April 26, 2019
Years ago one of my sons, who had been dragged by his family-historian mother to one too many cemeteries, told me that he thought I had a problem with cemeteries. He informed me that “normal” people don’t spend hours at cemeteries where they don’t even know the people who are buried there. Years have passed, and I still have that “problem,” and I’ll bet that anyone who reads this has the same problem because I don’t know a genealogist who doesn’t love to visit cemeteries. Old ones, new ones, even ones where none of our own ancestors are buried, we love them all.
However, just because we love to visit cemeteries doesn’t necessarily mean that we use our time at them efficiently. To get the most out of our cemetery visits (at least the ones where our own ancestors are buried), the visit should be planned in advance. If the cemetery we’re planning to visit is still active, it will have a website. It’s important to check out that website since it will give lots of important information. This might include directions to the cemetery; while you may have a GPS on your phone, it’s still a good idea to have at least a general idea of how to get where you need to go. Hours of operation can be crucial if you’re driving a long way to visit the cemetery since many cemeteries have specific hours such as 9 to 5. Driving four hours to a cemetery, only to find it closes in five minutes, is not ideal. Finally, cemeteries often enforce specific rules, and it’s a good idea to know them in advance. Strange as it may seem, some cemeteries don’t allow photography; others have regulations regarding what kinds of memorabilia or flowers may be left at a grave.
If the cemetery is large and if you’ll be visiting when the office is closed (weekends, for example), it’s definitely worth emailing or calling to get directions to the grave you’re seeking. Twenty thousand headstones are a lot to walk through trying to find the one you’re desperate to see (trust me, on this, I’ve tried to do it – it doesn’t work well). Many cemeteries now have interactive maps outside their offices which will give directions, but another way to get directions to a specific grave is to check on https://www.findagrave.com and https://billiongraves.com , which are virtual cemetery websites that post photos of graves. Billion Graves even offers an app that you can download in order to use GPS coordinates to locate graves. While you still may have to search within a small area to find what you’re looking for, it’s still much easier than trudging through acres of graves.
Another reason to contact cemeteries in advance is to learn what types of information they may hold concerning the people who are interred there. Some cemeteries will have records such as death certificates, family history and even obituaries on file. I have been able to add a previously unknown generation to several family pedigrees simply because the cemetery where they were buried listed names of parents in their records.
If the cemetery you plan to visit is no longer active, it’s still important to do some research on it in advance. Local historical and genealogical societies are the best place to start. They will know the conditions at the cemetery and can let you know if there are special conditions at the cemetery that might impact your visit. For example, I once visited a cemetery in rural Minnesota where cows were allowed to graze. By contacting the local genealogical society in advance, I learned which farmer to contact about a visit and avoided upsetting both him and his cows, not to mention the bull that was accompanying them.
Rural cemeteries are especially known for the hazards that they may pose to unwary visitors. Bugs, snakes and poison ivy are often present in addition to the above-mentioned livestock. While usually more manicured, city cemeteries can present their own hazards since some may be located in deteriorated neighborhoods which may mean they’re in higher-crime areas. Both rural and city cemeteries may present dangers in the form of loose headstones and foot-catching holes and vines. That’s why it’s usually recommended that genealogists take a companion along, just in case.
It’s also a good idea to bring a bottle of water and perhaps a soft brush since the headstone you want to photograph (assuming photography is permitted) may be dirty. Never use anything other than plain water to clean a headstone, particularly old ones that may be fragile. Cemetery visitors used to be encouraged to make rubbings of headstones, but nowadays that should never be attempted without getting specific permission in advance from the cemetery. Although headstones often look as if they’re sturdy and will last forever, stone does deteriorate and harsh cleansers and rubbing may cause irreversible damage.
There is nothing like visiting the final resting place of an ancestor, and I think that even my now-grown son agrees that visiting a cemetery for fun isn’t a symptom of mental illness. However, doing some planning in advance can make the visit an even better experience.
Researcher/Director at Large