There is so much misinformation available on the right way to document
a gravestone marker that it is a wonder that any of them are still standing.
These monuments to our ancestors are permanent reminders of a loved one
when properly cared for. Unfortunately, a lot of damage is innocently
done in the name of preservation. For instance, the common practice of
creating a rubbing is actually harmful and in some states is illegal.
Many school groups studying local history make rubbings of gravestone
markers to use in the classroom. However, rubbings are abrasive and damage
the surface of the stone by eventually wearing away the carving or loosening
bits of soft stone. Even the most careful and gentle rubbing causes decay.
Photography offers an alternative. With the right equipment, bright sunlight
and a little patience you can use images of headstones for educational
purposes or add them to a family photo archive. Taking a picture is an
ideal way to document the information on the stone without causing deterioration.
Once you have taken these pictures, why not add them to the online Virtual
Cemetery to create a memorial to your ancestors? You will be able
to share your discoveries with other researchers. You can also transfer
the gravestone images into a Family Tree Maker scrapbook for those individuals
thus adding depth to your genealogical data.
By using these helpful tips you will be able to create professional looking
images of cemetery markers.
Photographing gravestones takes planning. You may have to wait several
days for the right combination of factors such as light and weather in
order to take the best possible images. Rushing the process will only
result in poor quality photos.
Bright sunlight is necessary to highlight the stone's features. Ideally
midday sun that hits the stone at a 30-degree angle is best. Other types
of sunlight emphasize imperfections in the stone and can make the carving
look flat. The stone's location influences when that might be available.
For instance, gravestones in New England often face west and are best
photographed at midday, while stones that face north should be photographed
in the late afternoon. Those facing south are well-lit all day in midsummer
but not during the rest of the year.
You can improve the quality of light by reflecting it with a mirror to
highlight the stone and carving. A plastic full-length mirror works well.
Ideally, the stone should not be taller than the mirror. If you are only
focusing on a section then a small mirror can be used. Since you will
need to position the mirror it would be helpful to have either a partner
or a tripod with you. If the sunlight is too strong you can create some
shading by either standing in front of the direct sunlight or by using
a large dark cloth or cardboard as a shield. If the stone is located in
the shadows, you may be able to use two mirrors to help you reflect light.
Keep in mind that you still need a sunny day.
Type of Camera
The Association For Gravestone Studies recommends using a 35 mm SLR that
is outfitted with either a 50-55mm lens or a wide angle 35mm lens for
crowded areas. Smaller lenses will distort the straight lines in the image.
If you intend to digitize the pictures, you might want to use a digital
camera. It will reduce the number of steps involved in digitizing the
image and save you the expense of film processing.
If you are utilizing a 35 mm SLR, either black and white or color film
can be used. Black and white Tri-x film is a good choice. Filters can
be helpful when shooting black and white images. An orange filter increases
the contrast while a polarizing filter can reduce glare. Exposure times
of 1/250th or 1/500th are suggested. Color film with an ASA of 200 shot
at 1/250th of a second should yield a good result.
Since you are creating a record of the cemetery in addition to photographing
a single stone you should take several images of the same marker. For
- One showing the whole cemetery.
- Shoot an image that includes the closest stones and provides context.
- Photograph the whole gravestone so that inscription and carving are
- Make sure to take at least one picture where the inscription fills
the camera frame.
Unless you are extremely lucky, most of the stones you want to photograph
will not be straight due to ground settling. In the case of leaning stones,
tilting the camera should eliminate the slant.
As you focus the camera you may notice distracting background elements
such as telephone poles, trees and other monuments. Since you want your
picture to be essentially about the stones you are photographing, you
need to eliminate those articles. You can use a background cloth or cardboard
as a backdrop, but make sure that whatever you use is free of imperfections
or they will be more distracting than the original problems. If you are
going to photograph a large number of cemetery monuments you may want
to invest in a piece of Formica mounted on 1/4 inch plywood. Be sure to
have a handhold cut into the side for easy carrying. Any store that manufactures
kitchen counters should be able to provide what you need. A neutral shade
other than gray enhances the appearance of the stone.
Other Ways to Improve the Quality of the Photograph
Cleaning the Stone
Cleaning a cemetery stone is a controversial topic. The first rule of
conservation and preservation is to cause no damage. Unfortunately, by
using household cleaners, chalk and shaving cream to enhance the lettering
you may injure the surface in ways that are not readily apparent. Caution
should be used before you destroy what you set out to preserve.
Over the centuries several different types of stones have been used to
create gravestones. Some of the stones are quite porous and fragile, while
others are resistant to damage. Be careful when attempting to improve
the readability of the inscription. Types of stone:
- Prior to the Nineteenth century: Sandstone or slate
- Nineteenth Century: Marble and gray granite
- Late nineteenth century to the present: Polished granite or marble
There are a few things that you can do that will not cause injury.
A soft brush or natural sponge and water will help you remove surface
soil. Gentle brushing should remove surface dirt and bird droppings.
Power washing should not be used; water should flow over the stone
or be delicately sprayed onto the surface. Never use hard objects
or stiff brushes to clean the stone. Removing lichens with sharp objects
may inadvertently destroy the surface.
Not all cemeteries are regularly maintained. By trimming tall weeds
around the base of the stone and cutting the grass you may discover
epitaphs hidden under the overgrowth.
Local historians and genealogists have transcribed inscription information
for generations. Many of these handwritten and typewritten efforts are
now being entered into databases, some of which are available online.
What is innovative is the use of photography to create a photographic
record of both the inscription and the carvings. By using a pictorial
representation of the headstone as part of the database, you are able
to see what actually appears on the stone including both the epitaph and
the artistic carving. It is a record of what the cemetery marker looked
like at a particular time before further damage occurs or the stone disappears.
If you live near or know about a cemetery in your area, why not assist
with the preservation efforts by photographing each stone in it for future
reference? A local historical society or cemetery association will appreciate
your efforts. Be sure to check with them before embarking on the project
so that there is no duplication of effort.
A basic record sheet on a cemetery should include the following:
- Map of the cemetery with the stones numbered
- When photographed (time, date, and frame number)
- Transcription of the epitaph
For a discussion of what should be included in a basic record sheet consult
paper by B.W. Hutchinson. Database software is available from the
Association For Gravestone Studies and is being used by cemetery projects
across the United States. If you want to learn more about photographing
cemetery markers or are curious about the history of gravestone carving
you can contact the following organizations:
The Association For Gravestone
278 Main St., Suite 207, Greenfield, MA 01301 (413) 772-0836
They sell a basic information kit through their gift shop and publish
an annual journal on gravestone history called Markers. Membership
is open to all interested individuals. The AGS holds an annual conference
with workshops, lectures, and tours. For more information and registration
forms consult their Web site. The society also maintains a lending library
Founded in 1995, their mission is to educate individuals about the history
and preservation of cemetery art. Their Web site includes a list of do's
Share your discoveries with others by adding your gravestone photographs
to this online database of images and information.
- Cornish, Michael, "Photographing Gravestones," Association for Gravestone
- Farber, Daniel and Jessie Lie, "Making Photographic Records of Gravestones,"
Association for Gravestone Studies, 1986.
- Walther, Tracy C., "Cleaning Masonry Burial Monuments," Association
for Gravestone Studies, 1990.