I know. I know. It’s not really a word, but if you were all set to dash out the door hoping to catch every minute you possibly could to read headstones, would you want to tell your husband, “I’m going to go to a cemetery and try to find grave stones with Loker (or other surnames I’m working on) so I can copy down all the information, categorize them into families, check to see if their temple work is done, put them into temple ready (now new.familysearch) and do the temple work or see that it is done.”? It is just much faster to combine the whole combination of activities into one quick word which he definitely understands. So, word or not, let’s talk about cemeterying.
Its morning (for me, barely. I need to get my sleep out and I generally have been up till midnight or later organizing and consuming the information I’ve collected that day, assimilating it into the data I already have, so I’m usually not out of the house until 10:00.) You’ve stopped at a cemetery in a town where you know a group of descendants of one of your forefathers have lived, gotten out a notebook and a pencil, and you are off to read grave markers. You look around you at what appears to be a field of markers then down at a stone in front of you that has plenty of marks on it but that you simply cannot read. It’s going to be a long day, you conclude as you pull out your glasses and grimace.
Don’t be overwhelmed. The impossible is quite often doable—with a couple of rules and a few tricks up your sleeve.
Ahead of time:
Check with the local library to see if they have copies of the names and
inscriptions from the town cemeteries. If
they do have listings, make
arrangements to copy those for your
surnames before going to the
cemetery. Even if they have the
inscriptions, go to the cemetery.
I’ve found lists of copied inscriptions that
leave out those under eighteen. I’ve seen
letters read incorrectly. I’ve identified
relationships by the arrangement of the
markers, an item often missing in copied
Get the location of the town’s cemeteries and burial grounds from the library
Find out if the cemetery is privately owned with a manager who can
check records to:
*Tell you if there have been burials with
the surname you are researching.
*Make an appointment to meet you at the
The more familiar you are with the names in a community the easier it will
be to recognize names on head stones so glance through materials from the area—no need to memorize, just have a familiarity with them.
Do check through all your surnames in
case other ancestors from other
lines may be from the same area and buried in the same cemetery.
Take the equipment you might need:
Paper—I use different color/types for each locality so I can
immediately identify where I found the information afterwards,
and use only one side so I can spread it all out to study and so
I won’t overlook any information
Water in a spray bottle
Soap to make suds/foam
Trowel—for cleaning grass and
weeds from the bottom of
markers when it has been
allowed to grow and cover
Your reward! Make this fun by
planning a reward—unless you
are like me and enjoy doing this
so much that just going is the
At the cemetery or burial grounds:
If the cemetery is privately owned and has a manager, check with him
first. He may be able to show or give you a cemetery map with the exact location of the graves as well as show you cards on each individual and the person who bought the plot—usually a family member. Photocopy these if possible.
Look for the markers for your family names.
* Split the cemetery in imaginary sections
so you don’t overlap your hunt.
* Go down a row reading the markers on
that row plus two to four rows behind
or in front of it depending on how hard
it is to read the names.
* Determine the surname/s you are trying
to find. As you look at markers don’t
try to read the full inscription, just enough of the surname to see if the surname on the marker could be the same as the one you are looking for.
Most old markers will say something like, “In memory of (first name) (surname) who died… Notice the spacing on the marker so you know where to find the surname. If you are looking for a four letter surname and the marker has ten letters, move on. If your surname starts with a “W” and the surname you see starts with an “Q”, move on.
* When you find a marker that is
difficult to read try some of these
techniques with the headstone.
* Look at the stone from a different
angle and a different distance.
Some writing is easier to read a letter
at a time, some a word at a time.
* Stand so the writing is shaded.
* Try tracing letters with a finger to feel
* Shine a flashlight from different angles
to change the shadowing.
* Brush off any dirt that might be
obscuring the names.
* Use soft, white chalk on the stone to
increase the contrast.
* Try spraying water to see if you can
gently clean any dirty spots that might
be distorting the letters or so you
create a distinction between the flat
surface and the letters, especially as
the water evaporates.
* Use soap suds to distinguish between
the chiseled hole and the surface.
* Do a rubbing by placing a paper over
the writing and using the side of a
contrasting chalk or crayon to rub on
the paper over the lettering.
* Do remember that stone can
disintegrate and need to be treated
You would never purposefully do
something to defile a set of
vital records. Headstones may be the
last remaining record of your ancestor.
Treat them with due respect.
* If you cannot decipher the writing
using these techniques with the
stone itself, try other looking around
for more clues.
Families were often buried together. See if the stones on either side are from one family and if the name you are trying to read is the same.
See if a legible stone nearby has some of the same shaped letters as you have been trying to decipher.
It is often easier to recognize letters when seen in context, and once recognized, use that letter to help recognize the illegible name. In xx_xx it is hard to recognize the middle letter while in Wh_te we have little trouble figuring out that it is an “i”.
Numbers can be hard to distinguish. Try looking at the number to see if it has the same strokes as there would be in our digits. Find another number on the stone or a stone with the same style (and probably the same carver) numerations. Compare the strokes to see what number has the same strokes in the same places as the number you are trying to read.
Depending on the size of the community and the list of members available from the era of the death (if not visible, check on graves nearby) compare the lettering on the stone to the names on the list.
* Try a digital camera.
Take pictures at several different angles and distances.
After putting the pictures on your computer, use the computer skills to study the lettering. Try zooming in and out, changing light and color settings and any other techniques that might help bring out the contrast in the lettering and the stone.
Whenever you find a group of family graves, draw a simple map showing the relationship of the graves to each other. Many times familial relationships can be easily determined by the placement of the graves.
In Massachusetts, many of the pre-1850
death records were taken directly from the
cemeteries. If, as happened in many
cases, a relationship listing parents or
spouses was not mentioned on the stone
itself and other records were not
available, there is no way that a
relationship can be traced so sealings can
take place, unless a grave is found
showing, by its placement, the parentage
or spouse of the person. Finding even
one of these graves and having the sealing
done is worth many days of cemeterying
Never leave a cemetery without praying that you’ll be guided to find any other markers that have information you need to complete the temple work for those of your relatives that are there. Never.