So You Want To Head to the Cemetery….

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With Spring fast approaching, a lot of people, um I mean Genealogists decide to go Cemeterying.  This means that the average person gets in their car, goes to a family cemetery and takes pictures.

But dear average person, if you are not properly attired and properly perpared, you can be hurt or even killed. So how about a few safety ideas, from someone who Cemeteries  a lot.  Yes, Cemeteries is a verb.

1)  Wear good hiking boots. Cemeteries are FULL of holes due to caved in graves and the animals that like to live there.  They dig lots of holes. If you step in one, you can easily turn an ankle.  Now is not the time to try out those new Sunday pumps.  By a good pair of hiking boots that can also help protect you from snake bite.  And wear them a few times before you go Cemeterying.

2) Wear bug repellant.  You will thank me later.  No one wants to remember their latest cemetery trip by how many bug bites they get.  If you are from the Northern United States, I will assure you, No One has ever died from Chigger bites.  They have just prayed that they would!

3) Take plenty of food and water.  No, we aren’t going to picnic, but we are going to possibly hike a bit and deal with brush, so we will be burning a lot of calories.  Take snacks that travel lightly.  Peanuts are a good one, since they are full of protein and are fairly light weight. They will fill you up quickly, if you don’t have a peanut allergy.  Protein bars are also good.  Just be sure and take any trash back to your car and don’t leave it behind.

4)  Tell people were you are going.  Leave a detailed map with someone who can call the police if you come up missing.  If you step in a hole, and twist an ankle, don’t you want someone looking for you come night fall?  Don’t depend on your cellphone. Most rural areas don’t have cell coverage. 

5) But take the phone anyway. The light makes a great shadow maker to help with difficult to photograph stones, and it does have a great camera on it and yes, you can even use it in an emergency!

6) Take a friend. Cemeterying is much more fun with a friend (or several) and the odds the whole group are going to twist an ankle and not be able to go for help are slim!  Plus the more cameras you have, the faster the photography session goes!  Lots of hands make light the work.

7) Take an old hoe.  This is a shoutout to my hubby who always takes his Hoe on Cemetery trips. Its a very bad running joke with us, but that Hoe has saved our lives several times. The 7 foot long handle is pretty good for picking up a snake on the path and giving him a free ride somewhere far from where you might be standing, without you actually having to be within 7 foot of the snake.  It also is great for cutting down small trees, bramble and bushes around head stones and finally, it makes for a very bad running joke with your partner of “Hey, Joe what you and your Hoe going to do for supper.” 

8) Take a small first aid kit with you.  I personally prefer to wear a fanny pack.  It fits nicely under my shirt and in it I can carry a few band aids, a small tube of anti itch cream, a few alcohol wipes to clean up a scrape and a few extra batteries for the camera.  You can put a few snacks in it as well, and your favorite bug spray in a travel size bottle.

9) Camera batteries. Especially if your digital camera needs a specialty battery, do not expect the local drugstore in rural TN to carry that particular brand, or batteries at all for that matter.  Bring your own.

10)  A change of clothes.  Don’t ask me how I know this is important, but if you are photographing a cemetery in someone’s cow pasture, and you do not want your new car to have a manure smell come Monday, a change of clothes and a trash bag are welcome additions to any Cemeterying bag.

11)  Be ready to knock on a few doors.  I mostly photograph in rural Tennessee and most everyone there has been so gracious to let us photograph. Some people HAVE NOT!  I’d rather find that out on their front porch as I ask nicely if I might photograph the family cemetery in the back yard, than when they release the family hounds (yes, I have had that happen so ask EVERY house you see), when they start shooting, or when the Sherriff shows up.  It helps to know the local laws about cemetery and trespass as well.  It doesn’t hurt to introduce yourself to local law enforcement before you start taking pictures since they tend to be friendlier if they talked to you earlier in the day at the station and not after a local home owner has called the police.  Keep in mind Law Enforcement work for the people who pay the taxes, so who are they going to side with?

12) Be friendly.  You could be talking to a distant cousin. You know the one who hasn’t returned your DNA email.  The one with the family photos you want. Or at the very least, the guy who can deny you right to access if you make him mad!  So be nice.  Tell him who you are, why you are there and what you plan on doing with the images (be honest).   If he says no, I’d leave politely and let someone else try. 

13)  Take lots of pictures. Digital pictures are cheap. Take lots. You can delete the ones you don’t need once you get home.

14)  Spring time is this magical time when animals give birth.  Baby rabbits, baby chickens, baby geese, baby rattle snakes, baby ticks, baby wolves… you get the idea. Be aware, you are entering their home and babies ALWAYS have mommas.  So tread lightly, be always aware of where you are putting you feet and hands and if in doubt, leave the area.  A tombstone picture is not worth a snake bite or worse.  You can always come back later.  Spring is the time when snakes are out the most. They are cold blooded and warm, flat rocks (think tombstones) make great places for them to warm up their bodies.  Be aware that they may burrow in hollowed out tombs, so you need to be aware of where you put your feet.  Be prepared to leave the area if you have to and leave quickly.  Don’t even ask me about the cemetery completely surrounded by a rock wall in Tennessee that had so many snakes, you could hear them as you approached the cemetery.  SHUDDER!

15)  Have fun, but be respectful of the area. If you remove flowers or ceramics to take your picture, put them back where you found them.  Do not clean stones unless you are trained to do so.  Better to not clean than to ruin a stone for future generations.  Don’t try and fix stones unless you know how.  You can be seriously hurt by stones falling over.  Remember, they are leaning for a reason, and that could be the loose ground they are standing on.  So be careful around leaning stones.

16) If you do decide to pick up trash, be careful.  Some areas have open beverage laws.  Even that old beer bottle you picked up off the cemetery.  Be sure to dispose of all trash in proper receptacles once you are back in civilization.  No sense in cleaning up the cemetery to then trash the local highways.

17) Don’t forget to pay your respects.  If you are visiting your great grandparents grave for the first time, why not take some flowers?  Just a small bouquet to pay homage to the people you are visiting. I know we can’t do that for every ancestor if we visit several cemeteries in a day, but pick one or two to pay your respects to.  You will not regret the decision to spend a few bucks and take the time to say thank you.

18)  Allow for extra time to visit rural cemeteries. Hubby and I once hiked 3 hours to visit a cemetery of my 3rd great grandparents.  After we visited with them for about an hour and enjoyed the view they must have enjoyed from their front porch, we had a 3 hours hike back. But due to being tired and only having a light snack for lunch, that hike took almost 4 hours!  The view was worth it, but we did have to let our contact know we’d be later than we had originally thought.  A mostly down hill hike to the cemetery is going to mean a mostly up hill hike home.  So take into consideration terrain when you are planning out how long a trip might take. Not all family cemeteries are by the side of the road.

19)  Take a few towels and a few wet wash rags with you in the car.  This is something we have learned over the years.  After an 8 hour hike, you really want to clean up a bit at the local McDonald’s before you return to your hotel or go to a nice restaurant for dinner.  McDonald’s are used to traveler looking a little disheveled, but we have found most nicer restaurants and hotels aren’t as receptive to you coming in with grass in your hair, smelling like you hiked for 8 hours.  So a quick wash off and hair fixing is in order, even if you have to do it in the car while driving. 

20) We live in marvelous times.  If you can, find out the GPS coordinates of your cemetery.  If you are lucky and the area does have cell service, your phone can literally lead you within a few feet of where you need to be. Especially great if the cemetery is in a wooded area and if you aren’t good with directions.  I find it most helpful once I get to the cemetery in helping me find my way BACK to my car, so don’t forget to record the coordinates of your car before you start hiking.

Have fun if you go Cemeterying this Spring. There is no greater joy than finding a few hundred distant cousins and aunts and grand parents all buried in neat little rows. Especially if they died a few hundred years ago and their passing didn’t cause you personally to mourn them.  So have fun, be safe, and be sure and post your pictures once you get home.

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