Posted by Anne Gillespie Mitchell on July 9, 2014 in Ask Ancestry Anne, Research


Arlington National Cemetery. Photo by Amy Johnson Crow.
Arlington National Cemetery. Photo by Amy Johnson Crow.

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 app on your phone or tablet, you can easily look people up. If you see a name that sounds familiar, take a picture.

 Mitchell, Anne Gillespie, Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, 2 Aug 2010.
Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. Photo by Anne Gillespie Mitchell, 2 Aug 2010.

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.

Happy Searching!

Anne Gillespie Mitchell

Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at She is an active blogger on 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. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.


  1. Sharon Jones Trussell

    I thorougly enjoyed reading this article and thought the choices to keep it a top ten list was well thought-out. I would just like to add a # 11 to the list that I would like to think most genealogist would agree with.

    11. Take the time if able to record and photograph a few of the graves surrounding your ancestor’s grave and post the information so future generation of their families will have a search resource.

  2. Michael

    Nice article! One suggestion re #5: if you have the Find A Grave app, you can use it to record the GPS coordinates of the grave so your family and others can find it more easily in the future. This is especially useful for cemeteries that no longer have offices or readily available information about plot locations.

  3. Kathleen Jackson

    If there is a cemetery office, ask to look at their records. I found information such as when the plots were purchased and the cost. Several cemeteries glady gave me maps of the entire cemetery. The maps were very helpful in finding specific graves. One other thought, sit on the grass in the shade of a tree and enjoy the quiet and let your mind wander.

  4. Carol

    I was photographing gravestones at a cemetery recently and the Manager approached and asked if he could help me. I told him I was looking for tombstones for which people on Find-A-Grave had requested photos. He said they had a lawsuit against them due to a tombstone photo being placed on Facebook, that the cemetery is private property and wanted to warn me. He did not say I could not take photos, so I went ahead and took the photos requested and some others also that were not requested. Don’t know whether I should go back to this cemetery in the future for requested photos.

  5. Joan Moulton

    Regarding what to take with you to the cemetery, I suggest a small soft hand brush to remove grass, cobwebs and other bits from the stone. I recently visited a cemetery where 2 of my grandparents were buried. Their markers are flush with the ground and I could have used a brush more easily than my hand to brush away grass in order to take the best picture possible.

  6. Michelle

    I would add a small garden hand shovel to the list of tools to bring. I’ve encountered gravestones with piles of dirt partially covering them. Use the hand shovel to move most of the dirt, and then the brush once you get closer to the gravestone so you won’t scratch it. Gardening gloves may also be useful if you don’t want to get your hands too dirty.

  7. #7 should be #1. Some cemeteries have regulations against taking photos and other things that many people haven’t considered.

    I use the BillionGraves app to take GPS photos of headstones and look forward to Ancestry rolling out the Android version of the Find-A–Grave app.

    Twice this year I have been blessed with going on cemetery roadtrips. The first was to my great-grandfather’s nephew’s cemetery and last month to visit an uncle and great-great grandparents graves. The second trip was the first time any family had visited these graves in possibly one hundred years.

  8. Shirley Schaeffer

    I often combine vacations or day trips with cemetery visits, hunting for ancestors. Many years ago, I drove cross country from the East to the West coast and planned many stops at small towns in the US just to look for graves. In Richmond, KY, two very nice ladies in the office were delighted to help me find the graves of my husband’s great grand parents. They were suprised at my quest and that I, a female, was driving alone (all unusual things in those days). In Kansas, I arrived too late in the eve to go to the office. I had the plot numbers but no map, so I just started driving slowly around the tombstones, reading the names. To my disappointment, It was getting so dark that I was using only my headlights and a flashlight to read the stones. Soon I was down to the last row, just about to give up, and suddenly I spotted them on the other side of a wire fence – the ancestors I was searching for. Amazing! It was pure serendipity! Thanks for this blog and comments-all very useful info-just remember to add a bright flashlight to your list of supplies – you never know when your day trip might turn into night tripping.

  9. Kajsa

    For older graves, you may want to have some bleach available. This spring, Mom and I made a trip to visit her great-great-grandparents’ graves, which are in a cemetery that is no longer maintained. She and Dad had been there a few years before, and knew the gravestones were in pretty poor condition, so when she and I went, we came prepared to clean off the moss and lichen that was obscuring the stones.

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