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How to Survey a cemetery

It is very important to be careful of the old tombstones. There are many old "monoliths" in cemeteries and even the smaller headstones can cause severe damage, so please be careful when you are searching and recording. These tombstones and monuments are not secure after centuries or decades of weather and human fiddling.

What To Do Before You Start

Find out who has legal jurisdiction over the cemetery property and get permission to be on the grounds recording the data. If the cemetery is abandoned, attempt to find out who owns the land the cemetery is on and obtain permission from the legal owners to be on the property. The Cemetery Office, Church Office, etc. might have a copy of the plat of the cemetery and copies of internment records.


Suggested Supplies to be Assembled

1. Soft brushes - several different sizes
2. Styrofoam block (Styrofoam cup will also work)
Some people worry about the styrofoam crumbling and small animals & birds being harmed by the "crumbs".
3. Large spray bottle of water and extra water, if plan to be out long.
Some people will only use "pure water" or distilled water because tap water has many added chemicals.
4. Grass clippers
5. Pad for kneeling on
6. Paper and pencils. Be sure to bring extra.
7. A tape recorder - If you would like to use it instead of paper and pencils. Just be sure to spell out names that are different from normal. May even want to say "V" like in Victory so you are sure that it is a "V" and not a "B".
8. A camera - some people like to take photos of unusual grave markers or overall view of cemetery.
                With the new digital cameras, some people take photos of all the markers and upload to a web site for out of state relatives to see.
A few people have told us they videotape the entire cemetery with both close up views of the stones and overall views of the cemetery.
9. Walking Cane. Suggestion from Sue Forrister: A walking cane or stick. "I've been in some cemeteries where the lawn mowers did not go back to sweep off flat tombstones after mowing. Over a couple years of mowing these stones become covered with grass clippings and cannot be seen. So if I'm walking in an area where there are spaces between stones I walk along tapping the cane against the ground. I have uncovered quite a few tombstones this way. It also works in cemeteries that are overgrown."
Have been told that if you "tap" on the ground as you walk that it will "scare off" snakes and other "harmful animals". I don't know if this is true or not, but I often take along a hoe in heavy overgrown areas. It serves two purposes, one a "walking stick" and second a way to "uncover" flat stones that have been covered with debris, fallen leaves, limbs, etc. I can gently "scrape back" the top layers of debris and then "hand uncover" the stone. You have to be careful not to damage the stone with the hoe "blade".
10. GPS, Global Positioning Satellite tool.
Several people suggested using the GPS to mark the location of the cemetery. This would be very useful for future generations looking for "Family Cemeteries" that are in remote areas.
11. First Aid Supplies - Band-Aids, Antiseptics, Bee-sting ointment, allergy medication.
12. Cell Phone - They come in hand for more than just emergencies.
These are just suggestion. You do not have to buy anything to do the surveys.

More Suggestions by Tara D Fields can be found on Tara's Page

Recording The Data

If the cemetery 'office' has a plat of the cemetery, follow it to make sure you don't miss any stones. You can make you own by using boxes for graves. Check them off as recorded.
Record the information on the tombstone exactly as it appears. Copy it word for word, line for line. Keep the spelling, punctuation, etc., as it appears on the stone. Resist the temptation to make corrections. Record all information on the stone, including any epitaphs that may be carved there. Make a note of any unmarked graves, child or adult and if in "lot" with marked graves.
                Epitaphs are optional, but be sure to include military service or any genealogical information, such as parents names, place of birth, etc.
Include any interesting historical data on the cemetery, if known---date established, background info., etc.
If you have additional genealogical information for the individuals that might be of interest, include that in a separate comments column.

How to read "hard to read" tombstone!

1. If the tombstone has moss or other debris, use a block of Styrofoam to gently rub off the debris. A Styrofoam cup also works well.
Some people worry about the styrofoam crumbling and small animals & birds being harmed by the "crumbs".
2. Take a make-up brush and gently brush out the letters. Sometimes you can clean out the letters enough to read them.
3. Spraying water on the headstone, especially if the letters are deep enough to "glisten". Some people will only use "pure water" or distilled water because tap water has many added chemicals.
4. Using chalk, rub flat over surface and indentations should show, if any at all. It is similar to rubbing a pencil on notepad to see what message had been written. (Before felt tips pens, etc). Chalk is no longer recommended. It can stain the marker. The presure need to "mark" the stone can make loose stone fall over.
5. Dust the headstone with natural baby powder. When done, you should brush it off. (If you put water on flour, you get glue and a big mess, thus flour should never be used on a marker)
6. The shaving cream method is not recommended any more due to the acid residue can damage the stone over a period of time.
Never use anything on a marker that is stronger than pure water to clean it. Even when you wash off the substance, it could have gotten into crevasses and continue to eat away from the inside out and doing a lot of damage.
7. Use a mirror to reflect light on a tombstone.
Garry Michael Ruthven Carswell-Campbell wrote: I have used a 12 x 15 or 16 x 20 mirror to get better reading of old 17th and 18th century headstone inscriptions, after cleaning them. We have made pictures of the mirror images of long and detailed inscriptions for later transcribing for our records.
8. Make note of starting point.
Sue Forrister wrote: The point of starting a recording should be noted as well as the direction the person recording is going. For instance: Row 1, starting at the northeast corner of the brick wall and recording south. When at the end of the row it should be noted as well as the direction of the next row and so forth. This is very important when surveying a large cemetery that has been divided up in section. Be sure to record the starting point of each section.

Standard Abbreviations

WOW - Woodsmen of the World
CSA - Confederate States Army
SS - Same stone with - example: SS John Doe
f/o - Father of - example: f/o Mary Doe
m/o - Mother of - example: m/o Mary Doe
s/o - son of - example: s/o Mr. & Mrs. John Doe
d/o - daughter of - example: d/o John & Sue Doe
sis/o - sister of - example: sis/o John Doe
bro/o - brother of - example: bro/o John Doe
w/o - wife of - example: w/o John Doe
h/o - husband of - example: h/o Sue Doe
I/o - infant of - example: I/o M&M John Doe
c/o - child of - example: c/o M&M John Doe
M&M - Mr. & Mrs. - Example: M&M John Doe
ND - No Date - use this when there is no date on stone or only one date      - example: 1919 ND or ND 1919
md - married or marriage date example: Jane Doe md John Smith 1-1-2000
example: md 1-1-2000
SSDI - Social Security Death Index
FM - Funeral Marker
FS - Foot Stone
MM - Military Marker
PH - Purple Heart
KIA - Killed In Action
DOW - Died of Wounds
POW - Prisoner of War USA - United States Army
USN - United States Navy
USAF - United States Air Force
USMC - United States Marine Corps
USCG - United States Coast Guard

Additional Information

It is recommend that you use genealogical dates when recording a cemetery survey. That would be 23 Jun. 1870 for the date June 23, 1870. Never use numbers only (6/7/1900), they can be misleading. Is the date June 7, 1900 or 6 July 1900???
It is also recommended that you list Surname first then given name. It is also recommended that you use all caps for the surname. Example - SMITH, John
A woman's maiden name should be all caps also. SMITH, Mary JONES. Information that is not on a tombstone, but included in the survey should be in brackets [ ] Example SMITH, Mary [JONES] or SMITH, M J [Mary Jane JONES] This would also include dates that are not on the marker or other information you are including in the comments column. [s/o M&M Sam JONES]

A VERY IMPORTANT RECOMMENDATION is do the survey in rows and mark them. Many times family members are buried next to each other. A married daughter may be buried next to her mother, but may only have her married name on marker. A grandchild could be buried in a plot with grandparents. These "hints" are very important to researchers and may even help break down a brick wall. If the survey had been listed in alphabetical order, the fact that the married daughter was next to her mother would not have been known and you may continue to look for her.
If a woman is listed as "Martha A wife of John Smith" List her as [SMITH] Martha A then in comments put "w/o John SMITH" Another example would be Martha A Jones wife of John Smith. She should be listed as [SMITH] Martha A JONES then in comments "w/o John SMITH".

A good example of a cemetery survey can be found at this site.

If you have any questions or other suggestions, please e-mail me.

Happy Searching,
Christina Palmer


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