Cemetery Reading Tips
You've found the obituary, and are eager to find your ancestor's gravesite. All you have to do is find the cemetery and read the stone. Piece of cake, right? Maybe not. As with every aspect of research, you'll get better results if you do your homework.
Determining Cemetery Type
There are several types of cemeteries. The existence of records and the condition of the stones often depends on the type of cemetery.
Finding the Cemetery
Searching a Cemetery
Some practical advice will help make your cemetery research a pleasant experience. Wear protective clothing. Long sleeves and pants and cap or visor will help prevent sunburn, poison ivy, or insect bite. Rubber bands around your ankles will prevent critters from climbing up your pant legs. Use sunscreen. A scarf absorbs perspiration. Work gloves are handy for handling stones. Bring a first-aid kit and drinking water.
Reading the Stone
I've participated in several cemetery transcription projects with The South suburban Genealogical and historical Society (SSGHS) located in South Holland, Illinois. The Society has guidelines used to train volunteers (other groups may do things differently). While these guidelines were formulated for a group reading, they can be adapted to individual research.
Preliminary Survey. If possible, the project leader calls or visits the cemetery to ascertain the proper name and location of cemetery and precise directions; location of office, sexton, association, church, and existing records; previous transcription, when, whether published, and whether by alphabetical listing only; location of nearest restroom facilities, pay phone, and water source; languages used on stones (the leader may keep a notebook with the alphabet printed in various languages to aid in transcribing foreign-language stones); cemetery layout and preliminary map (Cemetery records may show burials by row, plot, or section. Reading row-by-row makes it easier to follow the finished transcription. If there is an additional site for later burials, the map will be reproduced for transcription volunteers); cemetery condition (lawn upkeep, condition of stones).
Clipboard: 8.5 x 11-inch lined paper (yellow legal pads reduce glare from the sun); pen or pencil; hand trowel; whisk broom; plastic bag; shaving cream and squeegee); paper towels; and a prod (#5 knitting needle is good).
In addition, the following optional supplies are helpful. Plastic pail for carrying the above; fanny pack for carrying change, keys, wallet, and pencils; 35mm camera and film for photographing stones; tracing materials (butcher paper, rice paper or nonfusible interfacing, available in fabric stores; charcoal or chalk; and tape to hold the material to the stone; books and articles are available on how to trace stones); squirt bottle of water and vinegar mixture; flag markers (the kind used by utility companies to mark underground pipes or cables; these help keep track of the row. Try your local soil conservation office or utility company if you wish to buy some).
1. Print or write clearly. Someone else will be typing from your record.
2. Be consistent in the method of copying. The whole group should copy the stones in the same way. Read the rows in one direction only beginning at the same end of each section.
3. Put your name, date and telephone number on the first page. Note the section name. Number each page. Number each row. Number each stone (note each inscription on the stone) and each base if there is no stone. Leave a blank line between each stone.
4. Spell the name exactly as it appears on the stone, not the way you think it should be spelled. Inscriptions often have mistakes.
5. Copy EXACTLY line for line everything on the stone. DO NOT ABBREVIATE. Copy all epitaphs, poems, lodge insignia, military information, the presence of photographs, crosses, stars, unusual markings, and the monument maker's name or company. Copy names, dates, etc. for persons who have not yet died. If the date appears as 1900- (dash), make a box for the missing date, or state that the death date is missing. If a date or letter is unclear, underline it or use the ?, ( ), or [ ]. For foreign language stones, don't translate the inscription; copy it exactly. If you know what it says make a separate reading of your translation.
6. Dates are very important. On old stones, make absolutely sure you have read the number correctly. Be careful of: 8 and 3, 4 and 7, 5 and 3, 1 and 7. If a stone is complicated, make a drawing of it. If you can't read the stone, number it and state that you can't read it, but first try shaving cream. Put the plastic bag on your hand; squirt shaving cream either into your hand or directly on the stone; rub cream all over the stone, squeegee the stone in one direction over the inscription. If the stone is large, you may want to do parts at a time since the cream will dry quickly on a hot day. If the inscription is not clear, apply the cream again, and squeegee in another direction. Some information may still be illegible, but you may get part of a name or date that you couldn't read with the "naked eye." If the stone is shiny granite, shaving cream in the inscription will allow the stone to photograph much better. Since the cream does not harm the stone, and water or rain washes any excess cream away, this method is safe.
7. Be consistent in your route down the rows. Read in one direction only. (Check all sides of the stone and around the base. Many stones have four sides with names on each site. Many stones have different names on the front and back. Mark which side contains which names, for example, "JONES" on E. side, "ADAMS" on W. side).
8. Be alert for markers laid flat and recessed in the ground. Grass and leaves can easily cover such markers. Use the prod, trowel and whisk broom. Be careful not to damage the marker. (Note on your sheet if the marker is laid flat. Many cemeteries are now doing this to aid in mowing the lawn. However, any inscription that is not on the exposed side will not be visible. The "laid flat" notation will alert those who read the transcription to the possibility of additional buried inscription on the stone. If markers are in a pile, or placed against a tree, note this also to show that the marker has been moved from the burial site. Don't put them where you think they belong.
The transcribed papers are typed into a computer. The computer printout is checked against the transcription sheets; an index, map, short history of the cemetery, and a list of those who assisted in the project is usually added. The reading is published alone or in the society's quarterly.
Safety at the Cemetery
CAUTION: Do not go alone. Let someone know you whereabouts and time of return. Have a car phone or other means of calling for help. Check in at the cemetery office. You may: