thomas tombstone
Genealogy Research

Cemetery Research: Six Photos You Must Take

Enjoy genealogy success with these tips for cemetery research. Learn what photos you MUST take before leaving the cemetery!

As I write this article, fall has finally arrived here in North Carolina. It’s such a nice break from the summer heat and humidity. 

There is another reason I love fall…… It’s a great time of year to perform my on-site cemetery research

Yes, my family thinks I’m a bit strange, but you, my fellow genealogy researchers, understand. 🙂

While travel is still rather restricted or limited due to the pandemic, I didn’t let that stop me from getting outside on a recent weekend.

I created my own heritage travel day all within about 30 minutes of home.  

My husband and I planned out 3 stops, all of which were historical cemeteries. The last cemetery we visited was the family cemetery of my Barbee ancestors dating back to the 1700’s. 

Be still my genealogist’s heart!

Standing on the former homeplace land and where my ancestors stood alomost 300 years ago is a feeling that cannot be described.

Let’s get on to sharing tips for cemetery research, so you will be successful! Specifically, I want to share with you the 6 photographs I take at every cemetery I research in.

gray old tombstone above tan square with white lettering 6 photos to take at the family cemetery
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What To Take for a Day of Cemetery Research

Usually when researchers do on-site research at a cemetery, they only have one visit to get all of the clues and pertinent information. It’s important to have a plan and the needed supplies for a successful trip.

Your cemetery research “packing” list

  • A camera.  Whether you use your cell phone camera or a traditional type of camera, this one is obvious. Don’t leave it at home! (I use my cell phone camera.)
  • Updated app on the cell phone.  Having access to your family tree and any notes is helpful.
  • The Travel Scarf. This beautiful not only keeps you warm and stylish, but allows you to be hands-free while exploring the cemetery. It’s hidden pocket holds keys, your ID, and a bit of money (for a cup of coffee afterwards). No carrying around a purse or backpack for you.
  • TravelWifi. If you will be exploring a cemetery with poor cell service, consider using Travel Wifi. It’s portable wifi that fits in your back pocket. You will be able to access genealogy databases and perform on the spot research.  [It works well at crowded conferences, too, when the wifi is overcrowded.]
  • A good pair of walking shoes. (I wear my hiking shoes.)
  • Bug spray! You will not always need it, but when you do….

Photos Tips For Cemetery Research – Which Photographs You MUST Take!

Now on to the photographs…I have found if I take specific photographs, I can capture important information about the cemtery quickly and easily. 

Below are the photographs I take at each cemetery. 

#1 The Front Entrance

Take a photograph of the front entrance of the cemetery.  Make sure to include close-up photographs of any signage. You will often find a sign with information about the hours of operation as well as a phone number of the office.

Central City Cemetery Entrance metal gate with dirt road leading into it.
Central City Cemetery, Colorado

You definitely want to make note of the office phone number. You may need to contact them in the future if you turn up something else in your genealogy research or want to pursue the burial records.

If a cemetery map is posted at the interest. Take a photograph of that as well! Basically, take a photograph of any and all signage as you enter.

#2 The General Layout of the Cemetery

You will want to take photos of the general landscape and lay out of the cemetery.  I am a visual person, so those photos help to trigger my memory as I put together the clues once back home. Additionally, by taking time to notice the landscape, additional information such as size, stone types and age of various sections can be noted and remembered.

#3 The Ancestor’s  Gravestone(s)

Now for the fun part! Start taking photographs of your ancestor’s gravesite.  Take a photo of the front AND THE BACK of the gravestone. Obviously taking a photograph of the front of the gravestone requires no explanation.

Gray gravestone with names of Sarah and Grisham Thomas in middle of cemetery with green grass.
Front of Sarah and Grisham Thomas Gravestone

Then walk around behind it and take a photograph of the back. Important information about the deceased or even another ancestor can be found on the back of a gravestone.  Notice Sarah’s maiden name of Oliver on the back of the tombstone below!

Back of Thomas gravestone with names of Grisham and Sarah Oliver Thomas. Children's name include Anderson, Pauline, Yearby, Lorenza, Wesley and William Otis.
Back of Grisham and Sarah Thomas Gravestone

[Watch out for fire ants when you do this! 🐜]

Keep in mind gravestones are secondary sources to your research. This Thomas gravestone was obviously place many years after the events occurred. This means mistakes could have happened. Document what you find and then confirm with other records.

#4 The Tombstones On All Sides of Your Ancestor(s)

Once you’ve finished taking photographs of your ancestor’s gravestone, step back and look around.  Take photographs of the gravestones on either side of your ancestor and in front of /in back of your ancestor. 

Do not skip taking a photograph even if you are unsure who that person is.

 #5 Every Gravestone in the Family Plot

Is your ancestor buried  in a family plot? If so, take photographs of every gravestone in the plot.

Family plots are often marked with a border of some sort. It could be a low wall or an elaborate fence.

Even if you do not know the identity and relationship of every person buried in the family plot, take the photograph anyway.  They were buried there for a reason. [Learn more about what that family cemetery is really telling you.]

vertical tombstone for Nellie, beloved wife of D. O. Ballard. Gravetone in old cemetery among Ash trees with yellow leaves.

#6 The Family Marker, if present.

Take a photograph of the family marker if one is present.  This seems intuitive, but well, I’ve overlooked this previously and missed a big family history clue.  Don’t let that happe to you!

#7 (Optional) Interesting Tombstones and Symbolism You Might See

Tombstones come in a variety of shapes, sizes and artistic styles. Take photographs of interesting and unique gravestones even if the deceased is not part of my research.

Gravestone markings and styles can be quite symbolic. The more you understand gravestone symbolism, the better you will be able to evaluate the tombstones of my own ancestors. 

Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards (Messages from the Dead)  by Tui Snider is a excellent resource for learning more about cemetery symbols.  (It sits on my bookshelf!)

Next time you find yourself researching your ancestors in a cemetery, grab your camera and start capturing the images of your trip. Back home when you sit down to analyze your research notes, you will be glad you did!

Other Posts on Cemetery Research Of Interest:

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  • alvarose

    Those are great tips. Mine has to do with lighting. I haven’t watched it in a while. I saw a you tube videos by a young guy that carved tombstones wanted people not to use things like shaving cream etc to try and fill in info so you could read better.
    He showed how much light you can get on the stone. He approached from a headstone preservation angle.
    Have a long, cheap, mirror with you. Have the person with you hold it so it reflects the sunlight onto where you need it to be.
    The face of the stone for the best pictures especially good for old, weathered or hard to read ones.

  • Jackie

    Great tips! On a family visit 2 years ago I located a church and cemetery on land donated by my 4th great grandfather. He and his wife were buried there, as well as many more ancestors. Needless to say, I was like a kid in a candy shop!

  • DEANNA A Cooley

    I have called the cemetery were my great grandma is buried but she had no headstone and I have asked for a marker so I may get her a headstone and one was never put down ,can you help me I dont know what else I can do.

    • LisaL

      I’m not sure what else you can do. Perhaps contact the county government department that oversees cemeteries in the area and ask for their recommendations.

    • Fran G.

      try getting in touch with a local funeral director and ask him who puts up stones. They can also have the engraving done & give you a quote for a price. If you live out of the area ask them jto send a few photos of the finished results. Good to have these so you know the work was done properly & you will have them for the family tree.

  • Rochelle

    I wished I would’ve taken paper and a pencil to go over the names! Some are so old you can’t make out the name anymore! But to go over it with the paper and pencil could help!

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