Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor the men and women who died in the service of our country. Since many of us will be visiting graveyards and cemeteries in the coming weeks, we’ve invited our friends at Find a Grave® to provide tips on how to properly clean and photograph the graves of our country’s veterans. We are grateful for their time and expertise.
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When planning your trip to the cemetery, you’ll want to go prepared. Our goal is to have every veteran remembered with a memorial on Find a Grave®. Before you head out, here are some items you might consider taking along.
- Camera/phone with GPS turned on– Smartphones and Digital cameras are great for capturing photos of tombstones because you can see in real-time whether you’ve captured the image you want. Take high-resolution photographs. Be sure to bring plenty of memory, extra batteries, or chargers.
- If using a smartphone– Download the Find a Grave® app where you can search for memorials, easily add GPS for gravesites, and create memorials from the headstones in the cemetery you are visiting.
- Sun Protection– A hat and sunscreen, whatever you need for your area.
- Small towel, old clothes, and shoes– Towel to help gently wipe dirt off a stone.
- Spray bottle with plain water– Wetting tombstones can make them more readable.
- Small sweeping brush– Paintbrushes work well to brush loose dirt off without harming fragile stones.
- Mirror– Use the mirror to reflect the sunshine and throw shadows off inscriptions. Foil-covered flat surfaces are less breakable and can help when mirrors aren’t available.
- Scissors or clippers– You’ll need these to trim away grass that has grown over the gravestone.
- Small kneeling pad– You may need to kneel or even lay down while taking eye-level shots of smaller stones.
- Notepad and pencil – You may want to take some notes.
We suggest using “no harm methods” when reading a headstone and photographing it. There are several no harm methods available. The first has to do with light and shadow. It is easier to read the inscription on a stone in the morning or evening because shadows tend to accentuate the lettering. You can also use a reflector to reflect light onto the stone to produce the same effect. A second no harm method involves photographing the headstone using a remote flash. In the example below, a Find a Grave® member placed a remote flash to the side of the stone and timed it to go off at the same moment he snapped the photograph. An alternative method is to carry a high lumens flashlight, shine it on the stone, and test different angles to read the lettering.
The Cemetery Conservator for United Standards website has a page on reading weathered headstones called Reading Stone Basics. This website discusses other no harm methods such as a foil impression, adding snow to the lettering, or gravestone rubbings. Before doing any rubbings, the gravestone should be evaluated for safety and durability. These methods are also available to download as a PDF, so you can print it and take it with you. We suggest exploring their website as there is so much to learn about cemetery and headstone conservation. Always contact a professional or take training courses for anything other than no harm methods for reading a headstone.
The inscription on a headstone holds valuable information that can tell us more about the person and about the relationships of those they left behind. It is extremely important to document and record these relationships. Inscriptions fade, and a stone itself can be damaged or decay over time.
An example of this is the memorial for Edwin A. Turner, who died in 1865. Turner and his father were traders in the mid-19th Century. They were traveling through Utah with another man named Holland when an argument broke out between Turner and Holland. Their disagreement turned into a scuffle, and Holland stabbed Turner. Turner died at just twenty-six years old. The inscription on the headstone included words from his mother.
My darling boy, I little thought that
When I last saw thy manly form
And fondly kissed thy noble brow
That death would dash thy life away
A photograph of Turner’s headstone taken in the 1970s shows the inscription was clearly visible. A subsequent photo taken in 2009 shows it had nearly crumbled away, and a new stone had been placed in front of the old stone. By 2021, the original headstone no longer existed, and the new headstone did not include the inscription from Turner’s mother.
An inscription on a headstone usually contains genealogical information such as name and dates. It can also include other information like names of family members, unique inscriptions, symbols or icons, and other clues to religion, military service, fraternal organizations, and more. This information helps others in their genealogical research.
As the inscription on a stone contains so much information, you’ll want to be sure when photographing a headstone that the stone is readable. Remove any debris or dirt from the front of the stone, or that has gathered around the edges. You can see in the photos below how the uncut grass covers part of the inscription, which reads:
“We can safely leave our boy
Our darling in Thy trust.”
Our Find a Grave® team has compiled some helpful tips to consider when photographing a headstone and documenting its surroundings.
- Use a camera or cellphone with GPS enabled to add the grave’s location.
- Make sure your lens is clean and avoid including your fingers, feet, or shadow in the photograph.
- Make sure the stone is readable; remove debris such as soil, leaves, or twigs.
- Take multiple photos. This will give you more choices when uploading photos to the site.
- Photograph the entire headstone straight on so that it nearly fills the frame. If the stone is upright, you may need to kneel to get the best shot. You can photograph at different readable angles as well.
- If the headstone has multiple sides with text, then photograph each side.
- Capture a close-up of text on the headstone.
- Capture an area photo of the stone, giving context and showing the surroundings of the grave.
- A shadow can help text be more pronounced. Morning or evening may be best.
- Consider using reflective material (such as a mirror or foil on a flat surface) to cast light on the stone.
- If there is not a marker for the grave, take photos of the grave location in context to the surrounding stones. Add to the caption that the grave is unmarked.
You can use the Find a Grave® app (iOS or Android) to upload the headstone photos directly to the memorial or upload them to the specific cemetery page to transcribe later.
Thank you in advance for your efforts to honor veterans this Memorial Day. We hope that every member of the Armed Forces will have their final resting place remembered and documented on Find a Grave®. To explore military records for our country’s veterans, search Fold3® today. To see Find a Grave® memorials for veterans and others, search Find a Grave® today.