Four Tips for Sleuthing in Cemeteries for Your Ancestors


The well-manicured grounds of the Henryetta, Oklahoma, cemetery stretched out for 60 acres with thousands of headstones. Somewhere among the monuments to the dead were the final resting places of several members of my mother’s family. It was my first visit to this town of 6,000 in eastern Oklahoma, and I had no idea where to find my relatives’ graves.

My visit to this cemetery and several others in the Midwest this spring honed my strategy on the best way to visit graveyards in my genealogical research. Here are some of the important cemetery dos and don’ts that I learned.

Plan Ahead

I thought I had planned ahead. I knew the names and dates of my deceased ancestors and the cemeteries where their graves were located. I had found my ancestors’ headstones online. However, what I discovered on my recent trip reinforced the obvious—not all cemeteries are alike.

I walked into the sexton’s building at a Springfield, Missouri, cemetery and gave the helpful employees the names of three ancestors. They looked up the names on their computers, gave me a map of the cemetery, and circled the locations of the headstones. They also printed copies of my ancestors’ Missouri death certificates.

It wasn’t the same in Henryetta. By reading the cemetery’s website, I knew that I had to call the city office for cemetery information. I waited until I arrived in Henryetta to call. Big mistake. I got a recording. A clerk called back, but she informed me that the cemetery records were not digitized. In fact, she would have to dig through some dusty old cemetery records to find out about my great-grandfather’s death in 1923. She took his name, saying she couldn’t be sure she would find him. I only had one day to spend in Henryetta, so I was worried. My husband, daughter, and I decided to go to cemetery anyway, hoping to find the graves.

As I stood looking over the thousands of headstones, I felt my quest was hopeless. So, standing among the headstones, I decided to revisit, hoping for a clue. It didn’t list the exact location, but there was a hint about a general location. I sought out a caretaker, who helped me find my grandmother, great-grandparents, and various great-aunts and uncles. The city clerk did call back later, but, fortunately, I had already found the headstones during my limited time there.

As I learned, the partners and, are important family history resources. Even if you cannot visit a cemetery personally, you can often find headstones documented online at one of these sites. Volunteers take photos and post them on the sites. If you don’t find an image online of an ancestor’s tombstone, through these two websites you can ask local volunteers to visit the cemetery to photograph your ancestors’ headstones and post the photos online.

Efforts are underway to increase the number of images in the online databases. “FamilySearch agreed to provide visual images of 500,000 headstones annually to, which owns FindAGrave,” said Stephen Shumway, FamilySearch account manager for adds the indexing and design to the images provided by FamilySearch. In the project’s first six months, 272,000 images have been collected. “The photos are taken by volunteers, often youth or other church groups,” Shumway said.

Be Prepared

GPS is valuable. I visited a small family cemetery in Webster County, Missouri. We probably would have found it the old-fashioned way—with a map. GPS, however, made it much easier to navigate the gravel country roads.

I also carried a little bag of tools to each cemetery, including a water-filled sprayer, a squeegee, a brush, grass clippers, and bug spray. I made a gigantic mistake. A cousin had suggested I add a can of shaving cream to bring out the writing on old tombstones. So I used it on my great-grandfather’s weathered black headstone. It was only after I returned home that I learned that using shaving cream, cleaning products, baby powder, detergents, or other materials can damage the headstones. Headstones are often carved of porous material, such as limestone, sandstone, marble, and granite. Exposed to the elements, the older stones often develop cracks, becoming fragile over the years. Use of these improper materials speeds the headstones’ deterioration.

The clippers were handy in removing grass around the stones, and the plastic brush helped remove dirt. Metal brushes should be avoided. Pinterest and other online sources have tips for properly cleaning headstones.

I also learned the value of a good pair of shoes. The country cemetery was fairly well maintained, but uneven ground and gopher holes would have proven hazardous with flip-flops or sandals.

Take a Good Camera

Most of us rely on our phones to snap photos daily. I took my Nikon DSL (other brands work as well) to ensure crisp images. Taking good photos of a headstone is trickier than you might think. Bright sunlight can cast shadows that make the writing difficult to read. You can time your visit for the day’s most favorable light, although that is often impractical. Instead, I used my camera’s flash, or I bounced light with a reflector. Some of the images were still too dark. Photoshop came to the rescue! Lighting can be adjusted in photo-editing programs.

I shot lots of photos, including wider shots and close-ups of the headstones as well as photos from different angles. Ancestors are often buried near each other. Some genealogists recommend collecting images of neighboring headstones that might provide valuable information in later research.

Think beyond the Cemetery

I have a faded, barely legible, copy of my grandmother’s obituary. I belong to and have discovered obituaries there, but newspapers in the smaller communities are likely not included on the website. I went to the Henryetta Public Library, hoping my grandmother’s obituary would be on microfilm. It wasn’t. I also searched for eight other family members. I did find an obituary for a great-aunt that included the first name of her husband, which I did not have before. The librarian suggested I travel to the much larger library at Okmulgee, the county seat, 14 miles away. Success. There I found obituaries for my grandmother, great-grandmother, and another great-aunt.

Implementing these few tips should make your next adventure into finding your ancestors’ resting places a bit more productive. Happy sleuthing!


Discover your ancestors' personal memorials here. Access to this information is made possible through a FamilySearch partnership with Find A Grave.


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