I love visiting the cemeteries where my ancestors are buried. If you are planning a cemetery visit over the holidays, here are my three tips to get the most out of the visit:
Cemetery Tip #1: Call Ahead for a Plot Map and Burial Records
If you are only using information from FindAGrave or a death certificate to locate an ancestor in a cemetery, you might find yourself lost when you get there. Even cemeteries that are one acre or less in size can have a several hundred gravestones.
Help yourself out by calling or emailing the cemetery to confirm the burial plot you want to visit. Say “I’m planning a visit to my ancestor’s grave and I’d like to confirm their location before my visit.” Every cemetery I’ve called has been very happy to send me an image of the cemetery plots on a map, and confirm the gravesite location. Bonus! Now I have that information to add to my family tree for future generations.
Cemetery Tip #2: Learn Gravestone Iconography
Gravestones today tend to be fairly straightforward listing names, dates, and relationships. Our ancestors often included icons or symbols of what was important to them on their gravestones.
I’ve been enjoying the book Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, by Douglas Keister. It has hundreds of photographs and detailed explanations and the book is narrow enough to fit in a coat pocket. Wonderful!
Cemetery Tip #3: Bring a Mirror and a Soft Bristle Brush
You know you are going to take photos of those gravestones when you get there. But sometimes the stone is dirty or covered in lichens or moss. If you bring a soft bristle brush, you can use it to remove the things growing inside the engraved letters.
But why a mirror? A trick professional photographers use is to use a large mirror (a narrow full-length mirror works well) to direct the light onto the gravestone. Position the mirror at a 45 degree angle to the gravestone and slowly turn it towards the stone. The angle of the light hitting the stone will change and cause the engraving to “pop” off the stone. An amazing trick and so simple!
Need some examples of how-to and results of using a mirror? Check out the Cemetery Conservators website.
Visting cemeteries is a wonderful way to connect with ancestors. Be sure to journal your experience for yourself and share what you find with family. Let's all get more connected to family history!
© 2019–2022 PA Ancestors L.L.C. and Denys Allen. All Rights Reserved.