In most areas, spring is already here--it's the perfect time of year to map a cemetery!
The following guidelines will help make your trip to the cemetery more successful, and will help protect the priceless records you will find there.
- Most cemetery searchers advise visitors to never visit a cemetery alone. Many cemeteries are located in out-of-the-way areas, and can harbor snakes, animals, uneven ground, and other natural hazards.
- Wear protective clothing. It's a good idea to wear gloves and sturdy shoes, as well as carry along a can of Mace or other eye-stinging mist.
- Obtain permission from the proper authorities prior to your visit. This could be the sexton or cemetery manager, or the owner if the cemetery is on private property. Explain your desires to map the cemetery, and how you plan to take readings, draw maps, and photograph headstones.
- Become familiar with proper methods of care for headstones. In some states, certain practices for cleaning or removing debris are against the law. As well, many older stones are made from a soft, easily damaged stone, and it may be hard to tell the difference between sound gravestones and unstable ones. It is considered harmful to use harsh abrasives or wire brushes to remove growth of moss or lichen from any stones. Professional preservationists also consider it destructive to make a gravestone rubbing by laying paper or fabric onto a tombstone and rubbing it with chalk or charcoal. It's best to avoid rubbing, chalking, and other similar practices altogether. If a gravestone must be cleaned, professionals recommend gently brushing away loose material with a natural bristle brush, and then wetting the stone with clean water.
- Don't attempt to repair or straighten a leaning or fallen stone. Doing so could cause permanent damage. Instead, notify the proper authorities (sexton, cemetery manager, or owner) of the location of the fallen stone.
- In older cemeteries, you might encounter duplicate headstones. When a replacement headstone is installed, the old one is often left in place. You therefore might find two headstones for the same person. Another common practice in very old cemeteries is that of using headstones and footstones. The footstone will often have an inscription with just the initials of the person buried there. Occasionally, you will also find a marker for a person in a family plot with a second gravestone in the cemetery where the person is actually buried.
- It's a good practice to make a written record of all information you find on the gravestones. You don't want to miss the valuable information found in epitaphs, such as church affiliation, survivors, occupations, military service, cause of death, physical description, citizenship, and migration patterns. It's also important because cemetery records are sometimes destroyed through vandalism, development, natural disasters, and erosion. Your record of the headstone may someday prove to be the only information available.
- Digital photography can be an excellent way to make a record of gravestone information. Photography is most successful in brilliant sunlight. If necessary, a mirror can be positioned to reflect the light so you can get a good photo of the inscription. Don't ever try to move a tilting stone to get a better photo. Instead, tilt the camera to correspond with the lean of the stone. It's always wise to copy the inscription in your notes in case the photographs are not legible.
A great source of information for those interested in cemetery preservation is A Graveyard Preservation Primer by Lynette Strangstad. This landmark work was published in cooperation with the Association for Gravestone Studies, and will be an excellent guide for you in your cemetery projects.
For more information and specific instructions on mapping a cemetery, visit NAMES IN STONE's mapping instructions and recommendations.