How to Transcribe and Photograph Cemeteries


Cemetery is a plot of land that contains the remains of deceased people. Graves are marked with a headstone or marker that indicates who is buried there.

For many, cemeteries are a peaceful and tranquil place for reflection and connection with loved ones who have died. This space can also inspire a deeper awareness of our own mortality, encouraging introspection and a change in perspective.

Identifying Your Ancestors

The inscriptions on your ancestor’s tombstone can reveal more than just their birth and death dates. You can discover things like their branch of the military, religion and other interests through the symbols they chose to include on their headstone. It can also help break down brick walls in your research by connecting you with other relatives who are buried nearby.

If you haven’t already, explore online cemetery databases such as FindAGrave and BillionGraves. These websites are based on user submissions and may not contain complete information, but they can be useful for locating grave sites that aren’t listed elsewhere.

Make sure to examine a headstone from all angles, including the back and sides. If a stone has inscriptions on more than one side, tap the link icon to keep them together. You can also use this feature to connect photos of multiple family members who share the same headstone. This can be particularly helpful for obelisks and other multi-sided tombstones.

Locating Cemeteries

While there are several compilations of cemetery information, it’s important to visit the actual cemeteries to transcribe and photograph gravestones. Each cemetery has its own ownership structure, financial endowment plan and staff configuration. They can be public or private, religious or secular, for-profit or not-for-profit, and may also operate funeral homes.

Cemetery research can provide valuable insights on ethnic groups that lived in an area, lifestyles and historical events that occurred there. They can also reveal how poor or affluent the area was.

Before you head to the cemetery, start by searching online obituaries and visiting funeral homes (see classroom lesson Taking a Field Trip). You can also try published family histories. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, check directly with the cemetery sexton or front office staff. They may be able to provide you with maps of the cemetery, plots and their locations, or even offer some tips on locating the specific grave site of your ancestor.

Visiting Cemeteries

It is important to remember that a cemetery is not just a place of mourning but also a community space. There are specific rules and etiquette that should be followed to ensure a pleasant experience for all who visit the grounds. If you have children with you, it is a good idea to talk about these rules before your trip.

Most cemeteries have websites that outline their visiting hours and rules. You can also call the office and ask about these rules and regulations.

While you are in the cemetery, it is best to only walk on the paths that the cemetery has created for visitors to use. Doing so will help keep the cemetery clean, and it will allow you to focus more on paying your respects. When you are done with your visit, it is important to leave quickly so that other people can get in and out of the cemetery. It is also a good idea to leave a little bit early so that the cemetery is not overcrowded with visitors.

Taking Photos

When taking photos in a cemetery, it’s best to be respectful of those who are there to mourn. Avoid rubbing or scratching the stones or erecting structures on them (like an altar or trellis) unless you have the express permission of the family. Also avoid using techniques that alter the image of a gravestone or tomb, like infrared photography and extreme HDR processing.

A camera with a wide angle lens is essential for most cemetery shots, but a zoom can also come in handy. If the cemetery allows it, a drone can provide a unique perspective of the whole space.

Look for interesting details on the stone or a monument: texture, lichen and moss, carvings and text. Take a close shot of the inscription, and a distant one that shows the marker in relation to others in the cemetery. If the headstone is a family plot, note where other members of the family are buried as well.

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