Documenting A Cemetery

Old cemeteries represent an important heritage resource worldwide. Unfortunately, many of the grave memorials in these cemeteries are deteriorating at an alarming rate. There is no doubt that many of the inscriptions, motifs and art designs that are faintly visible today will disappear altogether in another generation. Detailed cemetery recording provides us with a permanent record of these sites, and a point of reference for future research and conservation. The accurate transcription and publishing of cemetery records is important because it preserves the record on the marker, even if the marker itself is lost.
A uniform and systematic way of recording these heritage sites is important. What features are important to record? Where do we start? What do we do with the information when finished? All these are relevant questions faced by prospective recorders.

Documenting a cemetery should include a map detailing the organization of graves, a data recording and filing system using inventory sheets, and some historical and biographical research. Additional information gathered may include an epitaph record, condition reports, videos, and a photograph file. We highly recommend the Standards for Transcribing Cemetery Headstones as developed by B. W. Hutchison.

Before starting a recording project, check whether one has already been done. Even if an earlier recording has been made, it is worthwhile to confirm and update the data, especially grave condition, and add information that might have been omitted.

Planning for a recording project may take months of work, lots of organization and above all, commitment. The initial step is to obtain written permission from the managing authority or owner of the cemetery. Next, plan the recording to take place during the summer months. Make sure all the supplies are ready as needed and recorders have some knowledge of their task.

You may want to do rubbings of some of the harder to read stones. Information on the process can be found here.

In the sections below you will find tips on how to best do your own recording

Tools and Materials Needed

Notebook & pencils
A large sponge
A gallon jug of water
Mirror abt 5"x7" size
4" scraper
Stiff handle natural soft bristle brush
Straight edge

Get written permission to enter if the cemetery is on private land. Be respectful of the property owner's rights. Close gates and keep on roads. Don't drive across pastures or plowed ground. You want the farmer or rancher on YOUR side. You are his guest.

Do your registry on a bright sunny day. Many of the old stones will be badly eroded and the bright light will help you. It is also more comfortable on you, it will be a long day, usually. It can also be harder to work on a very windy day. A 5 gallon bucket makes thing to carry supplies in and at the same time you will have something to sit on. After a couple of hours, your legs begin to get tired just standing.

Take something along to eat and drink as you will be there for a while. Go to the bathroom before you leave home unless you have a particular fondness for copperheads.

Use the sun to help you read the stones. If you are having trouble reading the old stones, record the stones facing East in the morning and the stones facing West in the afternoon. The small mirror can be used to reflect light across the face to create shadows in the engravings on the stone.

If the stone cannot be read after these attempts, You may want to do a rubbing of the stone.

The location of each cemetery should be included with directions by road mileage from the nearest major intersection or other permanent landmark.
All the markers in each cemetery should be copied, preferably in order by row number and marker number. This requirement may seem superfluous, but there are past cases where some unknown selection process was used, whereby certain markers were purposefully omitted from the survey. Do not omit any markers.
The markers are not arranged in any cemetery alphabetically. Cemetery surveys of the individual markers should be presented in the order the markers are located, usually in order by row number and marker number, and not in alphabetical order. This makes it much easier to physically locate any particular marker and maintain possible family relationships for adjacent markers. Also, in the event any marker becomes missing or illegible, it is possible to determine its exact location within the cemetery.
Last but not least, when you leave the cemetery, clean up after yourself and others. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but tracks