Is a visit to a cemetery in your summer plans? If so, I have a few tips to share after my recent experience. As part of Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to visit the cemetery in Preston, Idaho, where my mother-in-law’s ancestors are buried. With her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents all laid to rest in the same cemetery, I thought it would be a quick and easy thing to locate them. We quickly learned that there was more to it than arriving at the cemetery and walking around. After reflecting on our experience, I thought of three tips to make the most of future cemetery visits.
Tip #1: Prepare Ahead
If you’re unfamiliar with the cemetery, take some time to familiarize yourself with who is buried there and if possible get a general idea of where they are buried. My mother-in-law, Renee, grew up in Preston, Idaho, and knew many of her ancestors. She probably had visited each of their graves at some time in the past but hadn’t been to the cemetery in years. I knew I couldn’t rely on her memory to guide us.
I wanted to have a good road map, so I started with FamilySearch. Clicking on each individual, I quickly was able to determine whose grave we’d hopefully find in the cemetery. I was excited to see that all of Renee’s ancestors up to her great-grandparent level were buried in the Preston Cemetery. Over the years family members had compiled stories of the ancestors and shared those in print form. I pulled those off the shelf to review on the drive to the cemetery. Driving to and from the cemetery is a perfect time to share stories with a captive audience.
If you don’t have any printed family stories, be sure to check on FamilySearch or other online trees to see if someone has uploaded a history, obituary, or other memory. The memories page for Austin Earl Hollingsworth held 59 memories – photos, stories, and even the transcript from his funeral. Because a FamilySearch account is free to anyone, this is a wonderful place to add those memories – much safer than in a box under your bed where other family members likely won’t have access!
Be sure to take some type of a pedigree chart to the cemetery, whether it is hand-drawn or printed out. I found paper to be much easier to use than the small screen on my phone – especially when trying to show family members the generational connections.
Tip #2: Locate the Graves
If you’re lucky, the cemetery will have a directory somewhere with an index of the graves and their location within the cemetery. We luckily stumbled upon the Hollingsworth family plot with Renee’s parents, Blanche Merrill and Austin Earl Hollingsworth in the midst. We were not so lucky with the other graves and spent a lot of time wandering amongst the gravestones searching for family.
The Find A Grave memorial for Austin Earl had a photo of the gravestone, but no location within the cemetery. In preparation for our visit, I had located the graves on the Billion Graves website which showed me the approximate location within the cemetery. The Billion Graves Plus subscription allows me to view the plots near any given grave – a helpful feature as families are generally buried in the same area.
The Preston Cemetery has been thoroughly photographed and transcribed so I had looked at each ancestor’s grave before visiting in person. I assumed that I could easily pull up the images and navigate quickly to each gravestone. Unfortunately, when I arrived, I found that it was difficult to locate the graves using my phone to navigate Billion Graves. My connection was slow and the sun’s glare on my screen made it almost impossible to make out the markers.
A much better strategy would have been to have taken a screenshot and saved it to my Evernote or Google Drive so I could easily pull up the photo – or even to have printed the photo or drawn a simple map. Yes, sometimes paper can be a better tool!
What if your cemetery of interest has not been photographed? You can still use Google Earth to get an idea of how large the cemetery is and how much time it might take to search. The aerial view of the Preston Cemetery may not show names on the gravestones but provides an idea of the size and number of graves.
Using the random search method successfully located all but two sets of the ancestors. John & Kate Martin and Orrin & Elizabeth White proved elusive – even when driving up and down the rows. Finally, I noticed something at the far corner of the cemetery that looked like a map. It turned out to be an alphabetical directory of the cemetery with the locations plotted. Starting with this resource could have saved a lot of time! I jotted down the coordinates and we were able to find the last two couples.
Upon returning to my home, I did a little more research and found that the FamilySearch Wiki page for Franklin County, Idaho Cemetery Records had a link to the Preston Cemetery transcription. There were the names, years, and locations within the cemetery for each individual’s grave. John and Kate Martin’s graves were in the SE section, 2-1.
When we finally located Kate and John Martin, we saw that their gravestones had the pioneer nameplate attached. They had immigrated from their native England to join the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Utah.
Tip # 3 Take Photographs
While at the cemetery, you’ll want to take quality photographs of each gravestone. Depending on the lighting, your photographs may be better than those online. Plus, with your own photos, you don’t need to ask permission to include them in your family history book! I also like to record the visit with photographs of the people visiting by the gravestones.
After our visit to the cemetery, we took Renee to see the family homestead where she was raised. The barn her father built still stood as well as her childhood home. Again, photographs recorded this moment in time of our visit.
Best of luck as you plan your cemetery visits! Remember to do some preparation before, finding stories and grave locations if possible. Finally, when at the cemetery, enjoy the connections and take a lot of photographs.