Genealogy Road Trip Tips for Visiting Cemeteries

cemeteryEarlier this year, I wrote an article on tips for genealogy road trips for Family Tree Magazine’s July/August 2014 issue. I got to talk with staff at top destinations for genealogists around the country, and we gathered great advice from the readers on the magazine’s Facebook page.

Writing the article inspired me to go on a little genealogy road trip of my own this summer. In July, I traveled with my aunt Diane and cousin Carolyn to visit three cemeteries in the Chicago area where my ancestors are buried.

In the process, I learned a few things that might also help other genealogists preparing for similar trips. Here are six things I learned:

Schwer gravestone

Blassius Schwer headstone

1. Look for the stone, even if the cemetery office tells you it doesn’t exist. At Mount Greenwood Cemetery in Chicago we stopped in the cemetery office to get directions to gravestones we were looking for. The staff looked up our ancestor, Blassius Schwer. They told us he didn’t have headstone, but that it appeared others with the same last name were buried near him. We wrote down the location of his burial plot and decided to go ahead and look anyway.

Guess what? We found Blassius’ headstone. His wife and two other relatives were on the same headstone. The stone had his birth and death information, a notation that he was from Baden, Germany, and a few lines of other text in German (which we later had translated).

Grau gravestone

The inscription on this headstone is easy to read after pouring water over it.

2. Bring water (or a small bucket). Many of the old gravestones we went to see were difficult to read. Gravestone deterioration, dirt covering the stone, and the way the sunlight and shade fell often didn’t help. What did help us read gravestone inscriptions was simply pouring a little water over the stones. It darkened the inscription letters, and made them easier to read. You can bring bottled water, or bring a bucket so you can use water spigot on the cemetery grounds.

3. Bring gardening gloves and tools. Some of the stones we saw had sunken into the ground and were partially covered in dirt. Others were covered with grass clippings from mowing earlier that day.

TIggelaar gravestone

Gravestone that sunk and was covered partially by dirt

Luckily, I had thrown in a pair of gardening gloves to bring at the last minute. I wore those to wipe away the debris from the stones. If I could do it over again, I would also bring some small gardening tools—perhaps a tiny shovel—to help clear away any packed on dirt on top of stones.

4. Bring mosquito repellant. I forgot to use the mosquito repellant I brought with at our first stop. And I got bit by a mosquito within the first five minutes outside of the car. The next time we stopped, I remembered to carry my Off! Mosquito Repellant Clip-on Fan with me. I didn’t get bit any other time that day. Lesson learned.

5. Check with cemetery offices before your trip. While all the cemeteries we visited in July had cemetery offices open right on the cemetery grounds, many cemeteries do not. My aunt told me of several cemeteries in the town where she lives that have the cemetery office located off the cemetery property. Be sure to call ahead to find out the cemetery hours and the cemetery office’s hours and location to ensure you’ll be able to find your ancestor’s burial places, as well as the cemetery office, once you arrive.

6. Report sunken stones. One stone of an ancestor had sunk about 8 inches deeper than the other ones around it, so we reported it to the cemetery office staff. The cemetery caretaker will raise the stone back up, so it can still be seen for years to come.


Dana McCullough is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes, edits, copy-edits, and proofreads content for magazines, blogs, websites, books, and more. She is the owner of Dana’s Creative Services.


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