At some point you are going to want to visit a cemetery where your ancestors rest. Your ancestor's tombstone is the only physical evidence of the life they lived.
Before you head out, find out whether the cemetery is still open for burials or whether it is no longer an active cemetery. If the cemetery is no longer an active cemetery, your work will be a bit more difficult and you will definitely have to do some scouting online to see if you can locate the exact plot your ancestors are buried in. You can check online databases like Find A Grave or Billion Graves. You can also contact any local family history or genealogy societies to see if they have transcribed the cemetery and are able to provide you with a map of the cemetery.
If the cemetery is open for burials, it is likely to have an office onsite. Check ahead to see when the office is open and plan to visit the cemetery during office hours so that you can speak to the office staff. Ask to see the cemetery records for the plot. The information contained in these records varies from country to country, but generally will tell you the plot size, the name and address of the person who paid for the plot, how much they paid, the name of the person interred and their relationship to the person who purchased the plot, and any others who might also be buried alongside your ancestor. This is important, because there may be cremains along with the casket of your ancestor and the cremated person may not be mentioned on any headstone that adorns the plot. Sometimes this is the only way to know where that cremated person's ashes are buried.
Once you know where you are going, pack your cemetery visiting bag. At the cemetery you will need:
- a camera and batteries
- pencils and paper
- garden clippers
- water and soft cloth
- a hand held mirror
- another person
Perhaps the most important of these items, of course, is the camera. You will want to take lots of pictures. You may never get the chance to return, so make sure you document everything on the first visit:
- Name of Cemetery sign
- Headstone - front and back
- Close up of anything you wish to do more research about
- Neighbouring stones with family names
- Wider shot to get the proximity of family graves to one another
- Church and name sign of church
- Proximity to church
Take a walk along the row your ancestor is buried in. Walk the row above and below as well. Nearby gravestones can lead you to other family members. Little grave markers can tell the story of children who died in infancy for whom no other records exist. If you discover these, make a note with your pencil and paper and return to the office to find out more about the people buried in these graves as well.
Write down names, dates and inscriptions exactly as they appear on the stone. It is very easy to make assumptions in the excitement of the moment, and it will be very beneficial to have an accurate record once you return home. Photos will assist with this. Be sure not to miss the back of the stones as they can also contain important information. For example, my husband's great great grandmother's headstone contains a memorial for her son who was killed in WWI and whose remains are buried in France.
Be sure to take note of any symbols that you are unfamiliar with so that you can look them up later. These symbols or emblems may be valuable clues to membership in an organization, such as the Masons or Eastern Star, which might also have records about your ancestor.
Use your hand-held garden clippers to clear brush, weeds or overgrowth away from the stone. Do not dig into the carving to try to remove moss, dirt or debris.
If the wording is hard to read, pour some water over the stone. This works like a negative on a film strip and may enhance the words so that you can see them more clearly. Take photos of the damp stone so you don't have to guess later what it said and be sure to take the time to write down the words that the water has enhanced. If there is dirt or debris in the carving, use the soft cloth to gently wipe this away once the stone is wet. Put your cemetery buddy to work by having them help to set this up for you.
If the weather is sunny, you can use your hand held mirror to help deflect the sunlight onto the stone. This can also enhance the words and engravings. Try this with both the dry stone and again with the wet stone. Take photos of the newly enhanced information and take time to write down what you have uncovered under the reflection of the sun. Don't forget to get the assistance of your cemetery buddy for this one as well.
Be respectful. Remember that cemeteries are sacred ground. Here is some basic cemetery etiquette:
- Do no harm.
- Do not rut a muddy lawn with your car tires.
- Do not lean or climb on the monuments.
- Do not try to right a fallen stone back into place. Notify the local authority instead.
- Do not do anything to "clean" the stone. No shaving cream, no talcum powder, no flour, no sand, no soap. If the inscription has worn away, use your pencil and paper and do a stone rubbing to see if you can uncover the wording. No wax. No paint. Just a pencil. Be gentle and use steady movements across the stone. Take the rubbing back home with you and file it away with your records. Do not leave it at the grave for others who might visit.
Above all else, take time to honour your ancestor. Thank them for the life they lived and for their courage and tenacity in making it through the times in which they lived. Let them know you will keep working to uncover more of their story, or tell them how moved you were to learn what you did while researching in the local records. Leave flowers if you wish but don't plant anything. Have your cemetery buddy take photos of you at the grave of your ancestors. When you leave the cemetery, remember to journal about your visit and the emotions that crept in while you were there.