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Lessons Learned from Photographing 1000 Tombstones

Recently, I participated in a photo shoot at my local cemetery. The Norfolk Historical Society, for which I am a board member and volunteer, has taken on the task of photographing Oakwood Cemetery in Simcoe, Ontario. This is the largest cemetery in the county and contains over 14,000 graves.  My share of the project was section C --- 1000 graves.

Photographing this many tombstones in the span of about 3 weeks taught me a great deal about tombstones and cemeteries in general.  Here’s a few lessons, I learned, maybe they’ll help you next time you’re searching for an ancestor in a cemetery or photographing your family graves.

Check the Cemetery Records
There were a lot of missing stones, which the cemetery records provided names for. Just because you can't find a tombstone does not mean they aren't in the cemetery. Many were buried without a stone or final engraving. Check the cemetery records.

Don’t Trust the Cemetery Records
Cemeteries are run by people, often many people over the course of many years. People make mistakes and sometimes did not anticipate the size the cemetery would become 150 years later. I recommend you do not to completely trust the cemetery records for two reasons.

1.     Not everyone is where they are supposed to be. I recommend walking a least 3 rows on either side of where your ancestor’s grave is expected.  If the section is not too big, walk the entire section. 

2.    There were many people buried in the cemetery who were not on the list given to us by the county. Yup, not recorded. If you’re pretty sure your ancestor was buried in a particular cemetery, walk the cemetery even though the cemetery people are telling you differently. Of the 1000 tombstones I photographed, I found 20 graves not recorded in the cemetery records. I know many of my fellow volunteers were finding the same. 

Tombstones Offer More than Names and Dates
Sometimes a lot more information can be found on the tombstone than can found in the cemetery records. For example other family members, maiden names, causes of death, places of death, places of birth. Even interesting life milestones engraved on tombstones, like "first lady driver in the county." 

Go Gentle when Cleaning Tombstones
There have been plenty of articles written about the various methods to clean and read tombstones. You don’t need much more than a spray bottle of water and a soft brush to clean tombstones. Most became legible with a little spray of water and a soft brush.  I cleaned many tombstones that were unreadable when I started and were completely legible when I was done. Brush and water, nothing fancier or harsher required.

Go Prepared and Organized
Save yourself a lot of work by gathering all your tools in a handy carry-all. Here’s what I carried with me.   
Bug spray
Gardening gloves,
Gardening shears
Soft brush
Spray bottle of water
Extra battery for camera
Paper towels
Clear baggie to cover camera if it’s a little drizzly out
Bottle of water to keep hydrated
Protein bar to keep you going when you’re feeling peckish.
Soft cloth to clean camera
Notepad and pencil

Don’t Wait for the Perfect Sunny Day
Overcast day, chance of rain, don’t let that discourage you from photographing. Cloudy days were in fact the best days, no sun to deal with casting shadows on your stones. You also get a little less warn out without the sun beating down on you. I found the best times to photograph were early in the day or around 4pm in the evening, sun was not intense, temperatures were a little cooler.

Be Respectful
I did have to forego one day, because there was an interment in my section. Be respectful of funerals and those who have come to the cemetery to grieve.  If you’re from out of town, go for a coffee or lunch until the funeral is over and everyone has cleared.

Review Your Pictures at Your Earliest Convenience
If you live a distance away, review your pictures before you leave the cemetery, make sure you can read the stones, check to make sure you haven’t cast a shadow of yourself over the stone, and that the stone is in focus and readable.  I did about 150-200 photos per session, so I reviewed them later at home and went back to re-shoot a few that didn’t turn out as expected.

Check with your local archives and see if they are conducting a cemetery project in your area and volunteer. I learned a great deal about photographing tombstones. It improved by photography skills by virtue of volume alone, but more importantly, I learned a lot about the past residents of my county and I gleamed a few stories that I just may have to write. 

This project was done with the permission of the county that operates and maintains the cemetery. They shared their lists with us; in exchange we will share our pictures with them.

Do you have any added advice for photographing tombstones? 


D. B. said...

Thanks for your great article! This year I discovered a wonderful group in New Hampshire when I was trying to find the resting place of my 2nd gr grandparents. It is the New Hampshire Old Graveyards Association (NHOGA) which helps to maintain & restore old graveyards in the state. They have field trips and educate the volunteers in correct procedures. Perhaps there are other associations in other states which do the same?

Lynn Palermo said...

Thanks D.B, that is a great idea for local genealogy groups and associations ---to conduct field trips to educate on correct procedures of finding and cleaning your ancestors tombstone.

Andrea Powell said...

The small town of New Denver in BC, Canada runs the cemetery where my ancestors had two family plots. I visited the town office before going up to the cemetery. They were nice enough to photocopy the file cards for the 2 plots & they brought out the large map of the cemetery to show me where the plots are located. They let me stand on a chair to photograph the map. The lady even remembered 2 of my grand-uncles that lived in the town & was able to tell me a little about them.

CVal said...

I love your graving kit. I've put together something similar for myself. Now I just have to remember to put on the sunscreen!

Good article, very helpful.-

LBB said...

This is interesting to me just because my great grandfather died while on a vacation in Simcoe, Ontario. Small world! He was buried in his home town of Flint, Michigan, so no need to look for his grave in Simcoe, but I love the connection. I am fascinated by cemeteries - what a great project to be involved in.

Colleen G. Brown Pasquale said...

Wonderful tips. You must be warn out from all those trips to the cemetery & many, many photos. I am curious as to why the Norfolk Historical Society [in Virginia?] is taking photos of a cemetery in Canada.

Lynn Palermo said...

Colleen, this cemetery is located in Norfolk County, in Ontario Canada and I am a volunteer and board director for The Norfolk Historical Society in Simcoe, Ontario Canada.

Anonymous said...

Use a tripod, and if possible take 2 pics of each grave because occasionally you may mess up with the focusing. Photograph context shots so that you know where the graves are for the future, if there is a row marker try to get a pic of that marker with the grave next to it too. Dont fall in any holes.

Dodgers said...

Here's a safer way to photograph tombstones. It takes two people and a cooperating sun. Buy a small, light-weight mirror like the ones that go on bedroom doors. About 4-5' tall by about 18" wide. Stand a few yards to the left or right side of the gravestone (best on standing ones). Horizontally, at about 3 or 9 o'clock on the face of a clock. Shine the sun's light across the front of the stone. The second person photographs the stone. (Can also be done alone with a tripod and timer.) The sunlight catches the indentations and causes a shadow effect. You'll be amazed at the results. Courtesy of a friend who restores cemeteries and tombstones.

Gerald Vonberger said...

These are excellent tips for visiting gravestones and photographing them. I'll bet you get some good ideas for designs for your gravestone as well. My wife and I have started to look for monuments, and it's hard to decide what style you want. You don't want to be one of those blokes that has an enormous obelisk structure to show the world how important he is, but you do want a nice representation of your life for your family to remember you by. It's a fine line, that's for sure.