Cemeteries are as close as you can get to an ancestor today. They move you and make you stop and think about your own mortality. They can also offer a great deal of information. I have done my own genealogy hunt in cemetaries and found it heartbreaking to see graves in disrepair. I have also seen shiny and well tended graves with photos of my great uncle and aunt together. It’s all very exciting and with a few hints it can be a more enjoyable experience.
To find what cemetery you need to start at look over the death certificates or obituaries for where your ancestor was buried. If the cemetery is large or it is a church, you may need to know what religion your ancestor was to narrow down the search. Then contact the main office of the cemetery to find out what records they have. Generally a lot of the bigger cemeteries and some smaller ones will have maps to locate the graves. I have a number of relatives buried in the Rookwood cemetery, which is the largest in Australia. The cemetery covers 268 hectares, and over a million people are buried there, so going without a map would be a waste of time.
Take a list of the names and dates of the people you are looking for. Preferably on a piece of paper, I had mine on my phone and it was very annoying deal with the screen and bring up the details again and again. It may be helpful to print out a family sheet to see if any siblings or other members of the family are buried close
Have a notepad and pen with you but the best thing to have is a good camera. Go in the morning to stop having too much glare but enough brightness. Make sure that the camera is charged or you have spare batteries. Take heaps of photos from all different angles but I always take a close shot of the inscription and then take another shot of the total gravestone. If there are a few family members graves close together you might try taking a panoramic shot to incorporate all the gravestones.
For any inscriptions that have faded it may be useful to take butchers paper and crayon or chalk to rub over the inscription. Just need to check whether this is allowed and be respectful in making sure nothing gets damaged. Otherwise plain water in a spray bottle may be enough to get the inscription to stand out more and it does no damage.
Also make sure that you check the back of the headstone for any more inscriptions. If there is any symbols or emblems, take a photo of it or try to sketch it out. They may give a clue to a organisation or club that your ancestor belonged to. Searching may take longer than you expect and it may be exhausting if you pick a hot day, so make sure you are comfortable and take a bottle and water, maybe some snacks and even a chair.
There are a few websites that may already have your ancestors gravestones on them. Google your ancestor to see. Findagrave.com – Although it’s American, it has a large amount of Australian records. Billiongraves.com – great website as it gives a google map of where the cemetery is located.
I have enjoyed many cemetery hunts for ancestors and in smaller cemeteries I enjoy just wandering around for a while to see whether I can pick out the grave for myself. The sad fact in Australia is that graves can be reused after a certain period of time, so I’m thankful when my ancestors still have their space and their headstones. But it is very upsetting that there have been a few that I will never be able to fully pay my respects to. It all gives us reason to make sure we don’t leave doing the search now, putting it off may mean it can be lost forever.