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Supplement to “Grave Matters”

Anyone can get involved in cemetery restoration and preservation. According to Ann Johnson of the Kentucky Historical Society (, while there are no formal training programs through KHS, the Society is a source of help and information.

Although not a cemetery restorer herself, Johnson notes that there are specific methods for cleaning stones properly and optimal repair techniques so “you don’t do more harm than good.” She also maintains a source list to connect “history hunters” to those who do this important work for a living.

“I also stress the importance of mapping a cemetery so there is a permanent record of the location of the stones within the cemetery, as well as the information on the stone,” she says. “Also, in this day of technology, documenting the GPS coordinates for the location of the cemetery is very important.

“Many times cemeteries are lost to development, whether by a bulldozer in the middle of the night or by being moved. This is why it is so important for people at the local level to know where the cemeteries are. And if cemeteries were mapped to begin with, then when Mother Nature and time take them, at least there is a record of where the stones stood and what they said.

“How exciting for someone 50 years from now to find their ancestors by this record because someone took the time to document it.”

Johnson has outlined the procedures to use when you visit and map a cemetery.

“These are items to try to include for every map, so that our future generations will be able to locate these cemeteries. Many older cemeteries are being used less and will fall into disrepair and oblivion without some help.”

• If you are not familiar with the area, you may need to find the cemetery. If locals are not familiar with the name or location of the cemetery, other sources include: City Hall (city clerk or police department); County Courthouse (county clerk); mortuaries; ministers; libraries; genealogical societies or research centers; newspaper office; Chamber of Commerce; and historical societies.

• While you are at these sites, ask if there is a map already drawn you can get a copy of. Sometimes the city has a copy; sometimes the mortuary provides them; and sometimes a map is included in a genealogical publication. If only a large version is available, go ahead and make a rough sketch of the layout before going to the cemetery. You can add landmarks and tombstone markings on-site.

• Ask for the location of the sites of people you know are buried there. The people that might have these locations include city clerks (for small-town cemeteries with no on-site caretaker); cemetery sextons (on-site caretakers); mortuaries (in many states the mortuary records are not private and include this data); and genealogical publications. (“With luck, the book will include names and site of burial.”)

• Once you have all the information you can get about the cemetery, visit the site. Pick the most obvious starting point and keep track of the mileage and directions from that point to the cemetery. You can use the crossroads of major highways near the cemetery as the starting point: this will allow people coming from different directions to use the same instructions. Use your odometer to track the mileage to turning points and landmarks. Mark down names of streets or landmarks used to go to the cemetery.

• If you have a map of the cemetery, check your orientation and make sure you know where you want to go. Mark the names of the streets that border the cemetery and mark “North,” “South,” “East,” and “West” on the map, if known. If you don’t have a map, start sketching one. Set the general outline of the whole cemetery, lay in the main road or circle, and then mark the minor branches. This will help define the sections of the cemetery. You can also include any major landmarks, including chapels or mausoleums, creeks or lakes, bell towers, offices or work sheds, flag poles, and large, singular items like statues.

• Find the burial locations: once you know where people are buried, look for other landmarks near the burial site that you can place on the map. Look for statues and trees to help narrow down the location. Repeat this process for all the names on your list.

• Take grass clippers and a brush to the site as some cemeteries do not get mowed often. Care must be taken with the metal clippers so as not to damage the stone. A soft bristle brush and water are good tools to have in case the stone needs to be cleaned before photographing.

• When photographing, get in close for a FULL shot of the headstone. The dates need to be large and clear for scanning purposes. On older white stones, you may need to photograph from an angle to try and get a shadow on the names. Also, be sure to keep your shadow out of the picture. On flat stones, you can always photograph from the back side, as you are turned upside-down, to prevent a shadow. On upright stones, get low so the sun is over your shoulder or move to the side slightly. Using a mirror to reflect the sunlight onto the stone is very helpful in trying to read the lettering and dates.

• Save your photos to a CD-Rom computer disk. The images can then be quickly sent to anyone as an attachment to an e-mail from the CD-Rom. The electronic images will be clearer for use on a Web site because they won’t have to be scanned from hard copies.

• When you finish locating all the names on your list, recheck your map. Drive through the cemetery and check the roads and landmarks. Make any final corrections and additions.

• It is a good idea to share a copy of your completed map with your local historical society, keep one for your family records, share one with your local public library, and send one to the Kentucky Historical Society’s Cemetery Preservation Program (, so it becomes part of the cemetery database started by the Attorney General’s Office in 2000-2001.

To read the Kentucky Living October 2009 feature that goes along with this supplement, go to Grave Matters.

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