Mar 17, 2023

Spring: Perfect Cemetery Weather

March 17, 2023

Spring is right around the corner. That makes it the perfect time to think about cemetery trips. The snow has melted in most parts of the country, and the bugs and snakes won’t be out for a while – a great time to visit a cemetery!


Most genealogists love visiting cemeteries, but a little planning will make the visit more rewarding. Before you book your flight or gas up the car, take some time to contact the cemeteries you want to visit. Call or email cemeteries that are still in operation. Check with local genealogical or historical societies about old or abandoned cemeteries.


Knowing any special rules such as when the cemetery office is open or whether photography is permitted will help avoid disappointment when you arrive. Although we often think of cemeteries as public, many of them are private. They can prohibit pictures or charge you for giving directions to your grandmother’s grave.


If the cemetery is large or unknown to you, check online for maps or directions to specific gravesites. Billion Graves ( is a searchable database that can provide you with GPS coordinates for graves. You can download their app to your phone and use it in the field. In my experience, the app will get you close to a specific site, but you’ll still need to do some looking. Not all graves are on Billion Graves, but it can be a handy tool if the ones you need are.


Some genealogists prepare a bag of essentials to take to the cemetery. This can include everything from bug spray to clippers for trimming overgrown branches. While this can be useful, it can be cumbersome and a bit difficult to drag aboard an airplane. It’s also not necessary for most cemeteries. A bottle of water, a soft cloth or brush and perhaps a pair of work gloves are usually sufficient.


Water and the cloth or brush can help clean off a dirty headstone to ensure a better photo. Water can also help bring out the lettering on a worn stone. A pair of work gloves is useful to help push back errant rose canes or overgrown grass.


Never use any kind of soap or cleaner on a headstone unless the cemetery has given specific permission. Many cleaners are harsh and can damage fragile stones. Sometimes shaving cream is used to help make illegible inscriptions show up. This can damage stones and shouldn’t be used.


Some of my favorite genealogy memories are of cemetery visits. I have used my bare hands to brush aside snow from headstones so I could photograph them. I have had cemetery workers stop their work to give me a ride in their mini truck to a difficult-to-find headstone in the blazing heat of a Tucson summer day. Cows have provided an impromptu audience as I tried to photograph an ancestor’s headstone. I’ve stepped on cacti because I foolishly wore sandals to an uncared-for graveyard. I’ve sat on the grass at my great grandmother’s grave and wished I knew more about her life.


I wouldn’t trade any of these memories for another hour on my computer, no matter how comfortable my chair is. Now that spring is almost here, I’m ready to head out to some cemeteries to make more memories.


Carol Stetser