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 remain.

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 grader's crayon.

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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