Not Just a Ride in the Country!

There are a few things you should know before you make your first trip to that old cemetery where Great Great Uncle Bob is buried. You are lucky indeed if the cemetery you need to visit is in a well kept, suburban area, and is well documented by a local church, funeral director, or county courthouse. Unfortunately, for most of us, this is simply not the case. Visiting cemeteries is not the easiest, or the cheapest way to research your family tree, but combining a cemetery visit, or several visits, with that well earned vacation can be a memorable, if not enjoyable, experience. I won't go into locating the many records that will identify your ancestors that may be buried in a particular area (You should have some idea of these before you even attempt such a trip), but I will talk about a few useful records.

Marriage, Birth, and Death certificates:

These will, of course, pinpoint your ancestors in time, as well as provide you with the proper names. The locations listed on these records may assist you in finding the place that they lived, but will seldom provide the burial sites.

Deeds and Grants:

The GRANTEE index at the local County Courthouse (local to the events of your sncestors) will be invaluable for determining places of residence for your ancestors. You should record all information (legal description, book number, and page number) for both the grantee (when they purchased land) and the grantor (when they sold the land). These records, as well as probate records will provide information that will help determine the place of residence.

Why are we concerned with the place of residence? Most people (prior to 1950) were buried within 5 miles of their residence. If you do not know what cemetery to look in, this will give you a starting place to work from.

County Maps:

You need to get a copy of the county map from the County Engineer's office, or perhaps the County Clerk's office. Be sure to ask for one that gives the locations of cemeteries.

Church records, and Obituaries:

This is your best bet for finding the burial site of your ancestors. Unfortunately, it will require a lot of searching, and luck, to find the information you need.

Funeral Directors:

Some Funeral Directors may be able to provide you with burial information. You are not likely to find well kept records prior to 1900. Also, prior to the mid 1800's, most funerals were handled by a local carpenter, rather than a funeral home, and virtually no records were kept by these individuals.

Cemetery Plats:

The VERY LUCKY researcher will sometimes find a plat of the cemetery at the County Courthouse, or a local historical society. These plats are drawings of the cemetery, much like a floor plan of a house, that indicates not only who is buried in the cemetery, but the exact grave site within the cemetery. Should you take on the monumental task of drawing a plat for a cemetery where many of your ancestors are buried, you will recieve many thanks from local historical societies. Some County Courthouses will also accept these plats, and maintain them on file for other researchers to use.

When searching for the cemetery that contains the remains of your long lost relatives, remember that most people were buried within 5 miles of their homes. Prior to 1850, particularly in rural areas, many people were buried in small, privately maintained cemeteries, located on the "Family Property", or in cemeteries associated with the church of their particular faith. Unfortunately, Great Great Great Great Grandmother June may have been buried "up on the hill, under the old oak tree." Should this be the case, you are unlikely to find the grave site.

Once you determine a probable burial site, you will need to make a trip to the cemetery. We will now assume that the cemetery you need to visit is not currently in use, and has no caretaker or groundskeeper to clear away the yearly overgrowth that tends to take back the area cleared for the cemetery. Should you be lucky enough to end up working in a well kept cemetery, particularly one that is still in use, you will probably find detailed records showing the locations of all of the graves (a plat). As a word of caution, if the cemetery is still maintained, you should contact the caretaker, church secretary or pastor, or other official before you disturb any plantings, dig away dirt or grass from around a head or footstone, or attempt to lift fallen stones. Do not place yourself in the position of facing a lawsuit for "vandelizing" the cemetery.

Before you go treking into the woods to find that old cemetery where your ancestor(s) is buried, you need to be properly prepared for the excursion. Take note of the various materials I will describe below, and build a "Cemetery Kit" for your particular needs. The first thing to consider is protecting yourself. You need to wear clothing apropriate for the terrain and weather that you will be facing. Treking back into the woods is far different than visiting an urban cemetery. You need to wear protective clothing (jeans or work pants, and a flannel shirt are advisable). It may be hot out, but don't be tempted to try to make your way through heavy overgrowth wearing shorts and a "T" shirt. A hat can be a lifesaver on a hot sunny day. Make sure you have pleanty of drinking water, and perhaps some snack foods. You would also be well advised to take enough water to enable you to wash off your arms, legs, and face once you return to your car. Wear thick socks, and boots (or at least heavy shoes, try to avoid canvas shoes at all costs.) Use plenty of insect repellant on your shoes, socks, and pantslegs, you may or may not wish to treat your skin with repellant. Be sure to bring a Snake Bite Kit, and a small First Aid Kit. You are better safe than sorry. A special First Aid Kit made for campers is best, and will contain items specific to wilderness injuries. It will be light, and compact, and available at most department stores or sporting goods stores.

A few tools will also come in handy. In areas that are particularly wild, or overgrown, a machette will just about be a necessity. You will need something to break a trail through dense brush. You also need to take a small set of hand garden tools, including a small garden shovel, and hand held hoe. These two tools will be needed to clear grass and dirt away from headstones and footstones that may have sunk some. And lastly, you should take a small pry bar. You will find that some headstones may have fallen. Stones that are lying face down will have to be turned, and a pry bar will help you do this. Include a pair of heavy canvas gardening gloves in your kit.

Once you find the cemetery that you are looking for, you will have to find the exact grave site(s) you are looking for. Assuming that no plat was available to lead you to the exact site for you ancestor, you will have to walk up and down the row of graves, examining each stone. A good thumbrule is that in most cemeteries, the older graves will start in the northeast corner. At cemeteries where woods closely bound the cemetery, be sure to forge a ways into the trees in each direction to be sure that you have found all of the grave sites. There may also be additional graves on top of a nearby hill, or at other natural attractive sites. Look for bounding fences, stone walls, or corner stones that may mark the boundries of the cemetery.

Once you have found a headstone of interest, you can record the data in three ways. You should definately make a written record of what is inscribed on the headstone, and the footstone if there is one. You may also wish to photograph the stone, or you may make a rubbing of the stone. I prefer to take rubbings, because photographs often do not reveal the details of the stone. You will find that photographs will often fail to pickup all of the inscriptions on the stone. Whether you take photographs, rubbings, or both, you may need to clean the stone up some first.

When cleaning a stone, remember that you must not cause any more damage than is already there. Most accumulated dirt and debris can be removed with a brush. You should select a brush that is soft enough to not damage the stone, but strong enough to remove clods of dirt. I use a small hand held whisk, such as you would use to remove lint from clothing. Use your garden tools to remove grass and dirt from the base of the stone, untill all of the inscription is revealed. Don't dig farther than necessary as you don't want to cause the stone to topple over. Again, be sure to contact any caretaker, or church official prior to doing any digging, or attempting to turn a fallen stone. Now use the brush to remove any dirt clinging to the stone. You may need to use some water, with a solution of GENTLE soap to get dirt out of the inscriptions. Don't worry about wetting the stone, since, in most cases, this will cause the incsriptions and detail to stand out better for photography. Also, inverted carvings can be made to stand out better by filling them with shaving cream. Use a ruler, or piece of cardboard to remove excess shaving cream, and be sure to clean away all of the shaving cream before you leave. You should not scrub away all of the lichen that may be clinging to the stone. This lichen will actualy help to protect the stone. Another thing for photographers to bring is a roll of aluminum foil. The foil can be set up to reflect the sunlight onto or away from a poorly lit stone.

Rubbings are perhaps the most popular way to record headstones. There are many techniques for making rubbings, and many materials that can be used. You should make some trips to a local cemetery and practice making rubbings using diferent materials and techniques until you are happy with your results, before you make a potentially expensive trip to a remote cemetery. Many types of paper can be used to take the rubbing on. Among the choices are newsprint, tracing paper, architects paper, shelf paper, or pellon. I prefer pellon because it is easy to use. You can purchase pellon at just about any fabric or craft shop. Other papers will be available at most art supply stores. You are going to need some medium to transfer the rubbing. Again, there are many things you can use, crayon, graphite, charcoal, and bootwax are a few of the choices. Bootwax on the pellon makes an attractive rubbing, and graphite or charcoal on newsprint is another good selection. You can get bootwax at most shoe repair shops, and sticks of charcoal and graphite are available at art supply stores. Note that graphite sticks are often available in several colors, and other drawing sticks are also available, tell the sales person what you are doing, they will be very helpful in selecting materials. You will need some tape to hold the paper in place on the stone while you make the rubbing. I like freezer tape because it dosn't leave a lot of residue when you remove it from the stone, and it will also stick to a damp stone. Cut a piece of your material (paper or pellon, etc.) approximately the same size as the stone. Secure it tightly across the surface of the stone using the tape. Begin rubbing at the upper left corner of the stone, and work across and down. Rub in a diagonal direction, as rubbing straight up and down, or side to side will tend to stretch the paper, and cause it to tear or make a distorted image. Whatever you have chosen to make the rubbing with, use a broad side or edge (several inches long) to rub with. You do not need to rub hard, but rubbing too gently will cause you to loose the detail. Again, experiment and practice first. Be sure that you are happy with your results before you remove the paper, that all lettering is legible. Once you remove the paper, don't try to replace it in the same location. When you are done with the rubbing, remove it carefully from the stone, and lay it flat. Remove al tape and residue from the stone, and the rubbing. You should now "fix" the rubbing. If you are using charcoal, or graphite the image can be easily fixed with either hairspray, or a commercial fixative available at the art supply store. Other mediums may need the commercial fixative, or some other special treatment. Ask at the store where you bought the materials. When spraying the fixative, do not spray it on the stones. Use a gentle side to side sweeping motion, and do not apply it too heavily. The fixative will usually cause your rubbing to darken, follow the instructions on the bottle or can. I prefer a fixative that can be placed in a bottle with an airator tube that you blow through over aerosol cans since the "natural" method is more envionmentally sound (my two cents worth to protect our environment). Before you leave, you may wish to clean the site up some, leave some flowers, whatever. Be sure to remove all of you materials.

Once you get back to your car, you may wish to rinse off your arms and legs using either water, or a gentle antiseptic. If you have never had chiggar bites, you will soon find out why this is advisable. Once back to the hotel, or home if you are that close, be sure to wash thoroughly, and apply astringent all over. Be careful of ticks that you may pick up in the woods.

I store my rubbings in tubes, wrapping paper tubes are particularly good for this, but you can buy mailing tubes commercially. They make an attractive display for your local historical society or library, and draw the interest of young and old alike, more so than photographs. And this folk art approach will bring you more into touch with the ancestors that you are researching. A good summer long project is to select an old family cemetery, and make rubbings of all of the stomes. Tie this to a plat, which you may also need to make yourself, and you have a the beginnings of a major collection that any library or historical society would be proud to display for you.

Written and Submitted by Roger Johnston

Return to Resource Center

The Genealogy Forum - Main Page
Beginners' Center | Internet Center | Message Boards
Surname Center | Reunion Center | File Library
Genealogy Forum News
Shop With Us

Genealogy is a production of
Golden Gate Services, Inc. of Armada, Michigan.
© 1998 - 2006 All Rights Reserved. Brenda Jean Bova, President.
The Genealogy Forum is a member of the National Genealogical Society.
Tree logo provided by MeadPond Designs and is the trademark of

© 2006 Some graphics By Carol, All Rights Reserved  

 If you have any questions or comments,
please contact