Planning on a trip to your ancestors’ graves? This post covers how to prepare and what to bring to make the most of your time there.

Preparing to Go

Once you know the location of your ancestors’ graves, a trip to the cemetery can unlock new knowledge about them. For an overview of how to do this, check out Podcast Episode 33: Analyzing Gravestones with Berks County Association for Graveyard Preservation.

Before you set foot in any cemetery, do some reading of the cemetery’s history. Check the two big websites FindAGrave.com and BillionGraves.com, then do an internet search on the name of the cemetery itself. Some questions to guide your research:

  • When was the cemetery active and who did they take for burials?
  • What is the size of the cemetery?
  • Does it have it a religious affiliation?
  • Is the cemetery active now or is it closed to new burials?
  • Are there any mass graves there? Could be from a relocation from another cemetery, a pandemic, or pauper/poor burials.
  • Are there any areas for military veterans or different ethnic, racial, or religious groups?

For tips of researching cemeteries, check out these two podcast episodes:

Next check the historical society and/or genealogical society of the county where the cemetery is located. Many times volunteers in the past mapped out the cemetery’s inhabitants. I found it worth getting copies of those guides as they are more thorough than current websites.

If the cemetery is still active, contact the office for the burial records, locations of the graves you want to visits, and a cemetery map. Knowing exactly where to go in the cemetery will save you so much time on the day of your visit. Some cemeteries are reluctant to share burial record info over the phone, but will allow you to view it in the office during working hours.

If the cemetery is no longer operating, the local historical or genealogical society may know where the burial records are located. They may also know of funeral home records or church records that could help you.

So in summary, before you go you want to have a cemetery map, burial plot locations, and know the cemetery history. Now it’s time to pack for the trip itself.

What to Pack

For the day of the trip, the following supplies are good to bring:

Mobile phone with camera, or separate camera

Make sure any device you bring is fully charge and you have a battery backup. You’ll want your own photos of the gravesites as well as burial records if available.

Blank paper and pencils

If you need to draw your own map of the cemetery or note any features, sketching it out on paper is a great way to do it. An artists sketch pad is perfect to bring because it has a hard cardboard back for support. Pencils with erasers preferred over pens.

FindAGrave and BillionGraves apps

Decide if you want to update your ancestors’ profiles and help others through fulfilling photo requests. Having these apps preloaded on your mobile device ahead of time and knowing how to use them is good to do before you arrive.

Comfort supplies

Whatever you need to make yourself comfortable for the trip, gather it together. I bring a bottle of water, a snack bar, sunscreen or a hat even in cooler weather. You might need bug spray, garden tools to clear the gravesite, and a brush to clear dirt off the stone.

I also pack a sense of adventure, because there’s always something else that turns up!

Spending time in our ancestors’ cemeteries gives a way to know them and their community better. Preparing ahead for the trip allows us to get the most out of our visit. I’d love to here of your adventures to cemeteries in the comments!

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