Planning Your Cemetery Visit

I took a road trip to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago to visit some newly discovered family at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Visiting cemeteries is valuable time spent for the genealogist. Here are some suggestions to prepare for your next trip.

  • Before you travel, check the cemetery’s website for visiting hours and other restrictions.
  • Call the office and ask about their rules for photographs. Genealogists should respect their restrictions about posting information and photos online.
  • If you’re visiting multiple markers, ask the office for specific location information, including the section, lot, and plot information. Consider asking the office to see the account information.
  • Get a cemetery map and mark grave locations for future reference.
  • If you’re visiting a small family cemetery or rural one where there is no office, be very specific about the markers’ locations and its condition. Transcribe the marker carefully. In particular, get permission from the landowner to visit as you may be trespassing. [These markers are harder for most people to visit, are often swallowed up by brush, and landowners may be hesitant to allow others to visit in the future. If you get the chance to visit, be generous with your information, please.]
  • If there is a family plot, diagram it on paper. Include all markers, as well as landmarks like trees or shrubs or other larger markers to make it easier to find later.
  • Record on paper what’s written on the marker. Sometimes elaborate fonts/scripts can only be clearly read in person. Sometimes touch is the only way to read it accurately. For example, in photos, my 2x great grandfather’s middle initial appears to be “C.” In person, it’s clearly a “G.” Remember that polished stone reflects light and glare, which effect photo clarity. Your camera will never see the detailed relief that your eye can.
  • Photograph: all sides of the marker, the marker’s writing close-up, the marker in relation to other markers/trees/shrubs, the cemetery map and the cemetery signage. Record which digital photo # ID matches your notes.
  • Take some gardening equipment:

Kneeler-pad to protect your knees and pants.

Sturdy, water resistant shoes (You don’t want to have to dig your fancy kicks out of a mudhole!)

Sunhat and sunglasses (wear your SPF!)

Flowers or other special honorifics (check with the cemetery beforehand.)

Garden trowel to clear away grass/weeds that have encroached the markers.

Sturdy, thin pole to poke through grass to locate smaller markers that have been covered. Sometimes the marker is there, but hidden. You may have to work a little to see it.

Heavy hand shears for cutting away grass and debris around the edges of markers.

Gardening gloves.

Wet wipes for hands.

  • Take some office equipment:

Clipboard with paper, pens and pencils. Please, don’t lean on the markers to bare down to write.

Digital voice recorder for notes.

Digital camera.

Smart phone to record GPS locations of the cemetery and markers.

I’ve learned that it’s a good idea to scout out a local coffee shop or restaurant with Wi-fi for customers. After my visit, I head there to grab a refreshing beverage. I check my photos against a check list and for clarity. I make sure that I’ve recorded all of the information I came for. It’s frustrating to take the time, make the trip and forget something.

When you return home, download photos to your computer, rename the files according to your naming convention, transfer them to the appropriate folders, print out copies, and upload images to websites like FindAGrave or Billiongraves. On those sites, consider how others may contact you for permission to reuse your images and record that information in your user profile.

If you print copies of the photos or post them online: record (on the front of the image, preferably) the transcription, the photographer’s name, date of photo, cemetery name, location of the cemetery (There are two Mount Olivet Cemeteries in the DC/Baltimore area!) and the marker (using street directions or latitude and longitude, as needed.) Also, consider recording the condition of the stone (which might affect legibility) and the type of material used.

Type up your visit notes and include the appropriate citations.

I’ve yet to visit a cemetery and not come back with more that I expected. It’s always a worthwhile trip.

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