Tips from the Pros: Take a Friend to the Cemetery, from George G. Morgan

Although quiet and peaceful in appearance, cemeteries can be dangerous places. Snakes, spiders, open graves, toppling tombstones, and unseen holes–all it is a good idea to take a friend with you when you visit a cemetery. He or she can provide company, help you search for graves, and act as a deterrent to anyone who might wish you harm. In the event of an accident or emergency, your friend can be the difference between life or death by providing first aid or going for help. It is also a good idea to let someone else know where the two of you have gone to conduct your research and to carry your cell phone with you. Safety first.

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39 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Take a Friend to the Cemetery, from George G. Morgan

  1. I would suggest you take a wire brush to scratch off the moss on the north side of the stone. You could take chalk or an extra soft lead on a pencil, along with paper to etch off the design on the stone. Sometimes two hands are better then one. My husband and I did this Memorial Day when we found some young relatives of our family who died years ago. We had photos, but no information as to their name or date they were born. We know it’s the right family because they later moved to a town by Red Cloud. NE.

  2. I owe Alan Chaffee, the town historian of Newfield, NY a HUGE debt of gratitude for taking me out to the Sebring Settlement Cemetery there.

    He actually transcribed this cemetery when he was in his teens (I won’t tell you how old he is now, but let’s just say a few decades have passed since then). The man is a walking file cabinet of data! I’m related to practically everyone in the cemetery, and he knew where everyone was buried– even those tombstones that were faded and hard to read he pointed out to me. There was a huge steep hill, and brambles and vines of all types! Without his help, I would have been lost, and not known where half the folks were, especially since some of the graves are half buried now. What a thrill to see the graves of my GGG grandparents!

    In addition to that, Alan has also filled me in on daughters’ married names and other family relationships that have proved to be dead-on accurate. Of all the cemeteries I’ve visited, this one remains a special favorite. I felt incredibly close to history there.

  3. Excellent information for someone going to a cemetery. My grandfather died when I was 16 years old. During the grieving process, I would visit the cemetery (alone), pick flowers or just sit and think about him. One day, a van drove into the parking lot and parked. The driver got out, exposed himself and started chasing me. I managed to get away. I never went there alone again. The police never discoved the identity of the offender.

  4. A wire brush? Good lord no! Unless you are a professional gravestone conservationist who knows the proper way to clean and protect all the different kinds of stone used you should never scrape or rub any gravestone. Nor use any kinds of solvents on them. Some are so old and fragile doing so could further damage them.

    If there is difficulty reading an inscription bring along a mirror or similar reflective object and play with reflecting light off the stone in different ways to bring out the optimal contrast on a worn inscription and then photograph it.

  5. Don’t forget watching for poison ivy. My husband and I visited a cemetery in Caythorpe, Lincolnshire, England a day before joining a tour group for a 28 day trip through Europe. I don’t remember much about Belgium and the Netherlands but finally got relief in Germany when I gave up and told the tour director who took me to a pharmacy. The pharmacist called a doctor and got a prescription. As I spoke no German I had to assume it was okay as by that time I was so miserable I didn’t care. All because of that funny vine hanging on my husband’s ancestor’s tombstone.

  6. Before my mother passed away, we were able to take a distant cousin with us and go cemetery hunting. How fortunate we were to stumble upon a cemetery located at the back of this farm in central Illinois. The farmer was kind enough to let us in his gate so we could drive back to walk around the gravestones. I got some great pictures and my mother was glad to see the markers and learn more about her people. We used shaving cream to put on the gravestones to make the names and dates pop out better for photographing.

  7. Recently went to a Library in Ohio. Found a plat of a cemetery showing where my ancestors were interred.
    Copied a sectin of the plat (from 1900) and trekked on to the cemetery.
    A headstone marked a starting point, with a plot in the next row and one south. The area was unmarked, but something did not seem right.
    A cemetery worker spied us and came over to help, but to no avail. went to the office, and checked the drawing they had with the copy we had, they were the same.
    Back to the library, marked the plots with the Alpha name and lot, next day back out to the cemetery.
    On checking, it seems, a different “family” was buried “close” to where we figured my ancestors were, but several other tombstones did not match up either.
    “What a revoltin’ development this is.”

  8. Hi, My father died June 29th of 2007 and he had never really said where his parents were buried. His mother died when he was very young and his father died when dad was only 22 years old. I got in touch with the city they were buried in and I found my grand fathers grave marked with a stone. So I called the City back and they found that when grandmother died grandfather had bought two plots. He just had never put a marker down. Dad just did not have the money. I got my grandmothers death cert. and called the mortuary and they met me at the cemetery and told me what side of grand father she is buried and not I can put a marker there for her and for my dad. That is the least I can do for my dad and future generations. I do hope I can have the family tree up to date before I am gone for other family members. It is a great idea to always tell someone where you are while in a cemetery and I always have my cell phone and a small pocket sized box cutter in my pocket. Can’t be to careful. I hope everyone is finding all the information they need for their trees. Darlene

  9. I volunteer at the California Genealogy Society and Library two days a week. I find the people are friendly and very knowledgeable and willing to help. This last week I got my chance to help someone. A gentleman from Pennsylvania called the Society and asked if there was someone willing to go to the San Francisco National Cemetery, located in the Presidio to take a few photographs. I said I would do it and what an experience. It was the first time to visit a cemetery to photograph and do rubbings for someone. I had email and telephone conversations with Doug on Thursday evening, Friday, while at the gravesite, Saturday email and Sunday telephone call. We have struck up a friendship that only comes when you extend yourself to help others. “Pay forward”, helping today, hoping to receive help another day.

  10. In life, my maternal grandparents and paternal grandparents where from “different sides of the tracks” and did not particulary care much for each other. One was viewed as too stuck up and the other viewed as common place. Fast forward almost 30+ years, and they are now in the same “neighborhood”, only a few plots away from each other in a very large cemetary. While I found my grandmothers funeral very sad, I did get a small chuckle to find they were now so close together. Just shows we should be kinder to each other, we never know how close we may end up to somebody!

  11. I visited my husband’s great-grandparents’ cemetery alone. It was during a family reunion, and while there were a lot of people around, no one was interested in driving 220 miles round-trip with me. The cemetery was in a rural area full of pine trees and the only other “development” was a ramshackle trailer park across the street. I pulled into the cemetery and could see that while it was tecnically not maintained someone had mowed the grass in the last few weeks. Because the cememtery was small and I’d never be out of eyesite of my car and the main road, I decided to go for it, even though I was apprehensive. As soon as I got out of my car, a dove in a pine tree began to coo – and it cooed continuously for the entire time I was there. I spent enough time there to (safely) clean family stones and photograph and transcribe them, and as long as I could hear the dove, I felt safe. There were wildflowers starting to bloom. While I can tell you that when I go back to this cemetery I won’t push my lucn and I will take at least one person with me, my day at the was one of the most beautiful days I’ve spent.

  12. I had an opportunity to visit New Orleans, LA abt 1996. I went on a cemetery tour (with a tour guide). Very interesting as well as potentially dangerous. The guide informed the group that it was in fact dangerous to go alone, as a family visiting New Orleans toured the old cemetery and one was actually killed by thugs who wanted to rob the tourists. So your article is right on point to be careful.

  13. While looking for my wife’s great grandfather in Trelwawnydd Churchyard (Flintshire, North Wales) I was standing to the side of the gravestone and kicked away some grass and weeds off a horizontal stone lying next to the standing stone and realised it was another grave stone. On clearing the soil and weeds I found it was her great, great grandfather with list of wife and children which we had not found any paper work for. The dates on the stone helped in a search at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth to track down further family links in the 1780′s. Moral find a family stone and look at older ones close by.
    Be aware in Wales you will require to be able to read some Welsh as English was not commonly used on gravestones until at least the 1920′s.

  14. Take someone with you-don’t go alone. I went into Lindenwood Cemetary (Fort Wayne, IN) late in the afternoon one day to check out tombstones of my ancestors. I was driving by, had my notebook and camera with me, it was a whim. No one knew I was going. I had to go to the very back of the cemetary, no one would go there unless they were specifically looking for someone of that time period.

    I walked into the section about 6 rows of tombstones, (the tall big spooky ones) and the ground gave out under me. My right leg sank into the ground to my knee. I didn’t know what to do I was afraid to move that I would fall in farther but afraid not to move too.

    I called for help but no one was around, I worked my way up out of the hole and nearly ran for my car. I have not been back there since and I guarantee I will never go alone again.

    This was just like an old spooky movie.

  15. Last summer my husband and I were on our way to a family reunion in Des Moines, Iowa (at the Saylorville Dam area, which is now flooded). On I80 west, I spotted the sign for Mitchellville, a small town where some of my father’s family had lived, and I had visited when I was young. We had time, and I asked Tom to stop there to see if we could find their graves in the cemetery. Long story, but gee, people in small towns are generally so nice. Was directed from the town library to City Hall, where the plat to the town cemetery was kept. The lady there was so helpful. She got out the plat, made of cloth, rolled on a wooden roller about five feet long. Rolled it out on a large table, and let us look at it. I took my digital camera and took a couple pictures of the plat, noting where several family graves were located, including my dad’s grandparents. After profuse thanks, we went to the huge cemetery, on that beautiful day, and I thought the graves would be easy to locate from what I remembered. I found the grandparents’ graves easily, and then looked for the others, remembering how they were “3 over and 5 up” from the first. They weren’t there, and we looked and looked! So I got my camera out, turned on (had to find a shady spot to view it) and looked at the pictures I took of the plat. I was able to magnify until the tiny writing on the plat was just as visible as it was in the office, and read it. I finally figured out the reason I couldn’t find them was because I was wrong in my north-south orientation, and it was actually east-west instead. Once I realized that, we found the other graves, but I know we wouldn’t have, had I not had the camera pictures. Took pictures to include in the genealogy program scrapbook, of course. Digital cameras are amazing!

  16. Ugly story. My Mother and a friend went to visit the friend’s husband grave one Saturday afternoon. Walking up and down the lanes, while searching for the grave a young nicely dressed man walked up to my Mother, put a 38 to her head and said give me all your money. Like most seniors she only had $5 in cash, she offered to write him a check and he took her wedding ring instead…50 years old and worth over $5,000.Mom died never replacing the ring.

    Even a friend didn’t help because they separated.

  17. My husband and I left for Maine in search of his mother’s birth mother. His mother died at the age of 96, not knowing the truth of her adoption.

    We stopped at a cemetery just inside this little town. It was raining, and just outside were two women, mother and daughter, planting flowers at the entrance. The older woman came in and asked can I help you? My husband said, I am looking for Aikers. The woman touched her chest with her hand and said, ” I am an Aikers”. My husband just met his cousin.

    Not only did he find his birth grandmother, but his great grandparents gravesite as well. My husband being an only child,learned he has a big family out there.

  18. One soggy spring day in the early 1960′s, my parents visited my maternal grandparents’ graves in Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY. The ground gave way under my mother and she sunk into grandma’s grave up to her thigh. My father had to pull her out. They never returned to the gravesite after that experience.
    Lesson: don’t visit a cemetery after a soaking spring rain, and if you must, bring someone with you!

  19. Several years ago my dear husband and I only had a few hours to find a church and it’s cemetery in Catawba County, NC. My mother said to go down this road, her sister said, “no, go this way. Neither had been to the church in years. We drove off with a faint idea of where to go and what the church looked like. I had seen it once as a very small child. This was before the days of online maps and GPS. We start down one road and run into a factory gate! We go down another only to find it closed due to road work. Finally, we take a little off shoot road and there was the church! It looked just as I remember, red brick, tall spire, very Lutheran. What made it so hard to find was the main road had been rerouted away from the church leaving it by itself and difficult to get to.
    We started looking at the markers and of course the weather turned colder and us with no jackets. An older lady and a little girl were put flowers on several graves. She and I started talking. She was a life long member of the church, knew all about it and was a wonderful help. One of the markers had toppled over so my husband righted it for her. She took down my address and promised to send a history of the churh. Well, a few weeks after returning home a package arrived with a copy of the church history typed out on legal sized paper. In this history I found that my relatives had helped build the church and gave the land to build it on! With this information and photos of the grave sites I was able to prove my DAR lineage. What a wonderful chance meeting! I believe she was a living angel!

  20. Thanks for the wise advise. I have naively wandered alone through many old cemeteries without a thought to the dangers. Fortunately the worst I have come across is swarms of bees which seem to like to inhabit the places and do not like my intrusion. But after reading your article and some of the comments I certainly will be more careful.

  21. thanks for all the stories and advice.I went looking for my Great grandparents grave in Halifax West Yorkshire, i had got the info from the library and noted down sone names in the adjoining area, (it was a Methodist church graveyard)Alas when i got there the graveyard was completely overgrown in the area i was interested and there seemed to be signs of people sleeping rough there were even needles scatered around i searched as best i could but had to leave without any finds. i will go back next winter when the undergrowth has died back with someone to help and look out for me.

  22. And be aware of your surroundings. I am a fan of Edgar Allen Poe. A number of years ago, my husband and I found the lovely, old cemetery in Maryland where Poe is buried. I walked ahead and was searching for Poe’s stone, when I noticed a young man, briskly walking outside the stone wall surrounding the cemetery. I found Poe’s stone and suddenly heard a click and loud “STOP” from my husband (who is retired law enforcement). The young man had stalked me and was ready to hit me with a hammer. He quickly exited “the kill zone”. He apparently had not noticed my husband. My husband saved my life and is my hero. Be careful out there!

  23. All my visits to a great many cemeteries have been pleasant ones. However, your advice is very appropriate. I never go alone and never at very early morning or late evening, even when accompaanied.

    I do take with me my digital camera, a mirror for directing sunlight onto a stone in shadow, grass clippers, work gloves, a spray bottle of water – NEVER use chemicals on stones – it can damage them. The water sometimes will bring out the engraving on the stone to make it readable. A soft-bristle brush is also handy. I do not use wire or stiff bristles for the same reason that I do not use chemicals. Bug spray is also a must! Drinking water and snacks come in handy as well.

  24. My husband and I have visited many cemeteries over the past 10 years. Lately because of health problems I often wait in the car for him. When you are out in some areas cell phones don’t alway have a signal so he bought Walkie Talkies and we use them. He can tell me what he has found and we can keep in contact with one another.

  25. I am disabled and in a power wheelchair. Several years ago, I was thrilled to finally locate my paternal grandfather’s sister buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois (home of Al Capone!)

    She died in 1918 from pneumonia when she was just 28 years old. The section where she was buried was way back in a corner that had a lot of unmarked graves, including hers. Many of the graves had collapsed in on themselves so the ground was particularly treacherous to navigate with a wheelchair.

    I carefully picked my way through the obstacle course and was only about 10 feet from the road when all of a sudden my right front wheel got stuck in a hole. I was thrown to the ground and pinned with my powerchair on top of me. It happened so fast that I wasn’t sure what happened at first and then realized my head was just a few inches away from the very sharp corner of a granite monument. Realizing how close I came to doing some serious damage, I was fortunately able to reach my cell phone which I used to call the cemetery office for help.

    After giving them my location and swearing that I would never, ever go to a cemetery alone again, I noticed a car driving slowly in my direction. I thought it was odd that the people in the cemetery office would be responding so s-l-o-w-l-y to my call for help, particularly since they wanted to call the fire department and seemed more upset than me.

    As the car came closer, it was clear this was not someone sent to “rescue” me. The driver, a man, slowed down to a crawl and looked right at me lying face down on the ground with a 200 lb power wheelchair on top of me and … kept right on going! I couldn’t believe it! He never stopped nor did he ask if I needed help or was hurt.

    True to their word, the cemetery office responded quickly to my call for help because a few minutes later I saw and heard eight employees rushing to my aid. They came from all over the cemetery so it was like a cavalry charge coming to rescue me. They got me up and back in my chair in no time and I was soon back in my van heading home.

    I was still laughing to myself about the rubbernecking guy who drove past without stopping. To this day, I have no idea what he thought I was doing. Perhaps he figured I was communicating with a resident of one of the graves and wanted to get a little closer to the source? I don’t know. But I learned my lesson that day because that was the last cemetery I went to by myself.

  26. I live in the 121 year old home built by my great grandfather. This close connection with my heritage has given me numerous opportunities to connect with other relatives never before known. In addition my home is just 1/2 mile from the local cemetary where my parents, all 4 grandparents, all 8 great grand parents and many other ancestors are interred. So very much of my past is located right at my fingertips.

  27. My mother, cousin and I made a road trip to Preston, Minnesota to visit the Crown Hill Cemetary where my paternal great-grandparents are buried. At the cemetary after walking rows and rows looking at headstones we could not locate the graves. We knew where the one set of great greatparents would have been buried because my cousins mother had purchased a new headstone about 30 years ago and it should of been in pretty good shape. She also was told where the graves were in the cemetary. After being unsuccessful we went to the library and was told that we would have to locate a cemetary board of directors person who had a copy of the burial plots and ones buried in the cemetary. We decided to stop at one of those Welcome Centers for Preston and lo’and behold the person knew who had the information. He was called and we were asked to come to his home. There he showed us the information then he went to the cemetary with us. The headstones which lay flat on the ground was no where to be found although we knew where the plots were located. After much searching, the headstones were so close to the cemetary road that between the mud, rocks and grass and years gone by, they had all had been covered with the above. Since a storm was coming in, my cousin was going to return(she lives only one hour away) with a rake and shovel and uncover the earth to make the headstones visible in the cemetary for our next visit. There truly are nice people out there and who care about the ones looking for their ancestors.

  28. I started collecting my ancestry back in the 1970′s when I lived in England. My mother suggested we visit my paternal Grandfathers grave to collect all of the dates put on the tombstone. While standing on the stone slab that covered the grave the corners,top left and bottom right, gave way causing the slab to turn on the remaining corners and sending me into my Grandfathers grave. As fast as I went in. I came out even faster, my mother laughing and me shaking. I did get the dates though. Roger Ellis, Boise, Idaho.

  29. Good point, one I’d not considered at all……I’ve been lucky in my few visits. No ill toward incidents and good finds. I will be more aware of the potential for problems…..JMD

  30. This is fascinating! My mother used to help tend the grounds at our local cemetery – as children, my brothers and I used to play in the creeks that ran through the site. All of the comments about different ways to document the text on tombstones prompted me to do an online search. Here is a great site that lists MANY different methods: . If the imbedded html code does not work, here is the site for copying and pasting into your browser: http://eogn.typepad.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2005/05/tombstones_and_.html.

  31. Watch out for wild dog packs in cemeteries!!!
    Don’t stay when the sun is starting to set and carry some mace!
    Abandoned city dogs will go and join packs in cemeteries. It happened to me twice.

  32. The Pickens Co. Gen. Society Had a Field Trip to 4
    of the oldest cemeteries in Pickens Co. in May. Waiting for cooler weather to visit more. We went as a group, Stopped for lunch and had a very learning, happy experience. May be something your groups may want to do.

  33. About 15 years ago my wife and I arrived at a cemetery near Memphis,TN, after dark, and were not able to return for many months. We carefully examined the headstones in the cemetery, being careful to avoid snakes and other varmints. We found that using a flashlight and shining the light across the letters and not directly on them allowed us to read stones that were badly aged and couldn’t be read with direct lighting.
    The oblique lighting created the shadows and allowed depressions and elevations to be easily read. The only negative thing that happened was that when we returned to our car I carelessly stepped into an ankle deep mud hole, filling my shoe with mud and water. What a memorable experience!

  34. Another Cemetery Necessity especially in rural Cemeteries is a Cap or Vest in Hunter Orange.

    I never gave it any thought until my son and avid hunter had a fit, that his mother could get killed by mistake by an inexperienced or distracted hunter.

    Not being able to remember hunting seasons, I keep mine in the car with my Cemetery kit and just wear it.

  35. I nearly made a fatal mistake in visiting a cemetery last summer. I had taken my mother and 11 year old son with me on a ‘field trip’, but we had split up in this old city cemetery where tall spires and obelisks create a spooky atmosphere and a darn tough place to search. My mother and son were acres away and no longer in eyesight, and neither was my car. I was absorbed in reading and searching for a certain ancestor’s stone when I suddenly felt a little weird.

    I glanced up and walking toward me was a man who was staring at me, looking rough and dressed in gang-like clothing. He had a black knit cap pulled down to just above his eyes and appeared quite focused on me. For just a second, I reasoned that he was just walking by, but when he stepped off the pavement onto the soil in my direction, I knew he wasn’t just “passing by”.

    He speeded up his pace. I reached down and picked up my keychain (thank god I had that with me!) and pointed my military compound spray (a combo of mace and tear gas that is legal in my state) directly at him and shouted “You’d better move on, buddy. I’m armed with more than just this, but this will get us started!!!” My other hand was in my research bag. I had nothing but a pencil and a ruler, but he didn’t know that.

    I stood still, aiming and praying, and prepared to fight for my life. I planned to leave all the evidence behind that I possibly could, and my stance reflected that. I believe to this day if I had screamed or ran, the outcome would have been quite different, but who really knows?

    He was about 25 feet from me at that point when he suddenly veered back up onto the pavement and kept walking. He never said a word, and never looked back at me.

    I know he intended to harm me, and I feel so fortunate to have walked away unharmed. I ran to my car, drove over to pick up my mother and son on the other side, praying they were ok too, and made a rule to never EVER find myself alone in a cemetery again, not even for 15 minutes. I reported it to the police, who weren’t interested since a ‘real’ crime wasn’t committed. They refused to even ride through the area since I was ‘okay’.

    I didn’t just risk my own life, I risked my elderly mother and son’s lives too! I felt so stupid, so vulnerable, and the second wave of fear that swept over me once the crisis was controlled was incredible!

    No more. We stay together, and check in with the cemetery personnel. If I have to go to a remote location, my husband goes with me, and always first thing in the morning to take advantage of personnel being present to assist. I love hunting deceased ancestors, but not enough to become one!

  36. I’ve learned a great deal from reading the above comments on cemeteries. I only wish I had read them before our visit to a cemetery in Southern Illinois last week. Our warning is dress for ticks and check yourself and clothes when you get away from the cemetery. I hadn’t even thought of them until I saw one in my husbands beard. We thought we found and removed them all but four days later when wearing shorts I noticed the remains of a tick. I had been wearing long pants on our way home and I kept scratching the back of my leg where the knee bends. I think I had knocked most of it away but my husband probed the area and found some perhaps remnants. I eventually insisted on seeing my doctor who was not too concerned but put me on antibiotics.

  37. After searching nearly two years, I found the location of the cemetery my husband’s grandmother was buried in. I took my two year old son with me. It was a hot, muggy July day. I traipsed through the cemetery row by row for hours. I found many members of her family but could not find her. About to give up, I said to my son “Where’s Grandma?”. He pointed up the hill to an area I had already searched. Though tired, I was still in good humor and in no hurry. I told him to ” go get her”. Up the hill he went. I trailed along behind him. I noticed he had sat down on a low headstone. I ran up to him to get him off the headstone and explain that it wasn’t nice to sit there. Imagine my shock to see the name on the stone. It was my husband’s grandmother!!!

  38. Several years ago while doing research in Fulton, MS, I went to Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church cemetery. It’s a ways off the beaten path and no one else was there. A storm was coming up so I was quickly taking pictures & rubbings of the markers. As it became eerily quiet, with a cool breeze blowing, I just stood there in perfect peace – at peace with the place and at peace with the many generations of ancestors buried there. It was if, just for that moment, I was the only reason that they had existed. What an experience.

  39. Another thought on cemeteries – you might want try to locate a picture of a family marker in another state. There are volunteers who will go out and take a picture and email it to you. I received a picture of my gr.gr. grandfather’s marker in Wylie,TX through Find A Grave.

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