Recording Dates from Gravestones
by Lisa South, Certified Genealogist
My husband and I have trekked many graveyards locating
and recording information found on tombstones. We've done it at
night with flashlights. We've done it with babes in arms and we've
done it at the risk of having to buy out all the "Chigger-rid"
the local stores had in stock - and it's always been worth it!
Many graveyards have been canvassed and the information
has been put on the internet. This is a real boon to genealogists;
yet, if at all possible, it is still better if you can actually
go to the cemetery yourself. When someone else copies the information
from a tombstone, there is always the possibility of error. Also
the way the tombstones are laid out is often a clue to family relationships.
When you copy information from cemetery headstones, you should always
also include a simple map or description indicating the physical
placement of the graves. Another good reason to visit the cemetery
yourself is that it gives you the opportunity to copy information
from the tombstones close to the one you've been looking for, especially
if it appears to be a family plot. This information can give you
clues about family relationships which you may have been missing.
You can extract the information from a gravestone,
but of course that makes the document less valuable because it is
a copy. Photographs of the tombstone are considered an original
of the source (for information about evaluating a source see "How
to Evaluate Genealogy Documents" in OGF archives). You should
never put anything on the stone that could damage it, nor should
you try to dig out the letters to make them clearer. Before taking
the picture you can wash it off with water and if necessary brush
gently with a soft brush. Many sites will suggest that you put shaving
cream on the tombstone and scrap it off with a soft scraper before
taking a picture. Although this does make the stone much easier
to read, shaving creams contain chemicals that will damage the stone.
Even if you wipe or rinse off the cream, harmful residue may still
Some people like to make grave rubbings of the tombstone.
There are many places where grave rubbings are illegal and you could
receive a stiff fine, so be sure to make inquiries. A good grade
of paper large enough to cover the tombstone, 100% cotton rag drafting
vellum, or butcher paper all work well. You can rub with a lumber
crayon from a lumber yard, brass rubbing wax or even a large 1st
The first step in tombstone rubbing is to brush the
stone. Using a soft bristle brush, gently brush away anything that
would interfere with the rubbing. Do not scrub! Place paper over
tombstone, having two people is the easiest - one to hold the paper
in place and one to make the rubbing. You can also make one large
rubberband out of regular rubber bands (the way you did when you
were a kid) and hold the paper on the tombstone with the "giant"
rubber band. Rub carefully so that you do not tear the paper or
damage the tombstone. After completing the rubbing and removing
it from the stone, you can spray the paper with a spray fixative
to prevent it from blurring.
ALWAYS treat the grave with respect and completely
clean up the area before leaving.
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