Welcome to Grandma Choo Choo's Cemetery page! I am going to start off with my seminar talk on "Cemetery Research and Gravestone Rubbings" as I really am hooked on cemeteries! I believe that the stones that have been erected, are remaining works of art that are still in their original form and place from our ancestors. So much can be learned from them about our families.

I sincerely hope that you can get the "bug" and use cemeteries as wonderful sources in your searching for that elusive relative.



You will find that this is one of the most fascinating parts of genealogy. It is fun and is most rewarding, so don't cheat yourself out of one of the most valuable sources in existence! That is, researching cemeteries!!


1. Sexton's records: All municipal cemeteries, many large denominational facilities shared by two or more churches in a community, all commercially operated memorial parks, and a few large family type burial grounds maintain offices or official caretakers. In these facilities a necessary function is to maintain a registry of burial called Sexton's Records. As an interesting sidelight, the burial registers are often oriented as much to "property" as to "occupant". That is, it is necessary to maintain records of the plots available, occupied, owned or not owned, described in sufficient detail to enable their sale and resale. This necessitates the accurate recording of cemetery deeds and plats. (A plat is a large area of ground where you will find plots.)

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Straitiff plat marker



2. Ecclesiastical Burial Registers. Almost without exception, churches which have affiliated burial facilities maintain records of interments in their burial registers. Finding these registers today, presents a problem. They may have been placed for preservation in a central church archive or church affiliated university library, they may have descended through the heirs to the minister or clerk along with other personal effects, they may be stored in a locked closet or pulpit inside the original church building. In short, you have to hunt for them!

In addition, record is sometimes kept of all those buried in each plot. Entries in the Burial Registers are list chronologically as the bodies were interred. There is usually nothing to indicate relationships except that they are buried in the same plot. Tombstones may have been destroyed or never placed on the graves; women are usually buried under their married surnames and their maiden names are often not recorded, relatives unknown to the researcher may be buried in the plot. But don't be dismayed by that, as most people buried in the same plot are usually related in some way so these records are very valuable.

3. Burial Permit Records: Today's laws require that licensed morticians are the only ones permitted to bury people and that he has to obtain a certified burial permit from the city or county authority. These records are another valuable source of burial information.

4. Grave Opening Orders: When graves are open whether for burial, postmortem, exhumation or transfer of the body, most cemeteries preserve a record. These records are known as Grave Opening Orders and usually begin about the time of State Registration of Deaths, although this varies somewhat. The genealogical value of Grave Opening Orders is worth looking into. The order does not state that Isabel is an adult but the fact that the grave is seven feet long indicates that she was. Children are buried in graves less that five feet in length. The death certificate number is given which will shorten the length of time of having to go through vital statistics.

5. Family Bibles: Until the advent of public control of burials, there were usually no other written records of these private burials. The Family Bible records are more appropriately classified as Home Source. It is wise to consider these records briefly in conjunction with cemeteries. The Family Bible is usually the only Sexton record in existence to the Family Burial Plot.  

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Bible record of my Straitiff family.


a. Locating the Bibles: It is not uncommon to find Family Bibles on deposit in libraries and archives of those societies or agencies interested in historical preservation. Other family bibles may be found in the homes of the living descendants of the owners of family burial plots also. The National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, DC also have collections of bibles sent as evidence to support various claims against the United States Government and listings of these can be obtained upon request.

6. Tombstones and Inscriptions: At times these can be more valuable than Sexton's records as the family usually has the control of what is put on the stone but yet, many times very little information is put on the stones when the Sexton's records may have more. Again, you have to look into all areas to find your information!

7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Write to them in care of the Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 20402 and send $3.50 along with it to receive a periodically published list of where to write for Vital Records. It lists state by state, the date records began and the types of records and the cost of copies and the addresses.

8. Other places for information:

.....Army Engineer Corps for aerial photographs. They locate gravesites and your local libraries should have copies of those records under Land Management Division of the Engineer Corps.

.....Department of Vital Statistics in the county researching.

.....Historical Societies.

.....Military records.

.....Microfilm and Microfiche.

.....State Registry of Deaths.

.....Personal journals, diaries, letters of family members.

.....Daughters of American Revolution, main library is in Washington, D.C.

.....Local newspaper morgues.

.....Local mortuaries.

.....Geographical survey maps, can be found in the county planning commission, at the court house or in the county assessors office. These survey maps show a cross for cemeteries.

.....Family histories.

.....Family History Centers (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints)

.....and of course, your computer!



1. City and County. These are of fairly recent origin, some of them beginning about 1850 but most of them around 1900, or the time of state registration.

2. National. These are recent, but if you have military people you will want to search these. You will have to depend upon the Sexton's records to find the plots here, as they are too large to attempt searching without help.

3. Private. These usually begin in the 1900s and you probably won't have occasion to search them. Some, however, started earlier. If you do, follow the same procedure depending upon the size.

4. Church. These are the most common, both in America and in European countries. The records that would be classified as Sexton's records would be the burial registers, if they exist. Recently some of them have been indexed by the tombstones that are still in existence. If there is no stone now, there is no record. Get to know the cemetery laws in the state you are searching as they are not alike in their laws.

5. Family. These are numerous in the East and South of the U.S. and some of them exist in foreign countries also. Most of them are in terrible condition, but some are beautifully cared for. The only record other than the tombstones, would be the record in some family bible.


1. Tombstones. What year was it made and placed upon the grave? This maybe hard to determine but it is very important. Examine the stones around the yard for a minute. If there are several people buried about 1812, are the stones of the same vintage? Do this for the year that your surname was buried. This will help you to determine the year that the stone was placed there.

Tombstones range in nothing more than rotted wood markers or a lava rock to the long slab with paragraphs of biography inscribed on it. Tombstones have distinctive styles and materials depending upon the year they were made.


Before 1800: Slender, square sandstone or slate slabs with or without elaborate carvings.

1830-1860: Moderate sculptured stones of white marble subject to lichen moss.

1860-1880: Square, towering marble stones often elaborately shaped or with ornate sculpture.

1880-1910: Soft, gray granite stone subject to weathering,

1910-present Polished granite or marble often lying flat upon the ground.

By studying the vintage of the tombstone, the researcher can more accurately determine the validity of its inscription. Modern stones with ancient dates indicate replacement of an earlier stone or time elapse between death and grave marker. The date the stone was placed on the grave is important. One placed two days after the funeral is more accurate than one placed 50 years later.

Markers frequently fall down and are buried under an accumulation of undergrowth and topsoil. When working in poorly kept cemeteries, carry a probe long enough to check the ground eight to ten inches deep. Carefully check the fence line or hedge rows. Fallen markers which cannot be easily replaced are often carried to the side and either propped against the fence or left on the ground. Even though they cannot be readily identified with the appropriate plot, the inscriptions are still valuable.

If you happened to come across a duplicate tombstone, there is the possibility that the stone cutter will leave the original stone in place and you will find two for the same person. In very old cemeteries, you will also discover some apparent duplicates that are really a headstone and a footstone. A tombstone for the same person may appear in a family cemetery or plot with the second tombstone in the cemetery where the person is actually buried.

Once the monument is located, compare it to those belonging to other family members in the cemetery and make a note of it should you visit the towns where additional family members are buried. Families have a tendency to use the same type of monument and stone, either because of coincidence or because only a limited variety of gravestones were available at that time.

Pay particular attention to the spelling of the surnames because several variations, such as Mac or MC, can be found in one family as a result of Americanizing the name, personal preference, a longing for the old country or a family discussion or disagreement. Take errors into consideration.

The name of the dealer or business that supplied the monument is usually inscribed on the stone near the base of the monument. It isn't always easy to find the inscription, but check the monument sides below the level of the earth if possible.

Inscriptions on the monument are helpful in determining the feelings of the person or persons left behind. It can give a clue as to what the family thought of the deceased. The size of the monument can also be used as an indication of family sentiment or wealth, since someone had to purchase the monument and the larger it was, the more it cost. However, this criteria must be used selectively and cannot be used when analyzing the more modern cemetery because the high cost of the monument has made large stones almost prohibitive and a flat stone is often a requirement for easier grass cutting and cemetery maintenance.

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Charles Babbidge's life history on his stone, while Charles Farley showed his occupations. (thumbnail)


Backgrounds are a focal point in many lives and are depicted by insignias for fraternal organizations and occupations. They convey a portion of that person's life that was important to the deceased or to those remembering.

Other symbols such as wreaths, festoons, and leaves have traditionally been used to denote accomplishments or characteristics. The ivy is used to show conviviality (sociable), the oak - strength, laurel - a distinction in the arts, olive - peace or victory, bay leaves - mourning, willow - bereavement, cypress - mourning and yew -immortality.



Artistic carvings also give clues to how old the stone is. Around the 1600s was a death's head, then feathered wings on the shoulder of skulls. From there they went to cherubs and then the skull heads got two rows of teeth. Father Time with an hour glass came next and in the 1700-1800's it turned towards gentler images such as graceful willow trees over an urn, flowers, vines in patterns. You will still find some grotesque figures though.

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Willow and urn.  (thumbnail)


The layout of the plots can tell you a lot. Families are usually buried together. Often there will be one stone for the father and mother, smaller ones for the children and the grandchildren, then the aunts and uncles with their families. Draw a diagram of the plot with each grave in its relationship to the others. Draw the stones in the shape and the size that they are. Sketch the tombstones in relationship with one another. Number each grave in the plot then list the inscription and description of the stone by number on the paper. It will be easier if you always use one central direction to start from such as standing facing east and laying it out from there.

Search each stone, as if you depend upon the Sexton's records you may miss the females who are buried in the family plot of their husbands. You may also miss the small children buried in the plots of relatives. They will be listed under a name that you do not know in the Sexton's records. The maiden name is many times on the tombstones but seldom included on the other records. To avoid making the mistake of missing these names, search every cemetery by passing each stone in the yard. Take a quick look at every stone. In this way you will spot those females and small children that are buried in other plots. Remember that when you are searching a really old grave, that most of the time if the cemetery is on a hill, the oldest grave is usually on top of the hill. During the 17th and 18th century, the stones were basically primitive carving with chunks of field stone usually only bearing initials and dates. Most of the graves were scattered where now you will find most of the in rows.

2. Tombs. The burial of a loved one in a tomb or raised vault rather than a grave is the custom of some ethnic groups and the practice of some families. These tombs are normally in a special part of the cemetery or in a special building expressly for this purpose. The inscription found on the tombs themselves are similar to regular monumental inscriptions. The art work associated with the tomb is an important part of the memorial.

3. Crematory Vaults. The sacred ashes of those who wish their last remains cremated are usually placed in urns and preserved in vaults at the crematory itself, or the cemetery where other family members are interred or in a special spot of honor in the home of a family member.



1. Gifts. Prominent, influential and/or affluent families often present special gifts such as stained glass windows, alter pieces, sacramental services, confessionals, ornaments, statues in the name and memory of their deceased relatives to the church or other organization or institution of which he/she was a member. Small plaques or inscriptions give names, dates and relationships of those involved in the gift.

Sometimes the family may make contributions in lieu of flowers toward a special trust fund, organization, or project in the memory of a deceased loved one. Records are often maintained of all who contribute, the amount of the contribution, and the date made. Indications of this type of memorial will be found in newspapers, court records, home sources, and the records of the person or institution responsible for the fund or project.

Some memorials are found inside the church itself in a variety of forms. They may be found hanging on the walls, engraved on the church fabric or imbedded in the floor.



1. The best time of year to search is in the spring before the briars and snakes come out, as many cemeteries are not well kept. It is also the best time as the winter snow has cleaned off the moss for you.

2. For badly discolored stones you will need to bring vinegar and a sponge or soft rags. Dilute it and then be sure to rinse the stone well. NEVER, NEVER, use a wire brush or rough instrument to clean the tombstones!!!

3. If you need to clean up the stone, use a soft vegetable brush and be careful. Check to see what kind of stone you are working with and if it is sandstone be extra careful as with any kind of scrubbing you could scrub the inscription off but it is better if you don't scrub it at all. If there is snow on the ground it will help you to clean the stone also.

4. The first and foremost vital consideration when you are rubbing is the protection of the stones. Some papers and coloring materials allow color to penetrate onto the stones. Experiment elsewhere besides the cemetery. Don't ever use any materials that are questionable on the gravestones.

5. The gravestones are a very important part of our national heritage and you should be careful with them as you are when you are handling other ancient folk art treasures. Some cemeteries refuse to let people come in to rub due to the damage others have made, so always make sure that you have permission to do so or know the local regulations.



1. Avoid rubbing rough stones, stones that are eroded or damaged, and stones on which there is lichen. To get a good, clean print, the stone carving should be sharp. Rounded high relief carving will have a tendency to tear the paper as you rub and then you will risk defacing the stone with the color. Be sure to test the stone first to see if it is hollow or if any of it is beginning to separate or is flaking.  If there is any flaking or separation on a stone, don't ever rub it as any friction or pressure on those kinds of stones can seriously damage it.




2. Make sure that the piece of paper that you will be using is much larger than the stone and attach it to the stone with masking tape. It is much better if you make sure that the paper completely covers the front of the stone by folding it over the top and sides. Masking tape will come off  your paper and will not leave any marks on the stone. It is necessary to hold the paper in place so that it will not move while you are rubbing it.

3. For rubbings, the best paper to use is a synthetic rice paper call Aqaba (*) which will stand up even in moist conditions but any type may be used. There is a special wax made that will not smudge or melt even in the hottest weather. It if is not available you may use a thick child's crayon or a lumberman's crayon. Either one may be set into material if you choose to use that instead of paper. Try not to use any rubbing compound that will smear as your hard work will be ruined. Pellon can be used, (it is a dressmaking fabric). Even meat wrapping paper can be used but it won't quite have the detail of the Aqaba or Pellon. Regular newsprint paper is likely to tear and you will be very disappointed and it will also leave your rubbing compound on the stone.

4. Your rubbing will have a much more of a finished look if you use long flat strokes. Rub along the raised portions so that you get an "edge" and it will also bring out the detail better. Try light strokes at first so that you can see the outline and then you can fill in and darken your print to where you are satisfied and are finished. Don't try to miss the imperfections on the stone as it makes your rubbing have character. Be sure to include the outer edge of the stone so that you will have a frame appearance to your rubbing. You can choose to include the bumpy look that is the lower part of the stone if the design is raised. If the lettering or design is engraved into the stone be sure that you get a clean edge to your design. Don't rub every which way or in circles but try to go in one general direction. Even back and forth along with up and down are compatible.

(*) The paper and rubbing crayons may be purchased through: Oldstone Enterprises, 1 DeAngelo Drive, Bedford, MA 01730 (781) 271-0480.



1. Photographs of gravestones should be made only in bright sunlight. Hazy and cloudy conditions produce inferior pictures. The sunlight should fall across the face of the stone at a raking angle, that is, from the side or top, at an angel of no more than 30 degrees. If the sun is in front of the stone, instead off to the side or top, the details of the stone's design will not show prominently.

2. The sunlight strikes any one stone at this favorable angle for a period of about one and one-half hours each day, so the photographer must know when to be there. In most New England burying grounds the stones face West, so that they are in position for photography about 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. standard time. Stones that face North are lighted by the sun in later afternoon in midsummer, and are in shade at all other times of the year. Stones that face South are in favorable position all day in midsummer, but are lighted from the front at all other seasons.


3. Dependence on the position of the sun can be avoided by the use of a mirror. If you are interested in photographing only a portion of the gravestone, you do not have to use a full-length mirror but it will be necessary for a picture of the entire stone. Try to have the mirror framed to avoid breakage. Do not use a beveled mirror as it will produce difficult lighting effects. The mirror can be used to light any shaded stone provided the mirror is in bright sunlight. For stones shaded by trees, etc., the mirror can be positioned as far away as 100 feet. A plate glass mirror is the best. When a signature of the carver appears on the stone, using a mirror to photograph it is the best method for success.

4. Good pictures can be made with a 35 mm camera. For black and white,  Tri-X can be used at 1/250 or 1/500 second. For color Ektachrome ASA 200 can be used at 1/250. At these speeds a tripod is not necessary. To make close-up details a +1 portra lens, can be attached to the front of the camera lens.

(**) a. A50mm macro lens on your 35 mm single lens reflex camera may be used. The macro lens lets you come in very close for tight pictures. If you don't have a macro lens don't despair....try using a magnifying glass. Hold it right in front of your normal lens....a 50 or 55mm lens. Expose, focus and shoot. And always bracket to make sure to get the correct exposure. Take three shots.....One at the normal exposure; the next two are... underexposed one shot and overexposed one shot. That's photo insurance and the cheapest insurance policy available used by  professional photographers who cannot afford to miss.

5. The camera should be positioned so that the sides of the stones are seen parallel with the sides of the viewer. If the camera is pointed upward or downward the picture of the stones will be distorted. The camera should be positioned close enough to the stone so that it fills the whole picture.

6. Irrelevant and disagreeable objects in the background can be eliminated by the use of a backboard. Formica in the medium color is suitable. Gray should be avoided, as it will tend to merge with the color of the stone. The Formica should be mounted on 1/4" plywood. The plywood should be enough wider than the Formica on one side so that a hand-hole can be cut into it. The blackboard should be cut as large as will fit through your car door and as wide as your car will accommodate. If you have a companion, he/she can hold the backboard in place. If you're alone, wedge it  into place with a light angle iron 48" long. Place a cushion  between the stone and board to prevent scratching the board. Stains and scratches can be removed from the board with furniture polish. A piece of urethane foam can be used as the cushion, and be secured from the scrap pile of an upholstery shop.

7. Pictures cannot be made when snow is on the ground. Reflection of the sunlight from the snow destroys the raking effect on the face of the stone, but yet the use of a mirror every stone can be seen in the light of the ideal rake, which the visitor to the graveyard rarely sees.

These ideas are used only for the documentation of the gravestones. For artistic photography there are no rules, other than your own taste and judgment.

(Photographing information was taken from the A.G.S. flyer with Daniel Farber as the editor.)

**) Information was taken from an article written by Barry Urdang appearing in an 1986 article in The Press-Enterprise Newspaper of Riverside, California.


1. Wear protective clothing, including gloves and be alert to all circumstances. Bring along a digital camera (which permits instant knowledge of picture legibility), paper and pencil to take down the inscriptions on the stone or a battery tape recorder and don't forget your cleaning materials.

2. Maps, maps, and maps are so very handy in locating cemeteries! Between the geographical survey maps, local street maps, and Army Engineer Corps aerial maps you are sure to find the cemetery if you have the first necessary knowledge of what town, borough or woods to look in.

3. Don't forget to bring some masking tape to hold your paper to the stone when you are rubbing it and maybe a pair of scissors to cut your paper for smaller stones.

4. If you do use chalk or charcoal, you may want to spray your finished rubbing to prevent smearing. Art stores carry fixing spray.

5. Note any hollowness or separation or flaking on the face of the stone. Any pressure or friction on the face of an unsound stone can seriously damage it.

6. Be sure to cover the entire stone with paper so that your rubbing compound will not end up on the stone defacing it.

7. Record the information on the stone that you are rubbing on the reverse side for future reference as you will find that information sometimes is on both sides of the stone and you may only want to rub the decorative side.

8. Be sure to experiment with what materials and techniques you will be using to protect the stones as some paper and rubbing compounds will bleed through and destroy the stone.

9. Because old gravestones are an important part of our national heritage, you should be as careful with them as you are when handling other ancient folk art treasures. You must check first to see if you are allowed to do rubbing before you start as many areas do not allow it due to the damage done.



1. "Stranger Stop and Cast an Eye": A Guide to Gravestones and Gravestone Rubbing. The Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1972 $4.95 hardcover. Jacobs, G. Walker.

2. "To Rub or Not to Rub": Lithe-Art Press, Woodstock, New York 1976 Waken, B. Bertha.

3. "The Last Word": The Lure and Lore of Early New England Graveyards. Old Stone Enterprises, 1 DeAngelo Dr., Bedford, MA 01730 (781) 271-0480 1973 39 page booklet $3.25 Softcover. Williams, Melvin G.

4. "The Care of Old Cemeteries and Gravestones": The Association for Gravestone Studies, 278 Main Street, Suite 207, Greenfield, MA. 01301 (413) 772-0836 E-mail address: ags@javanet.com....Web site: http://www.berkshire.net/ags 1980 Mayer, Lance R.

5. "How To Record Graveyards": London: Council for British Archeology and Rescue 1976, available from Council for British Archeology, 7 Marylebone Road, London, NWI 511A England.

For more information regarding all areas of gravestones and graveyards, please write to: The Association for Gravestone Studies, 278 Main Street, Suite 207, Greenfield, Massachusetts, 01301 (413) 772-0836 E-mail address: ags@javanet.com Web site: http://www.gravestonestudies.org/


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