Sunday, July 6, 2014

Canvassing & Researching in Cemeteries

Canvassing a cemetery is a job.....the person or people who are doing the work invest a huge amount of time and money into it. I helped my brother, Bill Utter, canvass the Rocky Comfort Cemetery at Rocky Comfort, Missouri, located in the extreme NE corner of Newton & McDonald Counties. Bill began this task in April, 2014 and I signed on with him to help. I did it for several reasons; to help him, so he would not be alone, and so I could experience cemetery exploration and to get photographs of headstones, headstone symbols, epitaphs and learn, learn, learn. 

Learn, I did ~ or actually, we did! Many of our Utter and Johnson family members are buried at the cemetery so we were familiar with it. 

On my Genealogy Journey I have discovered that I love cemeteries. Maybe it's because I helped my great-grandmother, Ollie Johnson Utter Brier pick flowers from her garden, put them in tin foil-wrapped coffee cans and take them to the cemetery on Decoration Day to decorated the family graves. Or maybe it started with the Dark Shadows TV show back in the 1970s ~ no matter the reason why I enjoy wandering through old cemeteries, I have found a wealth of family history and society's history in doing so. 

I'm a member of McDonald County Historical Society and I'm on the research committee; we have sponsored workshops and on July 19, 2014, I'll present a Power Point presentation on Cemetery Research. 

Cemeteries is a great resource for genealogists.

Here are a few photos I've taken of interesting symbols, epitaphs and headstones. 

this is a homemade wooden marker we found. 

An example of modern symbols....

Doves are a symbol of eternal peace....

the dove on an old headstone 

this dove is carved into the headstone as lines, hard to see in ordinary light 

Angels are popular on children's graves

another version of an angel

here's an epitaph....

and another....

My brother took over 2,200 photographs of the headstones; there were some retakes and he took shots of the cemetery from different views. We worked hard and finished it. 

What can you learn from cemetery research? You learn social history about the county or town where the cemetery is located; you can discover if there were possible epidemics that took many lives at one time by reading the headstone death dates. You can see beautiful artwork in the headstones themselves. The older the stone, usually the more ornate and Victorian it is. 

From the epitaphs and scriptures to the symbols found on the headstones, you will see how our ancestors thought about death and their loved ones. 

Before you visit a cemetery, prepare a "kit" to take with you. First, try to go along with someone or have them go with you; the buddy system works best to stay safe. Always tell someone where you are going and give them specific directions to the cemetery and tell them when you think you will return. 

In your "kit", which can be a box or tub or a wheeled cart, you want to include a notebook and pen, flashlight, bug spray, a sun hat or visor, sunscreen, a small jug of water and a few rags, shaving cream, Crayola Brand sidewalk chalk (this brand has no lead in it and try to get white only). Take a small cooler with ice and water and a few snacks if you will be gone for a few hours. You might want to take a stick with you to hold back plants so you can photograph a stone; I use an old broom handle that has come in very handy. With crayons and large paper, you can make headstone rubbings. If you do this, you can take the headstone home with you....

Bill did rubbings of our great, great-grandparents' headstone, David Jefferson & Christina Hunt Utter, at Union Cemetery. We brought the papers home and it's like we have the headstone in our homes. 

Last, don't forget your camera and fresh batteries. Keep it in your camera case until it's time to begin photographing the headstones. Remember to always look at your surroundings before getting out of your vehicle. Safety is first and foremost at all times! 

Dress for the occasion; sturdy shoes or boots, a jacket, sunhat or visor. You'll be walking a lot so dress comfortably. Watch for uneven ground and holes while walking through the cemetery, look out for snakes and other animals, and keep an eye on the weather. Being caught in a storm is not a good thing. 

This is Owsley Union Cemetery south of Longview, Missouri, Memorial Day 2011. We had to run to our vehicles until it blew over!

Dark stones do not photograph well and you MUST use the shaving cream..otherwise you will not be able to take a picture of them. Also, on some stones you have to use the chalk; the very old stones will not be legible if you do not. 

Some people are against using the shaving cream and chalk claiming it is detrimental to the headstones. However, if you are canvassing a cemetery you must use these items or you will not be able to finish your project. If we do not preserve the old headstones today, they won't last much longer and the information carved on them will be lost forever. Here's why:  

"Born in Lewis Co. Ky Died in Newton Co Mo" is all that is left of this headstone. We don't know if the stone marks a man or woman's grave, their name, when they were born or when they died.  

Bill and I found several headstones like these broken's a sad thing to see; the information about the graves are gone forever unless the cemetery records are in good shape; many are not, so don't rely on getting information from them.

Before taking on a cemetery canvassing job, find out if the cemetery has already been photographed. Rocky Comfort Cemetery had been several years ago, but it was not up to date and many graves had been left out. When the job came up, Bill volunteered to take it on because we have close family buried there. I helped him take notes and prepare many of the gravestones so he could take the photos. 

I have not went into depth on how to canvass a cemetery nor how to do good research. This information will hopefully help you get started discovering cemetery research. Remember, stay safe!

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