2023.11.08 – The Grumpy Old Man’s Guide to Cemetery Sleuthing


By Pat Smart,
Copyright (c), 2023

Back in my day, when you wanted to get to know someone, you’d invite them for tea. These days? We go snooping in cemeteries. Ah, the sweet scent of progress! Before you raise your eyebrow at me, let me clarify: I am not talking about some morbid curiosity but rather the age-old art of genealogy. And even as an Amateur (and, might I add, rather grumpy one), I can tell you that cemeteries can be gold mines for family history enthusiasts. Allow me to enlighten you.

1. Start with the Living Before Bothering the Dead

Before stomping around in some graveyard, check with your living family members. I know asking Aunt Edna might be a pain (trust me, I’ve got one too), but she could save you a lot of aimless wandering. She might remember where great-great-grandpa Joe is buried and can point you in the right direction. This can be extremely helpful if you are going across the country or around the world.

2. Death Certificates: More Than Just a Morbid Souvenir

These little pieces of paper can tell you a lot. More than just the end-of-life story, they can offer hints about where your ancestors spent their final moments. It’s like a treasure hunt but with gravestones.

3. Obituaries: The Original Social Media

Forget Facebook and those tweet-things or X things as we now know it; if you want the real scoop on an ancestor, dive headfirst into an obituary. It’s like a profile but without the cute little kitty pictures. Plus, it offers little golden nuggets about the life, friends, and odd little habits of your relatives. It might even give their relatives if you are lucky.

4. Dress for Dirt, Not for Church

Now, for the love of all things sensible, wear appropriate attire. I once saw a fellow trying to stroll through a muddy cemetery in his fancy shoes. It wasn’t pretty. If rain’s about, pull out those rubber boots. And if the sun’s blazing, leave the black suit at home, wear some comfortable shoes, and slather on that sunscreen, for heaven’s sake!

5. Get a Good Camera

If you’re anything like me, you’d want to capture every detail of those beautiful, weathered tombstones. Your phone’s camera might be handy for showing off your lunch on that Insta-thingy but for gravestones? You might want to invest in a proper camera. I guess in a pinch, your phone would work, but this is history.

6. Don’t be “That Guy”

It’s common courtesy. Check if any events are happening in the cemetery. The last thing you want is to hike through someone’s funeral service with a camera in hand. Glance at the cemetery’s website, or better yet, ring up their office. I promise they won’t bite.

7. Mind Your Manners

Cemeteries are not playgrounds. Be a good lad (or lass) and follow the rules. Every cemetery has its own set of dos and don’ts. Do your homework, show respect, and remember: just because the residents are quiet doesn’t mean they’re not watching.

8. PLAN your trip

Planning is essential. Here are just a few things you should consider, even more so if you are going to another Country. a) Holidays, if you are going to another country their holidays may not be the same as yours. You don’t want to get there and find out there is a week long celebration. b) Where will you stay? If you have relatives, that is great. If not, where is the nearest hotel? As a side note, hotels were not open 24 hrs. like in the US when I was in Germany. There were no individual bathrooms or showers in each room either. c) How are you going to get around? Here, we have taxis, Uber, and Lyft. Overseas, not so much. But, I will say that their railway system and bus routes were better than here. d) If you check with the cemetery, you might get lucky and find they have tours. If you decide to take a tour, it is bad form to wander off on your own; besides, you may miss some interesting insights. e) Passports. Don’t forget to have a passport. If you need one allow for the time needed to acquire it before your trip, it could take up to 6 months to get one. These are just a few of the things you should take into consideration. For a more complete list, Seekerz Intro to Family History has a whole chapter on preparing to visit remote locations.

In conclusion, cemetery sleuthing is not for the faint-hearted. But if you’re like me, a touch grumpy and endlessly curious, you’ll find it a rewarding adventure. Remember to tread lightly, respect the past, and always carry an umbrella – you never know when you’ll need to fend off a pesky crow or a sudden downpour! Happy hunting!

Pat Smart

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