Arthur Brisbane sagely pronounced, “The fence around a cemetery is foolish, for those inside can’t come out, and those outside don’t want in.”
What is it, really, that fascinates us about cemeteries? Because, to be honest, if you are reading this you have to admit you are one of us – the Cemephiles. I think what we genealogists love is the continued remembrance…. We love the idea of commemorating those who have gone on, and seeing their names literally “etched in stone” as some small indicator of a life lived. One of my favorite things about cemeteries is the symbolic art. We see small lambs or stone shoes for children’s deaths; broken columns for a ‘life cut short.’ Doors indicate passage into the next life and hope in an afterlife. We marvel at how many different kinds of flowers, carved into the rock, can mean so many different things. Cemeteries are hopeful and forlorn, paradoxically romantic and miserable at the same time.
To genealogists, a cemetery is a treasure trove! While hunting in the cemetery for your ancestors, remember these hints:
1.Whether a cemetery is big or small, it will take a long time to find your ancestor if you do not have the section and plot numbers and a map to go with it! Some are online, some are at local historical societies, and some are at the cemetery office.
2.Where did the records go? All cemeteries make records, but not all of them survive. Most are housed at the sexton’s office on the cemetery grounds; some have been moved to the historical society or town clerk. Often these records can tell you so much more, such as multiple burials in the same plot (such as a child and an adult), but only one may have a stone. There may be copies of the obituary or legal papers included.
3.Don’t clean the stone without asking. If you and the sextant decide that the stone is not so fragile that it can be cleaned, use only water and a very soft brush (no wire brushes!) No shaving cream, no ammonia, no chemicals. What you do today may increase the disintegration of the stone ten years from now. The stones are much, much more fragile than they appear.
4.Photograph the stone while squatting in front of it. It sounds obvious, but we cemephiles get a little excited sometimes and take the picture while standing, and we lose half the inscription.
5.Need more light? Make a reflector. Take some cardboard, about a yard square, and cover one side with aluminum foil. Or you may have one of those reflective windshield covers already in your car. Use it to catch the light to shine on the headstone for your photograph.
6.Check all sides of the monument. You never know what you may see: other names, monument maker marks, or personal messages from the family. Check around for other family buried nearby.
7.Ask the sextant about the funeral homes that serve that particular cemetery. Ask if funeral homes that have gone out of business have been bought out or left their records to a newer funeral home. Often you can make an appointment to ask about your ancestor’s records.
8.Be extra nice! Cemeteries and Funeral Homes are private businesses. They do not owe you anything, even access to your ancestors’ records. Ask politely and respect their wishes.
9.Post your photo online. Register the photos of your ancestors’ monuments for free at either www.findagrave.com or www.interment.net, or both! This gives the opportunity for others to contact you because you share an ancestor.
Cemeteries are one of the most fragile genealogical record types we have. Through neglect, vandalism, and the passage of time, many stones become worn, illegible, or broken. Let us respect and preserve them. A life not forgotten is a life that still lives on.