Robert's Cemetery Site
On Reading Stones

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On Reading Cemeteries
By Robert M. Sizelove, Sr.


During the spring of 1996, I began transcribing memorial stones. I first started for quite selfish reasons, mainly, due to the interest in finding additional data on my ancestors, that I couldn't find at courthouses. After discovering the county genealogical and historical societies had very little cemetery research on the townships that I was interested in. In some cases, the memorial stones held all that was known, because some family individuals were born and met untimely death between census reports and before birth or death certificates were issued. I soon realized that many good folks were not able to tread through these out of the way and sometimes very deserted areas. So, after locating and reading one, I realized how rewarding the effort could be to others. Some folks live so far away, they couldn't possibly get to the cemetery, or perhaps they are handicapped or have a health condition and not physically able to read them. I must thank my dear family, although most don't share my love of cemetery research, they do tolerate it, my dear wife is always making sure I leave with plenty of liquid refreshments, food, proper tools, wide brimmed hats and now they make sure I have a working cell phone with me. They're all supportive in the sense that although I'm sometimes gone for many hours on Saturday or Sunday, it's without complaints, at least I hope they miss me. I'm going to try to explain as best I can, my thought process to accomplish the reading of cemeteries, and hopefully get you started knowing enough to make it an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Cemeteries are usually very peaceful quiet places, and in addition to this, the first time a stranger sends an email thanking you for finding their long lost loved one, you will understand how much others appreciate how well your time was spent. Sometimes they ask, "How can I ever repay you for finding my great-great ancestor?" I usually thank them for their kind letters and mention one way would be to read all or part of a cemetery near them, this perpetuate the effort to even more descendants searching for the burial place of their loved ones.
Once you've found a cemetery that interest you and decide to transcribe it. Do some preliminary research, determine ownership, locate the caretaker or person or group responsible for the care of the cemetery. Explain that you want to conduct a survey of the burials and record the information on the markers and ask for permission to do so, this is especially important if it is a privately owned cemetery. You will want to ask about any specific requirements or courtesies that you should be aware of and observe for the cemetery. I highly recommend before you ask the preceding question you do some study time and have some knowledge about what is appropriate conduct when transcribing. It is especially important that you be able to answer correctly any questions asked of your transcription methods. I must mention that every cemetery is going to be different, it will take some time to learn, don't expect to be able to read each cemetery in the same manner. What is acceptable at one will not be tolerated at another. If you find someone having knowledge of where to obtain the history of the cemetery, try to get a copy of it and include it in your final report. If possible obtain a map of the cemetery and/or burial records. Sometimes local historical societies, genealogical societies and local libraries will be helpful in having older readings, this could be helpful to add information which over the time span is now lost or weathered and no longer readable from the memorial stone. A word of caution here, be mindful not to over use someone else's work and call it your own, please don't violate copyrights, remember small bits of information, are usually acceptable, but even then you should out of respect, cite your source. A map of the cemetery may help you to divide the cemetery into sections, making it easier to transcribe and also for some one to use you readings at a later date to actually pinpoint their ancestral loved ones place of burial. You will find the readings will go easier if you divide a cemetery into parts. By this I mean when your reading a large cemetery, the work can get overwhelming at times, so it really helps overcome the immensity of the project if you're able to see sections completed, they become milestones to measure your accomplishments. I usually read the older readings after I finish with my transcriptions, I feel better about gleaning all I can from the stones first, so as not to be influenced by previous readings. Then you can compare older transcriptions with your actual survey to ensure that it is as complete and accurate as possible. It's a very good gesture for you to offer a copy of your readings after your final revisions, to the governing person or group owning or in control of the cemetery. This last item can get you a long way in cooperation and support from the local community. Township cemeteries seem to be the easiest to read, township trustees are generally helpful, appreciate your effort, and sometimes will coordinate mowing to make your effort easier. Generally I don't really ask permission to read a township cemetery. Be aware that if you can find a township employee or trustee easily, you should tell them you are going to read the township cemeteries and be especially polite and maintain a high standard of conduct and respect while there. If I were to ever recommend a starting point, it would be to read a few township cemeteries first, as this will be a great way to obtain some skills with out having too many critical eyes over you. Please don't misunderstand my meaning, I'm certainly not advocating sloppiness will be tolerated here. It's just that most (not all) but most township burial places have to operate on very limited budgets and anyone willing to read, clean, and help improve the general well being of a local cemetery is generally encouraged and welcomed. Privately owned and maintained cemeteries are generally more critical of your conduct & method of transcription.
The next step would be to obtain all the actual tools and materials needed to conduct the transcriptions. These include pencils (lots), paper, couple of rectangular natural bristle and nylon scrub brushes, white R/R chalk, spray bottles containing water only, hand towels, small garden trowel, plastic trash bag, hand mirror, insect repellent, maps of the area. A five-gallon bucket makes a great way to carry everything you will need. In addition to this, you should also plan your clothing so as to be not only comfortable, but also protective from the sun, and wind. It's quite easy to forget how long you've been out there in the field, reading stones and get too much sun or wind burn. It is especially dangerous to allow yourself to get dehydrated, so take lots of water and perhaps little snack of whatever you prefer. Please stay alert, be aware of what's going on around you. In some areas, poison ivy, jiggers, snakes, and other animals can cross your path, just be careful where and what you grab hold of as you go along the rows.
Until you get used to packing everything, it's useful to have a list of everything needed and go over it before leaving. It can just about ruin a day if you have drove many miles and anxiously prepare to read stones only to find some badly needed tools missing and no where to be found. I take several pencils because as you read stones, you are shifting procedures from stone to stone, some you may have to spend a few to several minutes cleaning and preparing before the actual gleaning of information. In the course of this time, pencils can fall from your pocket and never to be seen again, yeah, I know; how can they get lost in turf, beats me, they just do. There's lots of paper products, note pads, etc. that will work to record on, I prefer ruled note pads, legal size, but I think what ever you have or prefer will work. You probably should take a camera with you, even if you don't plan to photo document, it's still nice to at least have an overview photo of the cemetery, maybe the gate area, entryway, or maybe you will find a very unusual stone. I photo document every stone I read, but this is not normal, and it's not done by most transcribers and I understand, it takes a lot more time, to prepare a stone for photographing, what you can read easily isn't always acceptable to photograph. Plus it gets downright costly in both time spend, plus materials & photo developing service to photograph, so it's all right if you don't. The readings them selves are a very valuable first hand source of information.
A word about cleaning stones and use of highlighting materials. First of all, before doing any of the suggested techniques listed below, make an attempt to read all that's visible because once you temporarily alter the surface, what you see in a dry state could be changed or lost until the stone has returned to it's dry state.
Some cemeteries will allow this, some will have no opinion as to your conduct and others will forbid it. I have read countless articles pertaining to what chemicals to use and what not to use. For the sake of avoiding damage to any stone, my advice is not to use any chemical substance, such as detergents, abrasive compounds, and bleach. I look at a stone and first determine the composition, type of stone and age. Ask your self, is this old, fragile, weak, flaking, and if there's any chance your effort to read it by scrubbing or highlighting will cause further deterioration, then don't do it! You might very well be destroying information that could be gleaned by someone with more experience. On the other hand, if the stone has aged and weathered to a point that causes its surface to first appear smooth; you can rub the flat side of chalk against the surface safely with out causing damage. Some transcribers can glean good data by using chalk dust and a soft makeup type brush. This procedure will often bring out the information, allowing you to read correctly, what was hidden by the hands of time. Chalk, when permitted is safe, it's non-toxic and can be sprayed off with water from a spray bottle or simply left and the next rain will wash it away. Over the years, I have grown to prefer this method over all others, it renders quick and satisfactory results most of the time. Since first writing this article, there have been some folks that condem the use of chalk, so I can no longer recommend the use of any kind of shaving cream, chalk, soap product or flour. Each of these substances might result in damage that may not be apparent at the time but can result in damage to the stone.
All these methods will  highlight the inscriptions rendering before unreadable information, however this should not be done, as the soap contains oils and other contaminates that will not completely rinse off, could leave discolored stains damaging or internal destruction of the memorial forever. Again I don't recommend this procedure. When chalk is rubbed onto the high surfaces and the excess wiped  or gently blown off. A very photographable image is possible. After reading is complete, stone should be rinsed immediately & thoroughly from the entire stone with water in a spray bottle. I have been told that there is something in chalk that actually retards the growth of lichen/moss. Others say there is pigment in chalk that can not be removed, thus leaving blemishes or potential later damage.  Most stones can be cleaned with a soft natural or nylon bristle brush. Presently, only D2 is acceptable for cleaning stones.

Photo by unknown source, shared with me many years ago.
I use the rectangular ones made for scrubbing floors, but be careful, don't use it on a stone showing evidence of flaking or peeling, and never use a wire brush or any harsh chemical cleaners, for they will surely damage the already fragile surface of stone. Some folks advocate the use of mild detergents, but I don't recommend it, the only liquid I ever touch a memorial with is water. Should you be taking readings in a cemetery where they forbid using chalk or brushes, another useful item is a mirror or other light colored surface to help in reading the stones. Catching the sunlight and reflecting it at the correct angle across the inscription, will cause shadows and highlights similar to chalk and regain much hard to otherwise read text. There are now some professional cleaners, such as D-2, available, that are approved and acceptable to use on memorials, tested and found to not damage the headstones. Look them up on websites that advertize safe solutions for cleaning marble and granite headstones. There are times when just spraying water on the surface of the stone will work wonderfully to unleash the before difficult to read information. I would like to make you aware, that when using just plain water sprayed on a stone and then brushed, sometimes there's molds or lichen that will show up green as you scrub it, this will sometimes make information invisible show up. While on the topic of lichen or other growth that seems to flurish on the damp or northen side of many memorials, if the growth is heavy and prevents you from reading the stone, I use a soft flat piece of wood (like a paint stiring stick) to scrape this moss away. When finished, be sure to rinse the loosened lichen off the memorial so that it won't leave a stain. One last caution about using a piece of wood to clean lichen, please be very gentle and careful, if your working on a marble or granite stone this is probably a safe method of removal, but if your working with a very old slate or sandstone marker, they can be damaged very easily and you probably should not use the wood stick, I would recommend a soft brush instead. When this green cast shows up after using a brush, be sure to rinse it off of the stone thoroughly or you could cause a very unsightly stain, that's difficult to remove once the stone dries, so be mindful to remove this stain quickly. It's going to take you awhile to learn what works best for any particular stone. Be patient, sometimes I will dampen a stone and still not see the information, but there will be a point just before the stones dries, when everything just pops out at you. I want to make one more point on the subject before leaving it. A lot of reading the older stones is learning the text styles, and understanding where to look on a stone. After you read many stones, you will see a clear pattern of text on stones. The time period will give away clues, also sometimes, small portions of a memorial will not yield complete legible information and then you find the very next stone will give clues to the preceding one. Take your time, work for accuracy (quality) not quantity. Keep in mind that the information you are gleaning may possibly be the only remaining source of information of the existence of someone's ancestral loved one, so try hard to get all you can from a stone, but don't guess. A partial reading that is honestly read, can be much more useful than readings done in haste and containing misleading data. Leave spaces in readings to show what is not readable, this can prove to be helpful to others later. I usually make notes on my transcriptions, but keep actual inscriptions separate from any notions, guesses or personal knowledge I have about the individual. An example of this might be a stone containing a full name of a man, and finding the next stone to be a woman with only a given name, no surname, but nearly the same birth and death period. I will note that the stones are the same type and probably husband and wife, but only my best guess, after all they might have no relationship at all or be brother and sister. Try hard to keep original spelling, abbreviations, and sentence structure exactly as it is on stone. An example; on older stones, the language might seem different, "thou" and "thee" were at one time typical, acceptable and normal terms, resist spell checking, and grammar corrections. To present the readings in an acceptable manner for publication, you should start with a row number or area description, then a marker number. This means assigning a number or letter to each stone. I use numbers for rows and lowercase roman numerals for each stone, then use alphas for each individual listed on that stone, i.e. "Row 10C, ixb", meaning 10th row in section "C", "ix"9th stone, and "b" 2nd name listed on stone. This is something that you just have to work with, look at what others have done and find a method that works for you. You should begin each individual with their surname, a comma, then their given and middle name, when available, then additional information. Be sure to include everything you read exactly from the stone. Don't overlook family associations, such as son or daughter of, wife of, sister of, etc., also when readable, jot down the verses below personal information, some are unique and all are incredibly thoughtful.
I usually carry a 5 gallon bucket containing most everything I might possibly need to read each stone, I first look the stone over, determine if it's going to need cleaning or can be read as is. I must reemphasize if you can read it without cleaning, do so and move on, it's easy to get caught up in cleaning and loose much of the day to this endeavor instead of the actual information gathering. After reading every thing inscribed, make notes about the stone its self, such as toppled, broken (how many pieces?), are there any pieces missing? does it have a military medal and or flag? anything that will further document this marker? Make note of any bases with headstone missing, plot markers, foot stones, as all these things noted will help some one using your data to retrace your footsteps and find their ancestral loved one some day. Make sure you have a trash bag to place any residue such as snack wrappers, pop cans, paper towels, etc. I once saw this saying in a book pertaining to this subject, I like it so much, I have to repeat it here:" When transcribing cemeteries, take nothing but transcriptions & photos, leave nothing but footprints". If possible, find someone in your area that has transcribed stones and ask if you can help them, and learn first hand, some of their techniques. Unfortunately you will find few folks doing this research and not many willing to tag along with you, but for your safety, be sure to let someone know where you're going to be and when to expect you home.
When transcribing memorials, you might find a time when there are folks visiting the cemetery to place flowers or just paying their respect to a lost loved one. I try not to bother visitors, as their loss might be recent and/or especially painful. But always try to acknowledge them, if they look my way, answer any questions, especially explain what I'm doing, and put them at ease that I care greatly that the loved ones buried there will not be forgotten. Many times these folks will share wonderful remembrances of certain loved ones buried there, so be prepared to listen to them and it's OK to take notes, this lets them know you care. If the information is significant, ask if you can include the information along with those individuals readings with their name as a source. You will be surprised how many are delighted to be helpful in this way. Be sure to mention in your report all persons who contributed or helped you with the readings.
Try to read the stones in rows or sections. If you try to categorize them alphabetically, it might make them easier for folks to search later, but will oftentimes give an undeserving appearance that you copied someone else's readings. Nothing wrong with this, if you have permission to do so, but don't violate someone's copyrights, or cause someone to speculate thus. When I finish a cemetery and have it revised, I begin with a specific description of location, any history I could find concerning when the cemetery was founded, any church affiliations, whether it's still used or closed and when. When you give mention of thanks to any and all that were especially helpful with information contained in the report being careful to get their permission first and then include their name in the report associated with their particular effort. After the dust settles and you have revised the report to a point you feel satisfied with, create a surname index, and add it to the end of the published transcriptions. Formatting an index is almost as much work as the transcribing, but will really be helpful to anyone using your research to quickly determine if the report contains information useful to their research. If you plan to submit the research to the Internet, it would be best to use jpeg, jpg, or gif format for images, as computers most easily read these image forms. Text formats vary widely, but resist any extra fancy quotation marks or unusual text, these scripts tend to confuse a different program and make it more difficult to read. So, use a simple, straightforward text, avoid using bold, italics, quotation marks, etc., and you will make the webmasters work, which is probably already overloaded, much easier.
My work relationship with webmasters has been especially positive, most are quite willing to help you through the rough areas where you might need direction. It's especially important to remember to be patient with the webmasters, you wouldn't believe how much responsibility they have. Most individuals doing this work are like yourself, volunteers, that actually have a life, including jobs, spouses, children, and all the other things that can compete for their attention each day. So, you need to understand that your contributions are appreciated, valued, and useful, but will take time to be incorporated into the system. If you've gotten this far along in this report, and I haven't totally bored you to tears, you must really be interested in trying to read some memorials. My hat's off to you, who have decided to do so. Even if you can't for any reason, at least you will hopefully have a better understanding of the dedication & discipline of those who choose to work in this endeavor. The first time someone from another part of the country writes & thanks you for finding one of their long lost ancestral loved ones, you will know the satisfaction felt from sharing this valuable information with others. Robert M. Sizelove, Sr. © Nov. 2001- 2023

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