Visitng Cemeteries Safely

"The following article if from Genealogy Records Service Monthly Newsletter and is copyright 1998 by GRS. It is re-published here with permission of the author."

contributed by Shirley Hornbeck
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Here are a few tips to make your visit to that old cemetery a pleasant experience. You will be lucky if the cemetery is in a well-kept, suburban area, and is well documented by a local church, funeral director, or county courthouse. Unfortunately this is usually not the case. Be sure to have a good county map and hopefully it will show locations of cemeteries.

Marriage, Birth, and Death certificates should be consulted first. These will 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 and possibly where they died. Church records and obituaries may be your best bet for finding burial sites for your ancestors. Sometimes funeral directors may also be able to provide you with burial information. Deeds and Grants should be checked. The GRANTEE index at the Local County Courthouse will be invaluable for determining places of residence as well as Probate records. You may also find a plat map of the cemetery at the County Courthouse or a local historical society. These plats are drawings of the cemetery, much like a floor lan of a house, that indicates not only who is buried in the cemetery, but the exact gravesite within the cemetery.

When searching for the cemetery that contains the remains of your 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. 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.

Before you go trekking into the woods, you need to be properly prepared for the excursion. Build yourself a "Cemetery Kit" and consider first protecting yourself. You need to wear clothing appropriate for the terrain and weather that you will be facing. 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 wide-brim hat can be a lifesaver on a hot sunny day. Be sure you have good walking shoes or boots and thick socks. Don't wear thongs, sandals or canvas. Make sure you have plenty 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. Use plenty of insect repellant on your shoes, socks, and pants legs and consider treating your skin with repellant. Be sure to bring a small First Aid Kit and possibly a Snake Bite Kit. First Aid Kits for campers will be light and compact and probably available at most department stores or sporting goods stores. Don't forget the sunscreen blocker cream or lotion. Beware of poison ivy or poison oak. The other caution is yellow jackets and bees. They are attracted to the sugar in open cans of soda and half eaten fruit. It is especially painful to take a swallow of soda pop and find that a yellow jacket was drinking in can and is now in your mouth.

A few tools will also come in handy. In areas that are particularly wild or overgrown, a machete 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. The two tools will be needed to clear grass and dirt away from headstones and footstones that may have sunk. And lastly you should take a small pry bar. You will find that some headstones may have fallen over and if lying face down will have to be turned. A pry bar will help you do this. Include a pair of heavy canvas gardening gloves in your kit. Another good idea for the tool kit is a four-foot rod of reinforcing bar (rebar) used for probing for sunken headstones.

Assuming that no plat map was available to lead you to the exact site, you will have to walk up and down the row of graves, examining each stone. At cemeteries where woods closely bound the cemetery, be sure to go a bit into the trees in each direction to be sure that you have found all of the gravesites. Look for fences, stone walls, or corner stones that may mark the boundaries of the cemetery. You may want to bring some graph paper along to diagram the layout of the area where your ancestors are buried. This will help to remember where the graves were. Be sure to write down any fixed objects that will help locate the grave and the drives and also include compass directions (N, S, E, W).

A great way to save your memories of that visit is with a video camera. Take extra batteries and extra videotapes with you. Video taping creates a record of the condition of the tombstones at the time you visited. Some tombstones may not be readable in five or ten years but the videotape will always be there. Why not do a test taping at a local cemetery to develop a technique before you embark on your trip to that distant cemetery. If you don't have a video camera, take along your tape recorder and a couple of cameras instead. A tip for photographers is to bring a roll of aluminum foil with you and set it up to reflect the sunlight onto or away from a poorly lit stone - or better yet - use a large mirror. Take along lots of film and have one of the cameras loaded with black and white film. Take pictures with both cameras in case one doesn't come out. Hopefully one of them will have a long cable release or take along a friend to help you. A tripod would be most helpful. Once you set up your camera and focus as best you can, use the mirror to reflect light onto the stone and take your pictures from different angles with the mirror placed in different locations.

You should definitely make a written record of what is inscribed on the headstone and the footstone if there is one as 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 first. You can try a block of Styrofoam to clean off some of the lichen and soil. If will not damage the stone and it leaves a certain amount in the grooves making the stone easier to read. You should not scrub away all of the lichen as lichen will actually help to protect the stone. 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. Select a brush that is soft enough to not damage the stone but strong enough to remove clods of dirt. Or use your garden tools to remove grass and dirt from the base of the stone until all of the inscription is revealed. Don't dig farther than necessary as you don't want to cause the stone to topple over. You may need to use some water with a solution of GENTLE soap to get dirt out of the inscriptions. Inverted carvings can be made to stand out better by filling them with shaving cream - although there is some controversy about this method and some say it may cause damage to the stone. If you use it, remove excess cream before you leave.

Another method - place a soaking wet lightweight piece of white cloth flat on the stone - "ironing" it with the fingers. The words will show up, especially if incised. It is also safe to use chalk or mud. Rubbings are perhaps the most popular way to record headstones. There are many techniques for making rubbings and many materials that can be used. Make some trips to a local cemetery and practice making rubbings using different materials and techniques until you are happy with your results before you make a potentially expensive trip to a remote cemetery. Take something to sit on, especially if there are chiggers around, or use a small stool if your knees are stiff.

Many types of paper can be used to take the rubbing on, including newsprint, tracing paper, architects paper, shelf paper, or pellon. You can purchase pellon at just about any fabric or craft shop and other papers will be available at most art supply stores. You are going to need some medium to transfer the rubbing. There are many things you can use; crayon, graphite, charcoal and boot wax 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 boot wax at most shoe repair shops and sticks of charcoal and graphite are available at art supply stores. Graphite sticks are often available in several colors and other drawing sticks are also available. You will need some tape to hold the paper in place on the stone while you make the rubbing. Freezer or masking tape doesn'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 and 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 lose the detail. Be sure that you are happy with your results before you remove the paper and 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 all tape and residue from the stone.

You should now "fix" the rubbing. If you are using charcoal, or graphite the image can be easily fixed with either hair spray or a commercial fixative available at the art supply store. Other mediums may need the commercial fixative or some other special treatment. When spraying the fixative do not spray it on the stone. 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 store my rubbings in tubes such as from wrapping paper. They are particularly good for this but you can buy mailing tubes commercially if you like. Cemetery rubbings are fun to do. They can be mounted or framed and make an interesting conversation piece. The rubbings can be stapled to a couple of dowels or matted and framed. They are particularly interesting if you use more than one color in your rubbing. The Oldstone Enterprises, 77 Summer Street, Boston, Mass. 01110 sells a kit with directions for making rubbings of gravestones. Their materials may also be purchased from the Hearthstone Bookshop, 8405-H Richmond Highway, Alexandria, Va. 22309.

The paper you want to use is sometimes referred to as "synthetic rice paper" or "print makers paper". Anything that does not tear easily will probably do. You may also use the non-woven interfacing or pattern materials that are sold at dress fabric stores, such as PELLON (non-fusible variety). Oldstone sells a crayon that is about the size and shape of a bar of hand soap. Carpenter's crayon or Lumberman's crayon may also be used, or a crayon from the thick box of crayolas would do. If you find the right kind of paper, no spray or protective materials need be used. A "leave-behind" might be several miniature pedigree charts in a small glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. I use a copy machine that reduces a 4-generation pedigree chart to index card size. Be sure your name and address are on each one either with a stamp or a sticker or type it on the back. Put a few of these in a jar and leave it by the headstone.

Be sure to clean up the site before you leave. Once you get back to your car rinse off your arms and legs using either water or a gentle antiseptic. If you have ever had chigger bites you will understand why this is advisable. Once back to the hotel or your home, be sure to wash thoroughly and apply astringent all over. Be careful of tics that you may pick up in the woods.


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