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Cemeteries and Gravestones - A Unique Resource

Cemeteries and gravestones are a crucial help to family historians. The location of a grave, the stone's information, the symbols, and even the type and style of the stone are all clues and hints that inform us about our ancestor.

I recently read a phenomenal book all about cemeteries and gravestones. It is such a great resource that I must share it with you! Read on for my thoughts.
Written for genealogists by a genealogist

Cemetery and Gravestone Handbook For Genealogists & Family Historians, Review
by Kim Richardson

Gary W. Clark is an author, photo historian, and genealogist. Photography has been an enduring pastime throughout his life. As a genealogist, he researches family and historical events. Combining those skills, he has written guidebooks about analyzing photographs, photo restoration, digitizing slides and negatives, and GAR and Union Veteran research. He also wrote A Soldier's Insight Into Military Chaos and several historical books: Lessons From The Gibson Girl – Her Quest for Equality, Justice, and Love; and Cruel Irony – Triumphs and Tragedies of a Modern Woman.

The focus of this review, Clark’s Cemetery and Gravestone Handbook For Genealogists & Family Historians, is a much-needed and well-organized guide about cemeteries and gravestones. This book is a must-have for any genealogist, but it will not be found in my library. I keep the book in my car because I want it with me when I stop at cemeteries. Yes, it is that good! It is full of tips and tricks I wish I had known when I started doing cemetery work.

The Cemetery and Gravestone Handbook is an essential resource for any genealogist who ventures into cemeteries. There is nothing in the book that is not helpful.

The book is approximately nine inches by eleven inches and about one-quarter inch thick. It is 113 total pages, including an index. The book’s cover and pages are high-quality stock and paper. The font is large enough to read without difficulty, and the letters are crisply printed. The writing is concise and easy to understand. Nothing is said that is unnecessary or boring or drawn out.

The structure of each topic is easy to follow. Clark tells the reader why the information is important. Then, he succinctly and simply explains the concept at hand. He discusses everything: safety, what to wear, what to take with you, how to take the best pictures, cleaning, documenting, symbolism, military graves, etc.

Clark begins by detailing popular cemetery and memorial websites, giving a solid overview of their purpose and how to best use each to find your ancestors. A handy form to help you properly capture and document all the pertinent information on the headstone is provided toward the back of the book. Instructions are given regarding how to use online maps to find gravesites and cemeteries so that you can visit them in person. He even explains the technology of GPS, why it is helpful, and how to use it to document grave locations. If you do not find your ancestor’s gravesite listed online, he describes how to use newspapers and old maps to locate cemeteries where they may be so that you can look for them in person.

Clark offers directions and tips for visiting the cemetery. He explains how to locate the grave within the cemetery. He lists and discusses safety considerations including wildlife, poisonous plants, collapsing graves, wildlife, and personal safety. Tips to approach older (possibly unstable) stones are given as well as special considerations for taking children along for the visit.

Clark discusses types of cemeteries and the symbols on headstones that can reveal information about your ancestor. Many symbols identifying religious and fraternal affiliations are documented. Clear, good photographs of numerous examples are included.

Clark provides an entire section on photographing headstones, and the exceptional photography in the book stands witness that he knows the subject well. He lists the equipment and simple, everyday items you need to gain the best lighting. He demonstrates how lighting alone can make unreadable stones readable and give you the best view of the letters and engraving. He illustrates how to take a photograph of the gravesite and other landmarks in the cemetery to show its location in the cemetery so you (and others) can easily find it again in the future. Tips and tricks for using foil to capture the most faded letters and artwork are included with step-by-step photos.

More than twenty pages of the book discuss different aspects of military burials. He outlines the different types of cemeteries and headstones, gives directions to help find veterans’ graves and conduct further research, and examines the meanings of symbols on the headstones, along with clarifications of the abbreviated acronyms. He even gives a very helpful explanation of things like rank and branch of service abbreviations.

As any genealogist would hope, an entire chapter is dedicated to identifying the material used to create the headstones and how to care for them. Clark also points out what NOT to do and whether you need permission to clean the stone before you start. He clearly explains why headstones discolor and deteriorate over time and what can be done to help. Cleaning solutions – both safe and harmful – are discussed and listed. And lastly, cleaning directions are included along with before and after photographs.

If you want more information, he thought of that, too. Towards the back of the book, you will find nine supplementary appendices, including a whole page of referral and reference sources. An index is also included.

The Cemetery and Gravestone Handbook is an essential resource for any genealogist who ventures into cemeteries. Clark’s guide is written for genealogists by a genealogist, and that specialized knowledge comes through clearly. The book is easy to understand, offers invaluable insight, and covers all aspects of cemetery research. You will not find a bunch of unnecessary fluff. He offers nothing that is not helpful. The photos are well done. The information is rich. You will learn something new and want to keep this guide handy for those trips to the cemetery. The guidebook is available on Amazon and at

*I was not asked to review this book and received nothing for doing so. I chose to review it because it is a valuable resource for all family historians.


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