Source:Swisher, Linda Herrick. Cemetery Reading Tips

Source Cemetery Reading Tips
Author Swisher, Linda Herrick
Subject Finding aid
Publication information
Type Article
Date issued 11/1/1994
Periodical / Series name Ancestry Magazine, 1994-1999
Volume / Film# / Pages Vol. 12 No. 6
Swisher, Linda Herrick. Cemetery Reading Tips. Ancestry Magazine, 1994-1999. (, 11/1/1994).
Ancestry Magazine website


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.

  • Religious. The cemetery may be located on church property, or it may be owned by a particular denomination. The interred may be of a certain ethnic group. For example, Holy Cross (Catholic) Cemetery in Calumet City, Illinois, is predominantly Polish. Lutheran cemeteries may be predominantly German. Jewish cemeteries and those of other denominations may or may not be exclusive to one ethnic group.
  • Governmental. The cemetery may be owned by a small village, a township, or the federal government. Tax monies support upkeep.
  • Private. The cemetery is owned by a company as a business venture. Many private cemeteries are now adding on-site funeral homes and mausoleums.
  • Family. The cemetery is usually on the family homestead. It is usually small. If the homestead is old outside the family, the site may be neglected, or all traces of the cemetery may be removed.

Finding the Cemetery

  • Libraries. (all kinds, public and private). Look for card files, published and unpublished readings, manuscripts, veterans' Rolls of Honor. My local library has a cemetery survey which was complied as an Eagle Scout project. Check local and family history books. Most genealogical and historical society libraries contain many published transcripts of their cemetery readings.
  • Other Cemeteries. Check for alternate names or nicknames for the cemetery. One caretaker or sexton may be responsible for more than one cemetery. A cemetery office may contain records for more than one cemetery. One cemetery office I visited in Iowa had maps for two other cemeteries which did not have on-site offices. Also, never assume you do not have ancestors in a particular cemetery because the family "used" another one. My father had told me that we would not find anybody in the Quaker Cemetery because all his relatives were buried in White Cemetery. As he finished this statement, I looked down at the stones I had been standing near. They were stones of Dad's aunt and his cousin (of whose death Dad had been unaware).
  • Telephone Books and City Directories. Check all years for cemeteries and funeral homes which are now nonexistent.
  • Historical, Genealogical, and Lineage Societies. Check for the same information as under Libraries, above.
  • Funeral Directors. Look for records of inactive cemeteries and records of other funeral directors who may have sold or merged their businesses. Funeral homes are often family businesses, and other mortuaries in the area may be owned by cousins or in-laws.
  • Furniture Stores. (Especially if they have been in the area for several decades) I know of several furniture stores owned by people whose ancestors began the family business as undertakers and casketmakers. Records are sometimes still available.
  • Monument Companies or Stonecutters. Company records may go back several decades and show what was carved on a stone, where and when it was placed, and who paid for it. A family business may still be run by descendants of the founder.
  • Maps. Local, township, county, atlas, or U.S. Geological Survey maps may show cemetery locations. Check older maps, especially since their newer counterparts may not show these cemeteries. Also, examine plat books in the county surveyor's office. A few years ago, a construction crew in the Chicago suburbs was startled to find skeletons on the project site. A check of old maps revealed that a county institution had been on that site over a 100 years before, with a large cemetery . . . all but forgotten until the discovery of bones.
  • Churches. The cemetery may be near the church or may have used additional lands for later burials. The church may a have relocated to a new site. The congregation may have disbanded and the building purchased by a new denomination.
  • Newspapers. Newspapers may list obituaries, cemetery association news (names of officers; a notice of the annual meeting or mailing address); or death notices of interments in cemeteries now lost or abandoned. Some cemeteries are now landfill sites, and records have been lost. Local newspapers sometimes print a year-end recap of death notices, including names and places of interment of the deceased. Also, check news articles by local historians.
  • WPA Records. In an Iowa courthouse, a clerk photocopied the cemetery site map made by WPA workers 50 years before. In the local historical society, the WPA cemetery index showed two ancestors were indeed buried next to their kin. The two plots now have no markers, but the WPA records show that there had been metal funeral home markers, showing names and dates, on the site.
  • Older Residents. These individuals often remember or have heard stories of earlier burial grounds.
  • Published Transcriptions. Check the preface and other pages to see what limitations exist. Is the printed source reliable or is it considered flawed by errors? Were only some cemeteries or sections copied? In what year was the latest burial prior to the transcription? Is there an addendum or appendix for corrections or additions? Are names listed alphabetically without a row-by-row transcription? (Many books published years ago were done in this manner. They do not show which names appeared on adjacent stones. A family member may recognize a neighboring stone as one of a relative with a different surname.) Earlier transcriptions may list a stone as "unreadable" which now, with the use of shaving cream, can be deciphered.

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).

Copying Markers

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:

  • Fall into an abandoned well
  • Step in a hole and sprain an ankle
  • Be bitten by a snake or insect, or have a medical emergency
  • Have a heavy, unstable stone topple on you
  • Become locked in the cemetery when the caretaker leaves
  • Have a dead car battery (this happened to me)
  • Fall victim to unsavory characters

Author Linda Herrick Swisher has served on the board for the SSGS. She is a community educator for a home-healthcare agency.