot get a map, try to get a good look at satellite images of the cemetery on, for example, Mapquest or Google Maps. Satellite images may be misleading about where graves are located as it is quite traditional for towering trees to be planted providing shade – and cover from flying cameras.
- Bring appropriate tools.
- A fellow enthusiast! — not the easiest to arrange, unfortunately, but having another person with can really speed things along as well as helping keep you on the methodical process which, though boring, will avoid errors of omission in your record. Offer to help someone survey their cemetery in exchange for getting help with yours.
- Record taking gear — this may be a note book and pens/pencils (lots! they fail at the darndest moments, and a clipboard may be helpful as a portable ‘desk’) or it may be a voice recording device (smart phones are wonderful for this) or possibly a full-on video recording set-up. If you are using a recording device, practice reading carefully using the microphone and check if your voice is picked up cleanly, that you can understand what you are saying and can transcribe from it. Because, later on, you will.
- Hand shears — These need to be comfortable to use, and you want to be able to prune some sizeable twigs and branches. Mostly this will be for very light grass and plants, but bring gardening-type gloves as well. You will use these often to clear the text of headstones.
- Headstone scrubbing gear — DO NOT CLEAN HEADSTONES WITHOUT FIRST GETTING PERMISSION. But, when you can, bring a bucket, a soft nylon or natural-fibre brush, and hose. And determine if there is water available right away; if not you will have to bring any you use with you, which is a not-fun prospect. Do not use cleaners of any kind; just light elbow grease because headstones are often very fragile.
- Appropriate clothing. This is obvious most of the time, but really, do yourself a favour and honestly assess what you need. Short shorts and the lightest of linen tops may be great in the heat, but if you’re dealing with briars and thistles, or swarms of mosquitoes and biting flies, you will be heading back home long before the task is finished. Footwear requires special mention: some places you can get by with flip-flops, but most places some rugged hiking shoes will be the best all-rounder.
- Record everything
Start taking notes immediately. Where did you park? Did you forget any of your gear? What is your plan for tackling? How much do you plan to get done on this trip? Where are you going to start? okay, now start.
Record everything on each marker, and describe the marker too. Notice how close the grave is to its neighbours, the position of the marker(s) within the grave site. Check for additional markers within a site; sometimes infants are buried with parents, sometimes pets are honored as well.
Record every marker and grave site if you can. This will often be your own saviour when you suddenly discover entire branches with different surnames shared the same cemetery days/weeks/years down the line. And even if it doesn’t help you, sharing your notes may help some other genealogist at some later date just as you, likely, have benefited from the foresight of previous genealogists generously sharing their work in the past.
Check if there are cemetery records on the premises. Many rural cemeteries keep a ‘register book’ somewhere accessible to visitors. It may include a map of the blocks and plots of the cemetery, which will be invaluable. (If you have a digital camera or smartphone, take a picture of each relevant page. Make sure the pictures are legible, but if it works you can save yourself hours of painful transcribing.)A word about photographing markers: DO IT IF YOU CAN! learn to take good marker stone photographs, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
- Leave it the same, or better, than you found it
Take any trash you generated with you. Yard clippings and such should be dealt with appropriately; there may be a pile of them on site, but if not you must bag them up and bring them home with you.
Those are really the four ‘rules’ for cemetery surveying: Plan ahead, Bring the right stuff to do the job, Record everything, Leave it as you found it.