[10 on Tuesday] 10 Tips for Researching Historic Cemeteries and Burial Grounds


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In popular culture, cemeteries have something of a bad reputation, considered by many to be sad or creepy on their best day, and downright haunted on their worst. But this is by no means a complete or accurate view: they also can be beautiful, peaceful, historic, and educational.

Overall, cemeteries need to be well-researched and preserved so they can tell us more about how people in the past viewed death and burial. This toolkit is designed to help you start researching cemeteries; you can find more information on how to save them in our publication Preservation of Historic Burial Grounds.


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[10 on Tuesday] 10 Tips for Researching Historic Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

  1. 1. Photo courtesy Seán A. O'Hara, Flickr 10 Tips for Researching Historic Cemeteries and Burial Grounds
  2. 2. If there is a golden rule to the preservation of cemeteries and burial grounds, it is to be aware that our diverse country is home to a wide variety of burial customs. Take into account cultural sensitivities when working above- ground, and employ only professional, trained archaeologists for below-ground research. 1. Be sensitive. Photo courtesy Moultrie Creek, Flickr
  3. 3. The entrance to a burial ground can tell you a lot about the time period in which it was established and the culture associated with it, as well as the materials available and the types of craftsmanship. It can also provide clues about boundaries, other entrance points, and aesthetics. Tip: If you encounter a simple site with no exterior enclosure such as a wall or fence, it should remain that way, unless there is a security concern that requires closing it off. 2. Pay attention on the way in. Photo courtesy Bill Ilott, Flickr
  4. 4. The presence (or absence) of fencing and other plot definitions can indicate the era in which the cemetery was active, its level of sophistication, and the economic status of those buried there. For example, wrought or cast iron fences and gates would suggest a more elaborate cemetery, whereas brick, stone, or wood is indicative of a simpler burial ground. 3. Examine the burial enclosures. Photo courtesy Danielle Martineau, Flickr
  5. 5. Mature trees may be one of the most beautiful aspects of a burial area, but they are also one of the most historically significant. They may have been memorials, part of the original design plan, or added during a previous restoration process. Any (or all) of these reasons are sufficient for maintaining the trees. Tip: A landscape historian or an arborist may be helpful in making distinctions between the function of the trees. Your local college or university may be able to recommend a consultant. 3. Notice the trees. Photo courtesy E T Nevins, Flickr
  6. 6. Most particularly in cemeteries that have been untouched for great lengths of time, grave plantings may be the only indications of where a burial site was. 4. And don’t miss out on the smaller plants. Photo courtesy John W. Iwanski, Flickr
  7. 7. These features can be important for two reasons. First, like the entrances, they provide clues about craftsmanship and materials, and second, they often provide a critical function of preventing erosion from toppling tombstones and keeping remains in place. 5. Consider the retaining walls. Photo courtesy abejorro34, Flickr
  8. 8. Often, the area of a cemetery that appears at first glance to be empty is in fact the oldest section and where burial markers have been lost to time. It could also be a “potter’s field” -- intentionally unmarked graves where the poor or unknown are buried. Tip: Ground-penetrating radar and/or aerial infrared photography can be used to locate unmarked burials. 6. Look for open spaces. Photo courtesy Natalie Maynor, Flickr
  9. 9. Many cemeteries will have at least a few buildings, such as a church or chapel and a vault. (A more elaborate Victorian cemetery might also have a gate house, administration building, and/or other structures.) These are as important to the site as the burial-related areas and should be given the same critical analysis as any other historic building. 7. Remember the buildings. Photo courtesy NCinDC, Flickr
  10. 10. Water spigots, believe it or not, are a critical element to consider, as they indicate a milestone point of modernization for a cemetery. The date for this technological advance varies from location to location, depending on when plumbing became readily available. 8. Turn on the faucet. Photo courtesy Jim Denham, Flickr
  11. 11. As cemeteries took on greater significance as places of beauty and tranquility in the 19th century, many began to include a water feature such as a pond, stream, or waterfall. Identifying and maintaining these features helps respect these more formal designs. 9. See if you can get wet. Photo courtesy Kim Scarborough, Flickr
  12. 12. Last but certainly not least, the way graves are marked can reveal a great deal of information. While the largest and most formal monuments are the ones most people consider, it’s the smaller ones that often tell hidden secrets about the site. It’s important to have someone with a trained eye look over the site, as important “vernacular” items, such as ordinary- looking objects made of wood, shell, stone, or cast concrete, can easily be overlooked. 10. Let the grave markers tell their story. Photo courtesy Pedro Figueiredo, Flickr
  13. 13. Ten on Tuesday features ten preservation tips each week. For more tips, visit blog.PreservationNation.org.