and I spent part of an early August afternoon visiting two rural
cemeteries. Our goal was to photograph several tombstones and search
for additional family members. As the cemeteries were within driving
distance of our home our trip was hastily planned, realistic for many
of us, but not something I recommend. This week's column looks at our
experience and provides some suggestions when planning a cemetery
Our last-minute excursion was to two cemeteries in Mercer County,
Illinois: the Norwood Cemetery the southeastern part of the county, and
Greenmound Cemetery on the edge of Keithsburg. Some of our pictures can
be viewed on my website (www.rootdig.com/tombstones/).
Out in the Boonies?
By most definitions, the cemeteries we visited were rural. Burial
grounds in such areas may present challenges to those unfamiliar with
living and driving in a non-urban area.
are not used to driving in the country are advised:
- Do not
drive on gravel roads at speeds of sixty miles an hour. Dry, loose
gravel can send you in the ditch faster than you can imagine. Gravel
roads are not interstates.
blacktop roads can switch to gravel without any warning. The locals
know where the road changes from pavement to gravel (right there after
the Frederickson place because he complained for twenty years until
they paved it). If you notice the color of the road changing ahead of
you, slow down before the color change. It may be a different type of
paved road surface or it could be a change to gravel.
driving on gravel, stay in the "path" unless you are going up a hill.
Many gravel roads have a path for one car and locals only pull over and
drive on the right hand side of the road when meeting another car or
going up a hill. There's always a chance that a local person comes
careening over the hill at a high speed, right down the middle of the
road, never dreaming someone else is also on the road. --- Determine if
it is necessary to drive on a dirt road to get to the cemetery. Driving
on dirt roads after a week of heavy rains is not recommended.
permission to visit cemeteries that are located on private property.
Morgan's Ancestry Daily News article from 8 July provided many
additional excellent suggestions for cemetery visits. His article was
the impetus for our trip, although it took us a while to actually make
our visit. Readers are encouraged to review that article and a few
other ones from earlier columns:
Morgan's Tips for Photographing Cemetery Markers."
There are good preparation
suggestions here. I personally would recommend old jeans (not shorts)
and comfortable non-dressy shoes.
- Tombstone Rubbings
- We Rub Stones--follow-up
to the Tombstone Rubbings article.
Post a Message Before Your Trip
Before traveling to any distant cemetery, consider posting a message to
the appropriate county or regional genealogy mailing list or lists.rootsweb.com. Your post
indicate that you are planning a trip to the specific cemetery and that
you are wondering if there is anything you should be aware of before
making your trip. This is also a place to ask if the cemetery is on
private property or requires permission to access.
post the message the morning before you leave; post at least a month in
advance. Road closures in rural areas rarely have detour markings,
after all the locals already know the "way around." Cemetery
locations may be incorrect on some maps. One online map showed the
cemetery we were trying to visit on the west side of the interstate
when in fact it was a mile east! Find these things out beforehand, not
after. If you have never been to the cemetery before, consider
contacting the local genealogical or historical society to see if they
know anything about the cemetery.
Can't Get to the Cemetery?
Consider posting a lookup request on the appropriate county message
board if you are unable to visit the cemetery yourself. There is no
guarantee a response will be received, but it may be worth a try. There
are several things to keep in mind when posting a request for someone
to take a photograph of a tombstone:
or not you know the person is buried in the cemetery. The
lookup volunteer may be willing to go a hunch, but let them know this
beforehand, not after. Refer to the article "Leave no Stone Unturned"
(link above) for suggestions on determining where your ancestor is
size of the cemetery and whether or not there are any maps to help the
person locate the grave. Rural cemeteries do not often have maps and
may be in very isolated places. A local person may have an easier time
getting access to a cemetery on private property than an "out of
towner." Remember that small town cemeteries may be fairly large and
easily require several hours to search if there is not a map or some
kind of index.
distance of the cemetery from the person's home. In remote areas, it
may be difficult to find someone who lives relatively close to the
cemetery. If the person is driving thirty miles, it's a good idea to at
least offer to pay for gas.
Help Someone Else Out
Posting an offer to photograph tombstones on a county GenWeb page (www.usgenweb.org), a mailing list,
or a message board may result in more lookups than time allows. Only
make such offers if you are certain you will be able to handle them.
Monitoring the lists for requests is another option. I subscribe to the
county mailing list for the county in which I live. If there is a
cemetery photo request and time allows I will usually offer to take
digital pictures of the stone if the cemetery is reasonably close to
where I live. Consider helping out a fellow genealogist if at all
possible. You may receive unexpected payback.
daughter gave me five of her own suggestions for visiting cemeteries
and obtaining tombstone inscriptions. Those ideas follow along with
some additional comments.
1) Do not drink too much water while searching for stones. There might
not be a restroom nearby.
are well-advised to bear in mind that the cemetery may be in a remote
area. Do not assume you can just go up the street to a fast food
restaurant or to a nearby gas station for a quick snack and a restroom
to use for cleaning up. It might be helpful to bring something with
which to wash
your hands in case you end up digging in the dirt like I did. Bringing
beverages and snacks may also be advised, just take your garbage with
2) Have a
good detailed map to help see where the cemetery is located.
cannot be overemphasized. I had been to the two cemeteries in question
before and had printed out their locations using the USGS maps (http://geonames.usgs.gov). However
a county highway map would have been helpful when I went from one
cemetery to the other. My U.S. Rand-McNally atlas does not show every
road, nor are the ones shown all listed with their names or county
Charcoal can also be used to make rubbings.
not need to make rubbings of any stones, but charcoal does work in some
cases when chalk or crayon does not. We preferred to take pictures
pictures of the stone's surroundings to help you remember where it is
loved taking close up pictures of the stones. While this is a great
tool, we realized that pictures taken from a distance can help us see
neighboring stones in their relative positions and other landmarks in
the cemetery. Pictures of the cemetery entrance are also a nice
addition to your collection of tombstone photographs.
who you are looking for before you get to the cemetery.
was frustrated that we kept finding "additional" people, not originally
on our list. We had a short list of people we actually wanted to find.
However in one cemetery we kept finding extended family (aided by a few
tombstones that listed maiden names). While serendipitous discoveries
are always welcomed, as complete a list as possible is the best way to
start and reduce the chance you leave a stone un-located.
Michael's Last Warnings
Watch where you step. There may be low places in the cemetery, due to
sunken in graves, animals, or heaven only knows what else. You want to
avoid breaking your ankle if you are in the cemetery all by yourself
(another good reason to have a cell phone). Also be on the lookout for
stones that are not on secure mountings. They could easily topple over.
The best scenario is that you would be startled. The worse case
scenario is much worse.
John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of
Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also
on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael
is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical
Societies (FGS). He conducts seminars
and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer
topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including
Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at email@example.com or
visit his website at: www.rootdig.com,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.
Contact Michael if
you'd like to use this article in your own publication.
Michael's Other Genealogy Articles