Genealogy: Tips for Searching Cemeteries and Photographing Headstones




Searching graveyards or cemeteries can be a mixed experience of disappointment and jubilation all in the same day.

First, see if you can find a map of graveyards you intend to visit and the background about each. I have had good luck with checking with local historical societies and asking them if there is a record of the local cemeteries. If there is not documentation available, I try to see if I can locate the sexton (caretaker of the graveyard) to see if there is a plot organizational chart that defines who is buried where.

Check to see if there is an old map and new map of the graveyard. Compare them to see what differences there are between them. In some countries there is what is known as an ordinance survey reference number which identifies the cemetery. Other countries have other reference systems. The key here is to realize there may be information about graveyards and cemeteries to help you find what you seek.

When I enter a graveyard, I go with a reference and anticipation. I am hoping the headstone is legible and easy to read. If the headstone is more than 100 years old, I am pleasantly surprised and grateful if the headstone is legible, and not damaged by vandalism or weathered by the years. Whatever I find, it is always fun.

Take a small pocket notebook with you and it will be useful to draw diagrams of graveyards and write down inscriptions.

If you have some flexibility in your trip as to the days you will be searching the cemetery, keep a close watch on the weather report. It is always better to view a graveyard on a sunny day versus overcast and rainy.

Are you planning on taking photographs of headstones or making headstone rubbings on your trip? If you are, and you've never taken a photograph of a tombstone or made a headstone rubbing, practice on some local stones before you leave. The time to learn isn't at a cemetery 2,000 miles from home on the last day of your trip.

Photographing at the cemetery/graveyard

Over the centuries, several different types of stones have been used to create gravestones. Some of the stones are quite porous and fragile, while others are resistant to damage. Be careful when attempting to improve the readability of the inscription. Types of stone:
Prior to the 19th century: sandstone or slate.
Nineteenth century: marble and gray granite.
Late 19th century to the present: polished granite or marble.
1. Take photos of the cemetery entrance, sign, book of records and church. Before you start taking photos of headstones, make sure you capture the details of the cemetery that include the name, street signs, proximity and church adjacent to the cemetery.
All of these details will help you and others that follow know where you have been.
2. North, south, east, west: best time of day for photographing headstones. Sunlight emphasizes imperfections in the stone and can make the carving look flat.
Headstones facing west are best photographed at midday.
Headstones facing north should be photographed in the late afternoon.
Headstones facing south are well-lit all day.
3. Large headstones require close-ups of inscriptions. Taking photos of large headstones alone sometimes makes the inscription too small to read.
Take a photo of the large headstone and then move in close to take a photo of the inscription.
4. Family grave plots require group and individual photos of each headstone. A family plot constitutes two or more graves.
Take a group photograph of the graves that shows number and proximity.
Take each headstone separately.
If you are photographing a cemetery, photograph all family plots the same, for example: group plot, headstones left to right, top to bottom.
5. Consider taking photos of all headstones in a small community cemetery.