Cemetery Surveying 101

Completing a cemetery survey can be a long, tiring, hot, dirty and yet rewarding job. When you're standing all by yourself in the middle of a cemetery on a hot afternoon, thirsty, tired, perspiration running down your glasses and dripping on you notes, you think to yourself, "I must be crazy for doing this! I don't have any family in here." Then you remember what brought you there in the first place. Cemetery markers are disappearing at an alarming rate from either deterioration or vandalism. By completing a survey, you are preserving history and the memory of those that have gone before you. Any name or date that you record may be that single bit of information that someone else needs to connect his or her elusive family link.  The reward comes from sharing your information with others and knowing that your hard work may help someone else. Hopefully, a hundred years from now, your descendants will have a much easier time finding their ancestors than we have.


The first thing you need to decide when doing a cemetery survey is how you want to do it. Some people do their surveys by row, which helps preserve family relationships. Others do surveys by rows or sections and then record the data alphabetically. If choosing to do your survey alphabetically, it is a good idea to make notes as to who is buried beside and around each tombstone. This helps researchers tie in family relationships. Decide which method you want to use and be consistent. Plot the cemetery out by sections or rows and record information on each row or section until it is completed. Be careful when working in rows, sometimes they won't be straight and you can get off track and miss markers.


Include in your survey the location of the cemetery and full directions on how to reach it. Include the city, major intersections, highways and/or main roads. If you want, you may also include a brief description of the cemetery, such as condition, accessibility or history. Also include your name and the date the survey was completed.


If there is a WPA survey of the cemetery you have recorded, it is also a good idea to check that survey against yours. You can include names and dates from markers on the WPA survey that were missing or no longer visible when you conducted your survey. Put them at the bottom of your survey and list them as such.


Some Do's and Don'ts from other surveyors:


1. Don't consume too many liquids before or during your cemetery outing. Cemeteries are not equipped with restrooms.

2. Don't survey a cemetery during or after a rain. Wet, squashy, earth and leaves underneath your feet only add to the creepy feeling you sometimes get and you could fall.

4. It is best to do surveys in the early spring or late fall. The weather is cooler and less chance of encountering snakes. A cloudy day in the summer also works well if you're not afraid of snakes.

5. Find out who has legal jurisdiction over the cemetery property and get permission  to be on the grounds before recording the data. Public cemeteries don't usually require permission.

6. If the cemetery is abandoned, attempt to find out who owns the land the cemetery is on and obtain permission from the legal owners to be on the property.

7. Be careful when touching a tombstone. Some older ones are loose and could fall over on you.

8. Take a friend. You can get twice as much done in the same amount of time. Also, one person can read the stones and the other record them.

9. Watch where you sit. Poison ivy, ants and other crawling things love cemeteries.

10. If you can't read a name or date on the stone, don't guess. Use a "?" in place of the name or date on your records.

11. Record the information on the tombstone exactly as it appears. Copy it word for word, line for line. Keep the spelling, punctuation, etc., as it appears on the stone. Resist the temptation to make corrections.

12. If you have additional genealogical information for the individuals that might be of interest, include that in a separate comments column.

13. If your handwriting leaves a lot to be desired, it's a good idea to print, especially if someone else is going to transcribe your survey.

14. Hang on to your hand written originals. You never know when you might need to go back and check something. 

Suggested Supplies:


Legal pads: Lots of room to write and easy to control in high winds.

Clipboard: Holds the legal pads. If someone sees you in the cemetery, they make you look official.

Pens or pencils: Take several.

Laptop computer: Will replace all of the above. Make sure you have plenty of battery life.

Cemetery Hat: If you sunburn easily, this is a good idea.

Rubber kneepads: These help those old knees when you have to get down close to read a stone. They also help prevent grass stains.

Insect Repellant: Almost a necessity in the spring and summer.

Fanny Pack: A little out of style and may be hard to find now, but they stay around your waist and are a good place to keep keys, pens and other stuff you don't want to carry around.

Water or other non-alcoholic beverages: Just remember rule #1.

Ice chest:  For those large cemeteries that take all day.

Cell phone: For keeping in touch with your loved ones and in case of emergency.
Camera: You can take photos of the cemetery or tombstones for documentation.


When your survey is complete, enter your information into a computer database such as Microsoft Works or Microsoft Access. If you don't have a database, you can use any word processing software as long as it will save the information in a "text" format. Then you can e-mail your completed survey to Dennis Wilson.


We will also accept hand written surveys. These will take much longer for us to get on the web site because we will have to enter your data on computer.


For more information on cemetery transcriptions visit

The Association for Gravestone Studies

Help Us Record the History of Hamilton County