Summer is the season of travel and while we are wandering the world many of us are also planning a visit to a cemetery or two.
If you’re going to try and find a burial site, no matter its age or location, you’ll want to take a few very important things into consideration before you head out.
5 Things You Need to Know Before Looking for Your Ancestors in a Cemetery
1. Cemeteries are Not Always Easy to Find, or Access
The first step to visiting an ancestor’s grave site is discovering which cemetery they are buried in. This is not always easy and once we have secured a burial location from a death certificate, obituary or other record we often feel like we have overcome the most difficult hurdle. But the truth is, finding the name of a cemetery is just the very first step in a long process.
Once you have the name of your ancestor’s cemetery (or other burial site) you’ll need to take the time to look up its exact address and directions for finding the location and accessing the graves. Many cemeteries are tucked away, exist in remote locations, are on roads that are difficult to travel on, have hard to locate entrances, are only open during certain hours or are on private property.
You can generally gain an address and directions to a cemetery on FindaGrave or by typing the name and town/county into Google. Record the address and directions and then look them up on Google Maps to get a better idea of what you are dealing with.
We suggest you take this search a step further and call the cemetery (if a number is available) or a local historical or genealogical society, associated church or funeral home for more specific directions and pointers. People in the know are often more than happy to help.
Don’t assume that a cemetery listed as being on private property is not accessible to the public – it may very well be accessible. Just make sure to get permission.
Know exactly where you are going before you start your journey. If you will be traveling a long distance, or to into unknown area, also make sure to let someone know where you are going. Many remote cemeteries may not have cell phone service and you don’t want to get stuck.
2. You Need to Be Careful and Prepared
In addition to the difficulties that you may encounter locating a cemetery you will deal with more challenges once you get there. You will want to make sure you have everything you need to have a successful, comfortable and safe trip.
Many cemeteries are quite large and vary in how well they are kept. Expect lots of walking and uneven, rocky, sandy, wet or spongy ground. If it is a sunny day, shade may be hard to come by and sudden rain can leave you caught many minutes from your car.
Dress for the weather and, if possible, wear pants that cover your legs and comfortable shoes that don’t leave the toes exposed. Wear sunscreen and bug repellent when needed, and always carry water. Do also remember that poison oak and ivy, as well as thorny plants, may be found in cemeteries, so be cautious of these as well.
Don’t visit a cemetery alone. Bring someone with you to help you search and in case of a flat tire, twisted ankle or other unexpected happening.
We suggest you bring these items with you.
- Plenty of water and a small spray bottle
- Insect repellent
- An umbrella
- A snack
- A first aid kit
- A notebook and pencil
- Your phone or a camera for photos
- Gloves to cover your hands for removing leaves, grass and twigs from markers
- A flashlight for dark areas and shadows
- A hand towel to kneel on and clean your hands
3. Gravestones are Even Harder to Find Than Cemeteries
Finding a cemetery can certainly be a challenge, but locating your ancestor’s marker will often prove to be the biggest hurdle of all to overcome. Many cemeteries have hundreds or even thousands of graves and others are so old and overgrown that you may be the first person to visit them in some time.
The first thing to do when attempting to find an actual burial marker is to know the location in the graveyard where it can be found. Preferably, you should do this before you come. We suggest starting with FindaGrave and Billion Graves to see if your ancestor has an entry and, if so, if a location in the cemetery is noted. If so, the next step is to secure a map for the cemetery and use it to pinpoint the approximate location of the marker before you ever set out.
Current, well-managed cemeteries will provide maps to visitors or have someone on hand who can show you where a grave may be located if you know the section/lot/or marker number. Other cemeteries may be able to help you look in their records to find this information, but you will need to do this legwork before you arrive.
Some entries on FindaGrave and Billion Graves have GPS coordinates as well. These are the most helpful as they provide the exact location of the grave. Download a free app or use Google Maps to locate a grave with this information.
If you are unable to secure any helpful information about where your ancestor is buried try looking for clues once you are there to help in your search – such as by locating other burials from the same time period. Many cemeteries have clearly designated older sections. You might also discover people grouped by ethnicity or religion.
Many people are buried in family plots so be sure to look for family surnames and examine markers around them closely (don’t always expect to find the surname repeated on individual markers).
If you don’t have an exact location for your ancestor expect to look at many, many grave stones before you find the one you are looking for. When you do find it, be sure to pay attention to those in the same area as there is a good chance that you are looking at relatives.
Snap photos of everything that looks interesting and sort them out later. Take notes when needed to help you keep details straight and to help you find the location of the graves again in the future.
If possible, use a GPS coordinate app to record the EXACT location. This is built into many cameras and camera apps or you can download a separate app for this purpose. FindaGrave and Billion Graves both offer free apps for this purpose.
4. You May Never Find the Grave You’re Looking For
The sad truth about trying to find your ancestors’ graves is that many have been lost to time. Grave sites, especially old ones and those that only ever had ground markers or markers made of wood etc “disappear” very easily if they are not maintained.
A quick walk in any older cemetery will show you how many markers are falling apart or are almost completely covered by grass and debris. Imagine how many others have disappeared altogether. Notice as you explore the site how many seemingly “open” grassy spaces there are between graves. Often these areas contain covered markers or unmarked persons.
Other individuals may be buried in areas of the cemetery that are no longer maintained and are inaccessible or may never have had a marker at all.
Your ancestor might be buried in the cemetery you have located, but there is a very good chance that you will not be able to locate their marker. This is very, very common and comes as an unexpected shock to many new to these searches.
The following two images are from one trip to the same cemetery showing that some burial sites are completely inaccessible (now in a wooded area with no markers) and others that were moved from an old cemetery because of development and were never given markers at the new site (sadly, this is an all too common reality for many Native Americans).
5. Don’t Try to Clean or Repair a Gravestone or Marker
If you do find a marker for your ancestor you might find that it is difficult (or impossible) to read due to chipping, wear, debris, lichen or moss, coverage by bushes, trees or grass etc. It is very tempting to want to remove debris and start cleaning so that you can record the information on the marker, take a picture and show respect for the person buried there.
However, it is very easy to do more harm than good (to yourself and the gravesite). There are many schools of thought on how old graves should be handled but, unless you are an expert with permission from the cemetery, you should play it safe and leave the marker mostly alone.
Generally, it is OK to:
- Gently remove LOOSE plant matter from the marker if it is not intertwined with the stone in some way. This means brushing away leaves or twigs, removing small amounts of grass that have grown around or over a marker, or carefully pulling back the branches of a tree or bush.
- Pour a reasonable amount of water over the marker (if outdoors) to remove mud or debris.
Generally, it is NOT OK to:
- Wipe or scrub the marker in any way or use a brush or tools to remove debris.
- Remove lichen or plants that are clinging to or intertwined with the marker.
- Remove a large amount of plant matter from (or around) a gravestone or other marker.
- Poke or dig up the ground to attempt to find a marker.
Are grave rubbings OK?
Grave rubbings can damage markers so please avoid this practice. Most people use their cameras to record a grave and this is the preferred method for reading faded stones as well. Take a close photo of a faded stone and use an image editing program on your phone to zoom in, invert the image, change brightness and tones to see if you can reveal the writing.
You can also try spraying a bit of water directly on the stone around the writing to create contrast or use a flashlight to remove shadow to help with your image.
We hope these tips help you find your ancestors’ grave sites and be safer doing it. While you’re taking the time to locate a grave, consider uploading your photos and information to a place like FindaGrave to help others. As mentioned above, their free app makes it easy.
By Melanie Mayo, Family History Daily Editor
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