Leave That Shaving Cream at Home Taking Care of Gravestones

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I’m not sure where the month of May has gone, but Memorial Day is upon us once again. In the past, this holiday was often a time for loved ones to meet at the family cemetery plot to spruce it up a bit, reminisce and tell family stories, and perhaps have a family picnic. Today, we are far less apt to make such visits  social occasions, but often still mark the day with a cemetery visit, leaving flowers or small flags in honor of family members who are no longer with us. Perhaps we even take the opportunity to seek out grave sites that we have recently discovered order to decipher what they can tell us about individuals in our family’s history.

Do your homework prior to going to a cemetery (whether for your first trip or a return visit). If the site is reasonably large, look for a cemetery website to determine its hours (both gate and office), and rules about leaving flowers, etc. If you contact the office in advance, you may find that they will have a copy of any existing records waiting for you when you arrive and may even lead you to the specific grave site if you don’t know or can’t remember. The information available will vary, but may include maps of the plot possibly indicating burials for which there are no stones, funeral home records, obituaries from the local paper, receipts for payment for the purchase of the plot, etc. One very helpful source, in addition to a cemetery’s own web site, is findagrave.com. When I was preparing for my trip to Charleston and the NGS conference earlier this month, I spent several days organizing my research into my mother-in-law’s family. While I was compiling the various documents, I happened to check Findagrave and discovered that several generations’ individuals included in my particular line were represented on the site. Not only was I able to identify which cemeteries, but I also found pictures of specific grave stones, information to add to family group sheets, Civil War military units, and much more.

Not only will you want to gather available information before you leave home, but you will also want to prepare what I call a “cemetery preparedness kit” (best only for car trips). I carry a plastic bin that includes garden clippers (for use in small, overgrown family plots), garden gloves, bug spray, sun screen, an umbrella, a couple of gallon jugs of water, a natural bristle brush, a package of tongue depressors or popsicle sticks, a mirror (the largest you can comfortably fit in your bin), masking tape, a roll of shelf paper, and rubbing wax. In addition, you will want a notebook or laptop and your digital camera.

Once you arrive, begin by taking a picture of the cemetery gates and sign to document its location. In larger cemeteries you may be able to obtain a printed map from the office showing the layout of the various sections of the cemetery. You will want to survey the entire cemetery, as everyone in your family may not be buried together. Young married women might have been buried near their parents or their husband’s parents; elderly parents might be buried near other family members with whom they may have been living at the time of their deaths. Sometimes family members are found serendipitously. In the Springfield (Massachusetts) Cemetery several years ago, I solved at least one family mystery by wandering a couple of plots away (for no apparent reason on my part) from the one in which I had primary interest, and discovered the grave of a brother and a second husband. Who knew!  If the cemetery is a very old one, stones may have been moved or rearranged, underscoring the need to look at all stones if possible.

After you have located a specific grave site, describe its location by counting rows from the gate and then by counting the number of stones (either right or left of the road), and the name, if any, of the street. Then document the information included on the stone. If the grave includes “relict” after a woman’s name, it means that she survived after the death of her spouse (who may or may not be buried nearby). Thus a married woman’s grave can refer to her both as “relict” (survived her first husband) and wife (died before her second husband). Both men and women may be referred to as “consort,” meaning that they died prior to the death of their spouse. If the wording and numbers on the stone are difficult to use, do not use shaving cream or chalk, to help you decipher the text. Grave stones, particularly sandstone and marble ones, are very susceptible to the chemicals included in these products, which also can interact badly with minerals, etc. that wick up into the stone from the dirt surrounding it. Instead, use plenty of water, and then brush softly with your natural bristle brush and tongue depressors to dislodge lichens and dirt. Once the stone is cleaner, take the mirror from your cemetery kit and angle it in such a manner as to direct bright sunlight at an angle across the fact of the stone. This light should make the text clearer to read. Take several pictures to consult later. You may also want to check the cemetery office, the local library, or the local historical society to see if there are earlier inventories and transcriptions of the cemetery’s grave stones which might assist you in reading the information on the stone. (Remember, the stone may have been inscribed several, or even many, years after the event and therefore may contain incorrect information).

Pay particular attention to any fraternal emblems, military markers, occupational symbols or artwork on the stone. Each of these embellishments provides a clue to information about your ancestor’s life. He or she may, for example, have been a member of the Masonic order or have served in the Civil War. Particularly with earlier generations, the choice of artwork or symbol was intended to add further information, particularly for those individuals who could not read. Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone: a Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography (Gibbs Smith, 2004) is a good source for interpreting grave stone symbols. Weeping willow trees were very popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and signified grief and sorrow, but also signified immortality; draped urns were a symbol of the veil between heaven and earth; daisies, doves, and lambs often indicated a child’s burial; primroses represented eternal love, memory or youth; and arches depicted a doorway to heaven.

While you may have gravestone rubbing paper and wax in your kit, do not begin this process without first ascertaining if it is allowed by the particular cemetery. (Some states have even banned the practice.) If allowed, you will then need to determine if the stone you wish to rub is stable. Acid rain has been very detrimental to horizontal grave stones, and sulfur dioxide from carbon emissions has affected upright stones. Many types of stone erode from the inside out and, while they may look solid on the surface, the pressure of rubbing can cause them to fracture or implode, thus damaging them irreparably. Still others are susceptible to flaking and cracking, or are wobbly or insecurely mounted. If found to be stable, completely cover the stone with paper, taping the paper securely to itself, making sure that you will leave no residue on the stone. Then you may proceed with your rubbing – cautiously and carefully.

Several organizations can provide you with further information about gravestones and their conservation and preservation, including the Association for Gravestone Studies, an international organization based in Greenfield, Massachusetts; and the Center for Thanatology Research and Education Inc. Some organizations, such as the Connecticut Gravestone Network, provide information on maintenance, photographing, and documenting old cemeteries in specific states.

Other resources will assist you in locating a cemetery that pertains to your family research. A keyword search for tombstones on genealogical.com provides thirteen titles of inscriptions and cemeteries in various locations such as David Dobson’s Scottish-American Gravestones, 1700-1900 (Clearfield, 2003) and Jacob Holdcraft’s  Names in Stone: 75,000 Cemetery Inscriptions from Frederick County, Maryland (Clearfield, 2002). In my home library, I found related titles such as Betty Willsher’s Understanding Scottish Graveyards (Canongate Books, 1985); Charles Rogers’ two-volume set, Scottish Monuments and Tombstones (Heritage Books, 1871, reprinted 1997); and Judi Culbertson and Tom Randal’s Permanent Londoners: an Illustrated, Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of London (Walker and Co., 1991).

Cemeteries provide information and clues to help further our research. Treating grave stones appropriately will insure that they will remain available for future generations.

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