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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  8/24/2005

Rural Cemetery Expeditions

My daughter 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 visit.

Where Did We Go?
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 (

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.

Those who 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.
  • County 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.
  • When 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.
  • Obtain permission to visit cemeteries that are located on private property.

George 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:

  • George 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 Your post should 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.

    Do not 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:

    • Whether 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 buried.
    • The 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.
    • The 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 (, 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.

    My daughter gave me five of her own suggestions for visiting cemeteries and obtaining tombstone inscriptions. Those ideas follow along with some additional comments.

    Katherine's Suggestions:
    1) Do not drink too much water while searching for stones. There might not be a restroom nearby.

    Genealogists 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 you.

    2) Have a good detailed map to help see where the cemetery is located.

    This cannot be overemphasized. I had been to the two cemeteries in question before and had printed out their locations using the USGS maps ( 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 highway numbers.

    3) Charcoal can also be used to make rubbings.

    We did 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 wherever possible.

    4) Take pictures of the stone's surroundings to help you remember where it is located.

    Katherine 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.

    5) Know who you are looking for before you get to the cemetery.

    Katherine 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.

    Michael 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 or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

    Copyright 2005,
    Contact Michael if you'd like to use this article in your own publication.

    Michael's Other Genealogy Articles