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Cemetery Surveys Can Help Uncover the Past (& Solve Brick Walls)

One fascinating aspect of genealogy is conducting a cemetery survey. As we stroll through the peaceful grounds of final resting places, we unveil stories, connections, and hidden treasures that help us learn more about our ancestors and solve genealogy brick walls. Surveys also allow us to honor our ancestors and enrich our family histories. So, grab your notebook and camera, and let's embark on this meaningful task!

Before we jump into the nitty-gritty, take a moment to appreciate the importance of cemetery surveys. These surveys serve as invaluable resources for genealogists like us, as they provide accurate records of burials, tombstone inscriptions, and other vital information that might not be available elsewhere. Often, our surveys will be the only surviving documentation of a grave. These records can break down brick walls when the cemetery is damaged by natural disasters or headstones have not survived the effects of time. (In my own family research, surveys are the only record I found of some burials where tornadoes destroyed the cemetery, and I am GRATEFUL to the kind souls who did them!) Conducting surveys is a great service to the whole community. Plus, it helps gain a deeper understanding of the lives our ancestors led.

Preparing for the Journey
First things first – before setting foot in a cemetery, it's crucial to do some groundwork. Begin by researching the cemetery you plan to visit. Look for its history, any available maps or plot records, and find out if any existing surveys or transcriptions are already accessible. This preliminary information will guide your exploration and save you time on-site.

Additionally, consider reaching out to local historical societies, genealogical societies, or even the cemetery caretakers themselves. These individuals can provide valuable insights, tips, and sometimes even unlock hidden details about the cemetery or specific gravesites you're interested in.

Tools of the Trade
As with any expedition, having the right tools will make your cemetery survey smoother and more efficient. Here are a few essentials to pack in your genealogy toolkit:

- Notebook and pens: You'll want to jot down observations, record tombstone inscriptions, and document any interesting details or symbols you come across. Consider using waterproof pens or pencils to prevent smudging if the weather isn't on your side.

- Camera or smartphone: Capturing high-quality photographs of tombstones is essential for both your personal records and potential collaborations with other genealogists. Don't forget extra batteries or a portable charger!

- Clipboard and survey forms: Organize your data by using pre-made cemetery survey forms or create your own. These forms typically include fields for recording names, birth and death dates, epitaphs, and other relevant details.

Navigating the Cemetery
Now that you're equipped with knowledge and tools, let's talk about navigating the cemetery grounds. Here are a couple of tips to help you make the most of your survey:

- Create a systematic approach: It's easy to get overwhelmed when faced with rows upon rows of tombstones. Start with a plan – divide the cemetery into sections and work methodically. This way, you'll maintain focus and avoid duplicating efforts.

- Capture context: Tombstone inscriptions are undoubtedly essential, but don't overlook the bigger picture. Take photographs of the surrounding area, landscape, and cemetery features that may provide additional context or tell a broader story.

Decoding Tombstone Inscriptions
As you wander among the tombstones, you'll encounter an array of inscriptions – names, dates, epitaphs, and more. Each holds a clue, a piece of the puzzle we're piecing together. Here are some tips for decoding tombstone inscriptions:

-Bring a mirror: For weathered or difficult-to-read inscriptions, a small handheld mirror can be your secret weapon. Reflect sunlight or artificial light onto the inscription, and you might uncover hidden details that were previously invisible.

-Be observant: Tombstones often carry meaningful symbols or icons representing religious affiliations, military service, fraternal organizations, or personal interests. Researching these symbols can provide valuable insights into your ancestors' lives.

-Document it all: Even seemingly insignificant details might become significant later. Capture not only the names and dates but also note any variations in spelling, nicknames, or maiden names. These subtle details can make a world of difference in your research.

After the Survey
Following your survey, it's time to make the most of the information you've collected. Here's what you can do:

-Transcribe your data: Transfer your notes, photographs, and any additional findings onto a computer or database. This ensures your hard work remains organized and accessible for future reference or sharing with fellow genealogists.

-Collaborate and share: Consider contributing your findings to online genealogy forums, cemetery databases, or local historical societies. Sharing your work not only helps others but also encourages collaboration, potentially filling gaps in your research with the insights of fellow enthusiasts.

-Preserve and honor: Remember, your survey is a valuable contribution to preserving local history. Consider sharing your findings with the cemetery caretakers, local library and historical societies, or even creating a dedicated webpage or blog to honor the lives you've uncovered.

If you’d like a fabulous resource for gravestones and cemeteries, check out Cemetery and Gravestone Handbook For Genealogists & Family Historians by Gary W. Clark. My review of the book is here: To sum up my opinion of it: the guide was written for genealogists by a genealogist, and it is the best resource I have found. I keep it in my car because I often see a cemetery and just decide to stop - the guide is that good, I want it with me for all those unplanned cemetery visits. *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.

Do you have genealogy mysteries or want guidance organizing your research? The Brick Wall Buster Cards are for you!


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