Thank you to Ann Raymont for this helpful article.
Have you seen those genealogy T-shirts that read “I see(k) dead people”? It’s a fact—we family historians do! And nowhere is that more literally true than in a cemetery. Here are five tips to make the most of your next visit.
1. Before you go
Check out the cemetery on a website like FindaGrave.com. It’s also a nice idea to see if there’s a request pending for anyone to find a specific grave there and maybe snap a photo. You might earn some good karma by helping out a stranger, and maybe one day you’ll discover someone returning the favor for you!
Do you have a packing list for your cemetery jaunts? Don’t forget the usual: drinking water, sunscreen, hat and gloves, bug spray, hand wipes, camera…. Here are some more unusual household ideas to consider adding to that list:
- large jug(s) of filtered water (1-5 gallons, as much as you can bring)—you may want to use a large garden spray bottle or a small bucket too. You really can’t have too much water.
- smaller 16-32 oz. spray bottle and water/ammonia mix (see below)
- tongue depressor/craft sticks; Q-tips; rubber spatula
- Tampico or nylon-bristled scrub brush (NOT wire); perhaps a small, soft, slanted paintbrush and/or a toothbrush too
- garden sheers and a small trowel
- large plastic mirror
- aluminum foil
2. Now you’re at the cemetery and you’ve found the tombstone you’re looking for…
… but you’ve discovered it’s in sad shape. If you’ve come prepared, there are some simple things you can do safely to take care of the marker. These tips come from a recent hands-on cemetery workshop sponsored by the Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology.
PLEASE NOTE: Some of the advice in this article is no longer recommended. We leave it here to maintain the integrity of the author’s original article but we recommend that you do NOT handle or try to clean a headstone at all unless you are trained in best practices. Removing debris, or the use of water to clean away mud or grime, is generally OK.
Always keep in mind the most important rule of thumb: First Do No Harm! Never clean a grave in a way that may damage it. If you are unsure, it is best not to do anything. Always gain permission from those who manage the cemetery before any cleaning effort.
- Clear away any debris, tree limbs, or leaves that obscure the site.
- Remove scrub vegetation; trim away vines with garden shears if applicable. Take care not to remove what might be historic vegetation, but do remove weeds.
- Stop here and check the condition of the grave marker. If it’s unstable, don’t touch it. People have been seriously injured and killed by tombstones falling on them. Just proceed to step 3. If the stone surface has a crumbly, sugary texture or is cracked or split—don’t touch it. Just proceed to step 3.
- If you’re sure the stone is in good structural shape, decide if it needs cleaning. If you’re lucky enough to be dealing with granite headstones, all you may need to do is polish it up a bit with a towel.
- On the other hand, you may be dealing with limestone, marble, sandstone, siltstone, or slate. Begin cleaning by pouring distilled water over both sides. Some of these monument surfaces may have attracted lichen, fungus, moss, etc. These might be obscuring the inscription, and some experts say they can damage the stone too. (Other experts disagree.) If you want to try to remove the growth without causing more damage, use a tongue depressor, craft stick, or rubber scraper or spatula to gently scrape it away. You may use your fingers to pinch it out, or try a brush as well.
- For spot-cleaning accumulations of dirt, bird poop, etc., spray the specific area with distilled water, or a mixture of one part ammonia to four parts water. (Other household cleaning agents contain chemicals that can stain or damage the stone and surrounding grass, so avoid those.) Scrub gently with a non-colored Tampico- or nylon-bristled brush, cleaning from the bottom up to avoid streaking. (Do not use anything with wire bristles, which can leave particles that would introduce rust). A small paint brush or toothbrush may be helpful to work the narrow crevices around the lettering. If you’re using an ammonia mix, be sure to rinse thoroughly with plain distilled water when finished.
- Don’t expect like-new results. Your goal is to make it legible without causing any harm. Cleaning more often than once every year or two is too aggressive.
3. Ready to capture the moment?
Put shaving cream or chalk directly on the grave marker! Their chemical composition can damage the stone. Some cemetery photographers have used flour to bring out the inscription, but that’s also frowned upon by preservation experts. Even if you attempt to rinse any of these agents off, some will remain and can cause the stone to deteriorate at a faster rate.
What about tombstone rubbings? These are controversial for the risk they may place on the stones, and have been banned in some places. There are safer ways to capture what’s engraved on the grave marker.
Take a picture; it will last longer. Here are some steps you can take when shooting the picture to make the inscription more readable.
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- Spray the engraving with water. (The water will dry on the stone’s surface faster than in the indentations of the lettering; this will emphasize the contrast.)
- Be prepared to get down on the ground. (You might fold up the towel you brought and kneel or sit on it.) Use a tripod or something else to brace the camera to keep it motionless.
- Use a mirror to reflect light and adjust shadows. A lightweight full-length mirror, like the kind you hang on a closet door, works best, but you can experiment to see what’s practical for you to take and works well. You could even try aluminum foil, or reflective car window sun shields to bounce the light. (You’ll want a friend or relative along to hold the shiny stuff while you snap the photo.)
- Bring a flashlight in case the grave is found in a dark or wooded area.
Take several pictures. Zoom in on the inscription, but also take a picture of the entire tombstone. Don’t forget to check all sides of the marker for more text. If the tombstone is very stable, and the lettering just isn’t pronounced enough, you can try spreading the foil across the surface and pressing it into the engraving indentation and shooting that.
Also, stand back and get a picture of the family plot surrounded by other tombstones, trees, and landmarks—for example, a barn across the road. It’s nice to see the setting where your ancestor was laid to rest. And the picture may help you or your family find the location again too.
4. One more thing before you leave…
Before you go, try to get the GPS coordinates too. Some day in the future, the cemetery may be lost, or the grave marker gone. But you’ll still have a precise record of where your relative was buried.
Your smartphone may be able to tell you the GPS coordinates. Check your app store to choose among several apps that will display your location information.
Some digital cameras offer geo-tagging; if you turn on the location function, the GPS info will be captured in the EXIF data. Your smartphone or tablet camera may capture GPS coordinates too. See your device manual for details.
Other cemetery explorers may use a hand-held GPS unit, for example, those used by geocachers.
Any of the above will meet your needs.
(Don’t forget to look for a grave marker that someone else requested on Find a Grave before you go, too.)
5. When you get back to your desktop or laptop
There are many photo editing software options that will help you fine-tune your digital image. Your computer probably came with a free tool already installed. (Microsoft Windows has Photo Gallery; Apple offers iPhoto.)
Finally, it’s a good idea to add a citation and the GPS coordinates (if you have them) to the finished product.
Here is a citation example:
Cemetery of the Seven Sorrows (Sanilac County, Michigan, LAT/LON 43.1873235, -82.8277296, on Galbraith Rd about 1.3 miles west of M-19), Cornelius Gleason marker, photographed by Ann Raymont, 5 May 2015.
This citation is in a format recommended by Elizabeth Shown Mills in the genealogist’s ‘bible’ on this subject: Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (p. 228).
For a larger urban cemetery, you would replace the road information in the citation with section and lot numbers for the family plot.
Write out your citation and copy it to your clipboard. When you’ve finished fine-tuning the tombstone picture, your photo editing software should allow you to add a white border. You can adjust the size of this area so that it’s a wide band only on the bottom, if you want. Then paste your citation on top of this white border and save the image.
Find a Grave considerations:
- If the grave isn’t on Find a Grave yet, you can add it, along with the photo(s) you shot.
- If it is there already, but with no picture, you can add a photo to the record. (You don’t need to be the person managing the memorial to add a photo.) Be aware that others may download the photo to add to their online trees and may not credit you; watermark the picture if that’s a concern.
- If the information on the Find a Grave record doesn’t match what you saw in the cemetery, let the person who manages the memorial know.
- If you have GPS coordinates to share, you can input them on the Find a Grave website, but the person who manages the memorial will need to approve them. This can take time; some contributors manages thousands of records.
- Find a Grave has an app to make it easier to shoot a photo and automatically upload it to their website—GPS coordinates too, if you want. The typing (in tiny search boxes) can be a challenge on your smartphone, but it also works if you have a camera and WiFi-enabled iPad. This can be a real time-saver… unless you want to edit or enhance the photo and add the citation before uploading it to Find a Grave.
You may want to change the format of the GPS information you captured. For example, my camera tells me I shot a photo at:
GPS Latitude 43.0° 11.0′ 11.940000000000737″
GPS Latitude Ref N
GPS Longitude -82.0° 49.0′ 36.16200000000504″
GPS Longitude Ref W
This is in a DMS (degrees, minutes, seconds) format. If I want to include the GPS location on Find a Grave, they require a DD (decimal degrees) format. At this site I can easily enter the GPS info from the photo’s EXIF data, and it will be converted to 43.1873235, -82.8277296. This format works for Find a Grave and is easier to read in the citation too.
And – your work is done!
Follow these five tips, and the grave marker will be in better condition than you found it. You’ll have a digital record with a more readable inscription, details to help you and others find the grave in the future, and a permanent record of who took the photograph and when.
Now—what’s the next cemetery on your genealogy to-do list?
Ann Raymont is a family historian living in Indiana and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. She would like to thank Diane Glosson for her assistance with this article.
Editor Note: It is important to remember to get permission from those who manage the cemetery before cleaning graves whenever possible. Ancestry has some good information on how to locate the party in charge, as well and tips for determining if a cemetery is private, here.
Also read: How to Locate Your Ancestor’s Gravesite
Image: “Indian mound, National Military Cemetery, Vicksburg, Miss.” c1906, Library of Congress