This summer, you may venture out from behind your computer and into the sun to travel to the places that your ancestors lived and where they were buried.
Cemeteries are great places to find information about your ancestors. Standing in front of the grave of those that have come before you can be a moving experience.
Here are 10 tips to consider before you go.
1. Be Respectful
This is the final resting place for many who have gone before, and there may be people there who are mourning the recent loss of loved ones. This is not the time to shout “Eureka!” no matter how good the find is.
2. Dress Appropriately and Bring Supplies
Don’t wear your Sunday best. Wear comfortable clothes that can get dirty. Open-toe shoes are probably not a good idea. A hat, sunscreen and some water might make your trip more comfortable. A pair of clipping shears can be used to cut away grass that is in the way of the information on the marker. Wrap some aluminum foil around a piece of cardboard to help illuminate a marker that is hidden in shadows when you take a picture.
3. Take Pictures and Videos
Take a lot of pictures. And then take more. Take up close photos from all sides and photos from the distance that show surrounding graves. Also, many cameras and phones can take videos. This allows you to show markers in relation to each other. Check out my blog post “A Few Steps Closer to a Death Date and a Burial Place” for an example. Also check out “How to Photograph a Tombstone” and “Tips for Taking Great Cemetery Pictures” for more ideas on how to take pictures at the cemetery.
4. Check the Back of the Marker
There can be names, inscriptions or other information on the back of a grave marker. Don’t miss what might be an important clue.
5. Sketch a Map of the Marker
Sketch out a map of the marker and what is around it. Make a note of anything you don’t want to trust to your memory. And don’t trust anything to memory!
6. Look for Surnames in Your Tree
Look around for surnames in your family tree. If you have the Ancestry.com app on your phone or tablet, you can easily look people up. If you see a name that sounds familiar, take a picture.
7. Check with the Office
If this your first time at this cemetery, call the cemetery office (or the church that runs the cemetery) and ask if there are rules you should be aware of and if there are records that you could see when you visit. Also, find out what the hours of the office are. (Also double-check the hours for the cemetery. You don’t want to plan an early morning visit only to discover they don’t open the gate until 9:30.) Do they have a copy machine? Will they allow you to take pictures of documents?
8. Look for Indications of Military Service
If your ancestor served in the military, there may be a marker from the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, which will indicate that service. Some tombstone will even note the exact unit and his/her religion. Make sure to get good photos or take good notes. Or better yet, both! Here are some tips for understanding military tombstones.
9. Look for Symbols on the Marker
Symbols such as an anchor or praying hands may have meaning. Check out “Gravestone Symbolism” and “Photo Gallery of Cemetery Symbols and Their Meanings” for more clues.
10. Look for Other Cemeteries
Your ancestors may not have all been buried in the same place. Check out online maps such as the USGS topographic maps (free to download!) that often have cemeteries marked. Also use the Cemetery Search on FindAGrave or the Search Cemeteries feature on the FindAGrave app. You may have driven by your ancestor’s final resting place and never have known it.
About Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at Ancestry.com. She is an active blogger on Ancestry.com and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.