|by Maureen Taylor|
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.
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
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.
Other Ways to Improve the Quality of the Photograph
Cleaning the Stone
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:
There are a few things that you can do that will not cause injury.
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:
For a discussion of what should be included in a basic record sheet consult this 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
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 for members.
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 and don'ts.
Share your discoveries with others by adding your gravestone photographs to this online database of images and information.
About the Author
Maureen A. Taylor, Owner and Principal of Ancestral Connections, combines her background in history, genealogy, photography and library science to assist individuals and institutions with research and project management. She is the author of several genealogical books and articles including the recent Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs (Betterway, 2000) and a guide to family history for kids, Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Her columns on genealogy appear in The Computer Genealogist and in New England Ancestors. She is the project manager for www.BostonFamilyHistory.com, a site that lets visitors plan a genealogical research trip to the Boston area.