What Is Surveying a Cemetery?
Cemetery preservation is extremely important to historians and genealogy buffs alike. One part of the preservation is surveying and transcribing, or recording, the cemetery. Often times, a community, local historical society, genealogy society, or even Boy Scouts working on their Eagle project will be in the process of a cemetery survey project. But, what exactly does this mean?
A cemetery survey is compiling a complete description, location, layout and index of a cemetery and all the memorial markers within. It can be a long and arduous task but very much worth it. You are actively preserving information about those who have come before you - information that may not be available in the future as tombstone markers continue to erode away. You are sharing your information with genealogists, family historians, local researchers, as well as helping family members, most of whom you will never meet.
Sadly, many older cemeteries fall victim to vandalism, overgrowth, mismanagement, and even abandonment. When a cemetery is surveyed or recorded, all information about that cemetery and its markers are recorded - details that may disappear over time.
Before Getting Started Surveying
There are a few things that you should consider before beginning a cemetery surveying project:
1. Inquire About Current Surveying Projects
First, you may want to contact your local historical or genealogical society to inquire if a survey has been completed for the cemetery you're wanting to survey or if . You may also inquire if there is a cemetery that they have plans to survey, but have not yet begun, or if there's a current surveying project underway that you may be able to help with.
2. Find a Cemetery to Survey
In suburban areas, most all area cemetery locations will have been recorded to some extent. In rural areas, however, there are often times small family cemeteries on private property. Many times, a cemetery name may be recorded somewhere but a formal cemetery survey has not been completed. To find a cemetery in your area, you can start with searching online. You may also try websites such as FindAGrave or BillionGraves to see what information may already exist. Your local library may also have some information.
3. Get Permission from Property Owner
You may need to get permission from the property owner in order to be on the grounds recording your data. Many cemeteries have public access which normally don't require permission, but some cemeteries are on private property. If the cemetery is abandoned, check with your county property appraiser's office in an attempt to find out who owns the land on which the cemetery sets and then obtain permission from the owner.
4. Identify Any Existing Records
When you contact the owner for permission, inquire if there are any interment records that you can have access to. Churches will often have these. Local genealogical societies, or even your local public library, may have copies of early surveys that may have not been updated in many, many years. This will greatly help you with the survey, especially if the burials are very early ones and markers are missing or not readable. It is a good tool to bounce your survey against. Be sure to notate on your survey any information that you could not find but was able to find on a prior survey.
NEVER use use flour, shaving cream, baby powder, chalk, or do rubbings to try to see the inscriptions better. These can act as a catalyst to quicken the deterioration of a stone and could be considered vandalism.
Your safety must be a priority when surveying a cemetery. It is advised to always take a friend with you. While most cemeteries are completely safe, I have personally have been in a few very uneasy situations while in a cemetery. Keep your cell phone close and stay in the same proximity as your friend. In fact, having a friend can make things much easier! One can read while the other records, or you cover twice as much by working nearby each other. Better yet, get a group involved and the work will even go quicker, and you are less likely to be bothered by someone who is just looking for trouble.
For the cemeteries that are not well maintained, it is suggested that you do the surveying during the late fall or early spring. The weather will be more pleasant and the snake encounters will be less likely. Be sure to also watch out for poison ivy. In old cemeteries that aren't well maintained, pay attention for any sunken ground areas. If you suspect an area may be sunken, notify the owner immediately and do not risk harm to yourself.
The Safety of the Grave Markers
Be extremely careful when touching a gravestone. Many are unstable or damaged or very frail. Even the slightest touch could cause some to topple over or break. Do not attempt to lift a fallen marker as it could cause injury to you as well as the marker.
Do not use anything other than water, foil, or a mirror in an attempt to read what is inscribed on the stone. NEVER use flour, shaving cream, baby powder, chalk, markers, or do rubbings. All of these can severely damage a headstone.
Suggested Supplies for a Cemetery Surveying Project
- Cemetery information survey form (should only need one, but several for backup - see section below for what this should include)
- Individual grave marker survey forms (you will need one for each marker you're indexing - see section below for what this should include)
- Clipboard for securing forms (one that stores paper inside is even better)
- Notepad for any notes you need to write down
- Voice recorder (instead of a notepad)
- Pens and pencils
- Cloth measuring tape (metal ones may cause damage, although some taller markers such as obelisks might require a longer, metal tape measure to determine the height)
- Extra batteries and memory cards for camera
- GPS (Handheld for recording individual burial locations)
- Soft brushes (natural bristle brushes, varying sizes)
- Wooden craft sticks (to gently remove loose moss and lichen)
- Tin foil (for difficult to read markers)
- Mirror (12x15" works well and full length works even better to reflect light back on the marker for easier reading)
- Spray bottle / sprayer (never used with any type of chemical or soap)
- Water for the sprayer
- Walking stick (for poking around for flat stones that may have been covered up or for scaring off snakes)
- Grass clippers
- Gardening pad for kneeling
- Insect repellant
- Hat or visor
- Fanny pack or backpack for keeping camera, keys, cell phone, batteries, pens/pencils, etc
- Filled Water bottle for you to stay hydrated
- Cell phone (for your safety and emergencies)
Recording Overall Cemetery Information
To begin your cemetery survey, you should first record information about the overall cemetery. While you can certainly use a pad of paper for this and individual marker information, it is much easier to prepare a form with all the information you need to record and then fill in the blanks. The form can then be reused for other cemeteries and ensures you don't forget important information.
The information you will want to record about the overall cemetery includes:
- Cemetery name
- Address of cemetery
- GPS coordinates at each corner of the cemetery to record the borders of the cemetery - also use the tracker mode while you're walking to record the perimeter.
- GPS coordinates of each entrance, structure (ground keeper's buildings, etc)
- Directions from a main road to the cemetery
- Brief description of the cemetery
- Cemetery condition
- Any known history about the cemetery
- Your name
- Date of the survey
- A sketch of the layout of the cemetery, if possible, with indications where individual transcription rows began
- Owner's contact information, if available
- Overall pictures of the cemetery, including entrances. Record the frame numbers on this form.
Tip: Difficult to Read Stones
If you have a stone that is difficult to read, have someone hold a mirror to reflect light back on the stone. This usually makes very difficult-to-read stones much easier to read!
Surveying Individual Gravestone Markers
Once the general cemetery information is recorded, it's time to begin surveying and transcribing individual markers. You will be recording very specific details about each and every marker, including the names, dates, inscription, orientation, location, special insignia, etc. Each of these can tell us very specific things about the person and the time period of when he or she lived.
You will need to determine how you want to survey, such as rows, sections, alphabetically, etc. Rows tend to keep family members together within a survey, sections can also be done in rows. If you choose to do a section alphabetically, you'll need to record additional information such as who is buried next to and near each grave, so that family relationships can be better determined. When I survey or transcribe a cemetery, I approach it in sections and tackle each section in rows.
As you begin each section, sketch out the layout and number the graves as you progress along the row - the numbers will coincide with the number on the individual survey form. If you have a cemetery plot map (shown above), this will greatly help as many of the maps include grave numbers which you can then use for your numbering system. Knowing where each grave is is important to the survey.
Be aware that not all rows are going to be straight. It is possible to miss markers if you accidentally drift from your row into another row.
Be certain to include everything written on the stone exactly as it was written. Do not abbreviate or expand abbreviations!
Recording Information About Each Gravestone
I like to assemble the information I need to collect into a form that I can reproduce and fill in, otherwise, I'm sure to forget something. The following provides the details that you may want to record for each marker to create the most thorough survey possible. You can use these suggestions to create a form of your own.
This information should be at the top or bottom of each individual page. If the page should ever become separated from the rest, you can more easily determine which cemetery it belonged to and where in the order of graves it should be.
- Cemetery Name and Location
- Grave Number (or number in sequence of survey)
- Name of Person Recording Data
- Date Recorded
Information About the Person(s):
Did you know that you can tell a lot about someone just by what is written or carved on their headstone? You will want to record the following for each marker:
- Name(s) on headstone
- Date of Birth
- Date of Death
- Age at Death
- Husband/Wife Of
- Son/Daughter Of
- Location Where Born
- Other Facts Listed
- Inscription and/or Epitaph Exactly as on Headstone
The below details will guide you through a complete description of the headstone. You may, however, want to include an area that allows for additional notes or thoughts.
- Headstone Direction Facing (or direction inscription is facing): N S E W
- Dimensions of Marker: Above Ground Height, Width, Thickness
- Type of Marker(s): Headstone, Foot stone, Tomb, Table, Vault, Obelisk, Family Monument, Unmarked depression, Un-carved field stone, Other (provide description)
- Does the Headstone have Base Stone?
- Is the Headstone on a Cement Pad?
- Material of Marker: Marble, Limestone, Sandstone, Granite, Wood, Concrete, Metal, Unknown
- Is a Photo of Individual Affixed to Headstone?
- Surface carvings? Front, back, top, side(s)
- Condition of Marker Inscriptions and Carvings: Mint, Clear but slightly worn, Difficult to read, Unable to read, Worn Smooth
- Is Marker Fallen or Broken?
- Overall Condition of Marker: Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor
- Gravestone Damage Type: Vandalism, Weathering, Cracked or Broken, Unknown, Guess
- Symbols or Carvings: Skull/Faces/Bones, Vegetation (Ivy, Palms, Willow Tree), Floral (Roses, Lilies), Hands (Pointing, Shaking, Reaching), Religious (Bible, Cross, Angels, Rosary, Star of David), Animal (Dove, Lamb), Urn, Wreath, Gates or Pillars, Masonic Symbol, Military Symbol, Geometric Symbol, Other (provide description)
- Language of Inscription (most will be English, but if you're in a cemetery in which many from a different nationality are buried in, you will more than likely see stones written in their native language)
Grave Location Details:
Recording specific location information about the grave will identify the exact location as well as reference points for finding the grave again - either by yourself or someone who will benefit from your survey.
- GPS Coordinates of the headstone (both latitude and longitude)
- Location in Cemetery: Near the Center, Near the Front/Back/Side Gate, Near the Edges (N/S/E/W), Near a Structure (indicate structure), In New/Old Section, etc.
- Topography: Hill (Top/Mid/Lower), Flat Land, Valley, Near Water (Stream/Lake/Pond)
Photographing the Gravestones:
It is very important to create a photographic record of each marker. It will not only provide you with additional visuals of the marker, but will be a good indicator of how the marker stands up over time. It very well could be the last fully legible capture of the stone before weather or vandals run their course.
- Photograph of Marker (on all sides where letters, words, carvings, inscriptions appear)
- Photograph of Overall Family Plot (if part of a family plot)
- Photograph of Separate Foot Markers, Military Plaques (that are separate from the primary headstone)
- Closeup of Inscription(s)
- Total Number of Photographs Taken in Set for Current Marker
- Starting and Ending Number of Image in Set for Current Marker
Completing the Cemetery Transcriptions
A project of this undertaking will take time. Don't rush it - a rushed job will usually result in a lot of missed information. All of the information above should help you to complete a thorough transcript of each and every marker in the cemetery as well as identify many of the unmarked graves. In a future article, I will review what to do with the results of your survey.
How Helpful Was this Article?
© 2013 Keely Deuschle
John Dove on October 12, 2019:
I just discovered your very comprehensive Hub on gathering genealogical information about cemeteries. It sounds like you are part of a huge project with other people. All the work you do helps lots of people like me in their own research.
I particularly like that you include GPS in you list of tools that you use in inventorying cemeteries. I now use GPS when I find a relative's grave, so that I can find it again. When folks want to find my relative's grave, I give them the GPS coordinates and they can find the exact spot with no difficulty.
All the best,
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Marsha K. Phillips on July 12, 2017:
Very interesting article. I have been working on our church cemetery on and off for ~ 12 years and it is hard work but well worth it. I have traced families and histories over the years to connect many different folks in our area. Thank you for posting
B Carlson on September 09, 2014:
This article is great. I have found most of my family markers are available to me online and I appreciate the work those volunteers have done. To pay it forward (?back?) I want to see about doing a small cemetery near me. I now will have a great list of what I need to get from each grave site and be much more organized by reading this article. Thank you.
cleandanean on July 18, 2014:
Thank you so much for this very informative article. I am a homeschooling mother in PA and this coming year we are working on some family history/genealogy. I have several projects planned but one thing I wanted to do was do a cemetery archive or mapping. With so many small cemeteries in our community, I thought this would be a cool project. With the information we collect, what can we do next?
Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on July 18, 2013:
Thank you! I find this fascinating myself as so much history can disappear based on the stone type, the elements, vandalism, etc. Old cemeteries can be absolutely beautiful - the stones are so much more ornate, in many cases, then the typical granite stones used a lot today. There is also a lot of meaning behind the carvings used on many of the stones so I've been working on an article for that, too!
Robert Loescher from Michigan on July 17, 2013:
What an absolutely fascinating topic. I was mesmerized by the detail and effort you put into making this hub. I have always had an odd attraction to old cemeteries.
Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on June 08, 2013:
Vocalcoach, thank you, thank you, thank you! Your words mean a lot to me. I have spent a LOT of time in cemeteries, transcribing whenever I can, and I wanted to pass information on to others in hopes that they'll be inspired to record cemeteries before the stones are no longer legible!
Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on June 08, 2013:
Dream On, thank you for the kind words. I've enjoyed learning about cemeteries over the years, especially living in an area (near St. Augustine, FL) where there are a lot of very old graves.
I can't say I've ever heard about digging up a cemetery, except in the cases when a cemetery is moved, but there are such things as term graves which I don't believe are used any longer. These graves were such that a family member would be buried and would be given a timeframe to make payments on the graves. A lot of people who were buried using this method were from poor immigrant families who sadly could not pay the fees. As such, once the "term" was up, another person could be buried on top of the original burial and the new person's headstone would go up. My grandmother's infant brother was buried this way in a Polish cemetery in Chicago and the grave is now marked with someone else.
Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on June 08, 2013:
Kidscrafts, thank you! There is a lot of interesting things when it comes to cemeteries, especially in family research! I love going into old cemeteries because there are so many amazing stones, but sadly, more places are going to memorial gardens with flat stones for easy grounds maintenance. There are a few cemeteries up in the New York area that are high on my list for visiting. Incredible history, and you're right that it will be more difficult to tie families together just by visiting a cemetery - much, much more research will need to be done.
Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on May 29, 2013:
This is by far one of the best, informative articles on this subject. You've gone above and beyond. I appreciate the time and effort you've put into this hub. Very useful and helpful. I'll share this and I voted up, useful, awesome and interesting!
DREAM ON on February 20, 2013:
What a very interesting hub.So much information and very fascinating to learn.I heard that some cemeteries can be dug up after so many years is that true?
kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on February 01, 2013:
Very interesting article! So many things to learn!
I find that old cemeteries are telling stories. It's easy to retrace whom was married to whom and retrace the genealogy. But with people travelling more and more around the world, I think in the future we will find less of that history we could find in the past.
I went to visit some war cemeteries in France (one American, one Canadian and a German one) and the layout, the look etc. is so interesting to see as well; it's also part of history!
Voted up and interesting!
Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on January 15, 2013:
Glimmer, it is quite fascinating! There are a few smaller cemeteries that I have on my to-do list, but they're on private property so finding the right channels to get permission can take some time. One day, I hope, the surveys will help even just one person find his or her ancestor - it is all worth it when that happens!
Claudia Mitchell on January 11, 2013:
This is fascinating. I've taken headstone rubbings before but honestly never really thought that much about the cemetery or the layout and such. Pinned. Interesting and up.
Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on January 11, 2013:
juliecaroline, thank you for taking the time to stop by and read this guide! It does take a lot of patience, and sometimes in the large cemeteries I will just record the information on the stone and not measure each one. Recently, I've been working on a very large cemetery that has over 70,000 burials (170+ acres). I go in to each section, fortunately they're mapped, and record what I can see. Another group had come in while I was doing this and has indexed more of the cemetery, so between our efforts, a list should be able to be published in the next few years.
Genealogy is very rewarding and I just love learning more about who the family members were that came before me. I'm heading out to our local Family History Center in a few minutes to do some research on some films from Poland that just came in!
juliecaroline from Olympia, Washington USA on January 10, 2013:
Thank you for the interesting article. This work takes much more patience and detail than I ever imagined. The article made me think of an archeological dig site. I admire your volunteerism very much. I have been into genealogy for a couple of years, and have discovered so many relatives and so many interesting things.
Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on January 10, 2013:
iguidenetwork, thanks for stopping by to comment! It definitely is a lot of work and takes patience, but in all honesty, many cemeteries are some of the most peaceful places I've been to, so it's actually pretty enjoyable and it is a lot of fun! I'm glad you found this guide useful! :)
iguidenetwork from Austin, TX on January 09, 2013:
I know that recording these data from a cemetery requires a lot of hard work, patience and diligence (and also guts), but I think it would also sound fun. I really enjoyed reading this article, so detailed and the list of the equipments and the tips are so complete.
Voted up, useful/interesting and shared. :)
Larkin Jackson on January 08, 2013:
Your welcome...thanks again for joining my community, Genealogy+.
Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on January 08, 2013:
Thank you for taking the time to comment! I'm glad you found some useful tips in it!
Larkin Jackson on January 08, 2013:
Wow really enjoyed the article. It went into great detail and, I found several useful tips. Thanks.