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Genealogy: Tips for searching cemeteries and photographing headstones

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 11:01 a.m. MDT

Searching cemeteries can be a mixed experience as headstones and records can have a variety of information. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives) Searching cemeteries can be a mixed experience as headstones and records can have a variety of information. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives)

Searching graveyards or cemeteries can be a mixed experience of disappointment and jubilation all in the same day.

First, see if you can find a map of graveyards you intend to visit and the background about each. I have had good luck with checking with local historical societies and asking them if there is a record of the local cemeteries. If there is not documentation available, I try to see if I can locate the sexton (caretaker of the graveyard) to see if there is a plot organizational chart that defines who is buried where.

Check to see if there is an old map and new map of the graveyard. Compare them to see what differences there are between them. In some countries there is what is known as an ordinance survey reference number which identifies the cemetery. Other countries have other reference systems. The key here is to realize there may be information about graveyards and cemeteries to help you find what you seek.

Searching cemeteries can be a mixed experience as headstones and records can have a variety of information. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives.) Searching cemeteries can be a mixed experience as headstones and records can have a variety of information. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives.)

When I enter a graveyard, I go with a reference and anticipation. I am hoping the headstone is legible and easy to read. If the headstone is more than 100 years old, I am pleasantly surprised and grateful if the headstone is legible, and not damaged by vandalism or weathered by the years. Whatever I find, it is always fun.

Take a small pocket notebook with you and it will be useful to draw diagrams of graveyards and write down inscriptions.

If you have some flexibility in your trip as to the days you will be searching the cemetery, keep a close watch on the weather report. It is always better to view a graveyard on a sunny day versus overcast and rainy.

Are you planning on taking photographs of headstones or making headstone rubbings on your trip? If you are, and you've never taken a photograph of a tombstone or made a headstone rubbing, practice on some local stones before you leave. The time to learn isn't at a cemetery 2,000 miles from home on the last day of your trip.

Searching cemeteries can be a mixed experience as headstones and records can have a variety of information. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives) Searching cemeteries can be a mixed experience as headstones and records can have a variety of information. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives)

Photographing at the cemetery/graveyard

Maureen Taylor, owner and principal of Ancestral Connections, gave instructions on best photographing at a cemetery in her article, Tips for Photographing Gravestones. "Over the centuries, several different types of stones have been used to create gravestones. Some of the stones are quite porous and fragile, while others are resistant to damage. Be careful when attempting to improve the readability of the inscription," Taylor says.

Taylor then listed the types of stone in the article:

  • Prior to the 19th century: sandstone or slate.
  • Nineteenth century: marble and gray granite.
  • Late 19th century to the present: polished granite or marble.
1. Take photos of the cemetery entrance, sign, book of records and church.
Searching cemeteries can be a mixed experience as headstones and records can have a variety of information. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives.) Searching cemeteries can be a mixed experience as headstones and records can have a variety of information. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives.)
  • Before you start taking photos of headstones, make sure you capture the details of the cemetery that include the name, street signs, proximity and church adjacent to the cemetery.
  • All of these details will help you and others that follow know where you have been.
2. Best time of day for photographing headstones, according to Taylor:
  • Sunlight emphasizes imperfections in the stone and can make the carving look flat.
  • Headstones facing west are best photographed at midday.
  • Headstones facing north should be photographed in the late afternoon.
  • Headstones facing south are well-lit all day.
3. Large headstones require close-ups of inscriptions.
  • Taking photos of large headstones alone sometimes makes the inscription too small to read.
  • Take a photo of the large headstone and then move in close to take a photo of the inscription.
4. Family grave plots require group and individual photos of each headstone.
  • A family plot constitutes two or more graves.
  • Take a group photograph of the graves that shows number and proximity.
  • Take each headstone separately.
  • If you are photographing a cemetery, photograph all family plots the same, for example: group plot, headstones left to right, top to bottom.
5. Consider taking photos of all headstones in a small community cemetery.
  • If your family came from a small town and your roots go back many generations or many decades, chances are you are related to most, if not all persons buried in the cemetery.
  • If you have traveled a great distance to capture family graves on film, take an extra hour or two and capture the other headstones on film, you can sort out details later.
  • You will often find direct family members buried amid other families.
6. Look at the base, top, sides and back of headstones.
  • In addition to the inscription, look around the headstone for other important information that can be inscribed about the individual, family, maker of the headstone, and writings of the deceased.
7. Take eye-level photos of headstone inscriptions.
  • When taking photos of headstone inscriptions, try to take the photo of the inscription at eye-level. You will find information much easier to read in the photo.
8. Talk to the sexton.
  • Can’t find the final resting places of family members, see if you can talk to the sexton and ask to see the cemetery plot map.
  • Sexton may have records you can simply photograph.
  • Some cemeteries bury several layers deep to conserve space. In these situations, the headstone on top may only be for one of the several persons buried in the plot.
  • Sometimes headstones are not available because the family is too poor for a headstone, but the sexton will have details of who is buried where.
9. Take time to clear grass and other foliage away from inscription.
  • Take time to clear cut dried grass away from and on top of the headstone before taking a photograph.
  • If a branch is grown over the headstone, pull it back and take a photo.
  • Clear overgrown grass to the edge of the marker/headstone. Important information/epitaphs may be separated from the main inscription (e.g., bronze marker denoting group or religious affiliation, service in branch of military or fought in specific war).
10. Use a little chalk for the hard to read old headstones.
  • Letters on the old stones are often hardly legible.
  • Take a little piece of white (or black or any other dark color) chalk and fill letters.
  • Or rub the white chalk on the flat surface next to the letters.
11. Tilt your camera to the angle of the headstone.
  • Older stones tend to lean or slant.
  • Tilt the camera to the angle of the stone and your image will straighten up nicely.
12. For black and gray polished marble, shoot at angle.
  • Gray or black polished headstones are sometimes hard to read or reflect flash, making the image illegible.
  • Shoot headstone at an angle and then view on LCD for clarity. Reshoot at different angle if needed.
13. Try using flash on headstones covered with shade or on cloudy days.
  • If inscription you just took a picture of is hard to read, try using your flash. The light should provide you just enough extra light to fill in the dark shadows so you can read the lettering.
  • Try using flash from angles if needed.
14. Taylor suggests trying a soft brush or natural sponge and water to remove surface soil.
  • "Gentle brushing should remove surface dirt and bird droppings," Taylor says.
15. Try sponge and water on light-colored stone. The stone will darken from the water and darken the inscription on the stone.

16. She also suggests never using hard objects or stiff brushes to clean the stone.

17. According to Taylor, removing lichens with sharp objects most often destroys surface.

18. Keep a written record.

  • According to Taylor, some of the items to consider as part of the written record include:
    • Location.
    • Map of the cemetery with the stones numbered.
    • When photographed (time, date, and frame number).
    • Transcription of the epitaph.
19. Post your photos of headstones on family websites or sites such as Virtual Cemetery. Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on June 15, 2013, failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 17, 2014, and attribution to original sources were added.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.

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