Shirley Hornbeck's This and That Genealogy Tips on Cemeteries

The term "Relict" on a tombstone means that the woman was a widow at time of death, consort means that her husband survived her.

"Cenotaph" engraved on a tombstone indicates an empty grave, with the stone erected in honor or memory of a person buried elsewhere - often erected in honor of a person lost at sea.

The words G.A.R. (with a flying flag) on a tombstone means Grand Army of the Republic. It was a political organization of Civil War Union Army Soldiers. They held annual encampments and had various decorations to wear.

V.D.M. on Tombstone - verbi Dei minister - Minister of the Word of God

W.O.W stands for "Woodmen of the World" the upright tree stump markers are typical of the type of grave stone used by the fraternity.

Anchors and Ships--- Hope or Seafaring profession
Arches--- Victory in Death
Arrows--- Mortality
Bouquets/flowers--- condolences, grief, sorrow
Broken Column--- Loss of head of family
Broken Ring--- Family circle severed
Buds/Rosebud--- Morning of life or renewal of life
Bugles--- Resurrection and the military
Butterfly--- Short-lived; early death
Candle being Snuffed--- Time, mortality
Hand of God Chopping--- Sudden death
Cherub--- Angelic
Corn--- Ripe old age
Cross--- Emblem of faith
Crossed Swords--- High-ranking military person
Darts-- Mortality
Doves--- The Soul, purity, innocence, affection, gentleness
Father Time--- Mortality, The Grim Reaper
Flowers--- Brevity of early existence, sorrow
Flying Birds--- Flight of the soul
Fruits --- Eternal plenty
Full-Blown Rose--- Prime of life
Garlands --- Victory in death
Imps--- Mortality
Hands of God Chopping--- Sudden Death
Handshakes--- Farewell to earthly existence
Harp--- Praise to the Maker
Hearts--- Soul in bliss or love of Christ
Horns--- The Resurrection
Hourglass--- Swiftness of time
Hourglass w/Wings of Time--- Time flying; short life
Ivy--- Friendship and immortality
Lamb--- Innocence
Laurel--- Fame or victory
Lily or Lily of Valley--- Emblem of innocence and purity
Morning Glory--- Beginning of life
Oak Leaves & Acorn--- Maturity, ripe old age
Open Book/Bible--- Deceased teacher, minister, etc.
Palm Branch--- Signifies victory and rejoicing
Picks and Shovels--- Mortality
Poppy--- Sleep
Portals--- Passageway to eternal journey
Roses--- Brevity of earthly existence
Sheaf of Wheat--- Ripe for harvest, divine harvest time
Shells--- Pilgrimage of life
Stars & Stripes Around Eagle--- Eternal vigilance, liberty
Suns--- The Resurrection
Thistles--- Remembrance
Tombs--- Mortality
Torch Inverted--- Life extinct
Trees--- Life
Tree Stump w/Ivy--- Head of family; immortality
Trumpeters--- Heralds of the resurrection
Urn with Blaze --- Undying friendship
Urn with /wreath or crepe--- mourning
Weeping Willow--- Emblem of sorrow
Willows--- Eternal sorrow
Winged Effigies--- Flight of the soul

Many times the letters FLT will be found on a flag holder or on a tombstone with each letter in a link of a chain. This is actually the described logo for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.). The letters stand for: Friendship, Love and Truth. The symbol of the three link chain goes hand-in-hand with the three words. Other branches (sub-organizations to the Odd Fellows) also go by a three word motto & logo. There is no special, additional meaning as it is placed on a headstone. It can also be found engraved in foundation cornerstones.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is (probably) the only fraternal organization that offers a death benefit to its members, and actually has developed, supported and maintained their own cemeteries and Homes (for the aged). Although in these times, there are far fewer of these on record.

The only requirement for becoming an Odd Fellow is that the applicant believe in a Supreme Being. The Order is nondenominational.


Here are a few tips to make your visit to that old cemetery a pleasant experience.

You will be lucky if the cemetery is in a well-kept, suburban area, and is well documented by a local church, funeral director, or county courthouse. Unfortunately this is usually not the case. A good county map may show locations of cemeteries.

Marriage, birth and death certificates should be consulted first. These will pinpoint your ancestors in time, as well as provide you with the proper names. The locations listed on these records may assist you in finding the place that they lived and possibly where they died. Church records and obituaries may be your best bet for finding burial sites for your ancestors. Sometimes funeral directors may also be able to provide you with burial information.

Deeds and Grants should be checked. The GRANTEE index at the local County Courthouse will be invaluable for determining places of residence as well as Probate records.

You may also find a plat map of the cemetery at the County Courthouse or a local historical society. These plats are drawings of the cemetery, much like a floor plan of a house, that indicates not only who is buried in the cemetery, but the exact grave site within the cemetery. When searching for the cemetery that contains the remains of your relatives, remember that most people were buried within 5 miles of their homes. Prior to 1850, particularly in rural areas, many people were buried in small, privately maintained cemeteries, located on the family property or in cemeteries associated with the church of their particular faith. If the cemetery is still maintained, you should contact the caretaker, church secretary or pastor, or other official before you disturb any plantings, dig away dirt or grass from around a head or footstone or attempt to lift fallen stones.

Before you go trekking into the woods, you need to be properly prepared for the excursion. Build yourself a "Cemetery Kit" and consider first protecting yourself. You need to wear clothing appropriate for the terrain and weather that you will be facing. Wear protective clothing (jeans or work pants, and a flannel shirt are advisable). It may be hot out, but don't be tempted to try to make your way through heavy overgrowth wearing shorts and a "T" shirt. A wide-brim hat can be a lifesaver on a hot sunny day. Be sure you have good walking shoes or boots and thick socks. Don't wear thongs, sandals or canvas.

Make sure you have plenty of drinking water and perhaps some snack foods. You would also be well advised to take enough water to enable you to wash off your arms, legs and face once you return to your car. Use plenty of insect repellant on your shoes, socks, and pants legs and consider treating your skin with repellant. Be sure to bring a small First Aid Kit and possibly a Snake Bite Kit. First Aid Kits for campers will be light and compact and probably available at most department stores or sporting goods stores.

Don't forget the sun screen blocker cream or lotion. Beware of poison ivy or poison oak. The other caution is yellow jackets and bees. They are attracted to the sugar in open cans of soda and half eaten fruit. It is especially painful to take a swallow of soda pop and find that a yellow jacket was drinking in the can and is now in your mouth.

A few tools will also come in handy. In areas that are particularly wild or overgrown, a machete will just about be a necessity. You will need something to break a trail through dense brush. You also need to take a small set of hand garden tools including a small garden shovel and hand held hoe. The two tools will be needed to clear grass and dirt away from headstones and footstones that may have sunk. And lastly you should take some kind of wooden pry bar. You will find that some headstones may have fallen over and if lying face down will have to be turned. A pry bar will help you do this. I suggest wood, such as oak, as metal instruments may scar or fracture the stone. Include a pair of heavy canvas gardening gloves in your kit. Another good idea for the tool kit is a four-foot rod of reinforcing bar (rebar) used for probing for sunken headstones.

Assuming that no plat map was available to lead you to the exact site, you will have to walk up and down the row of graves, examining each stone. At cemeteries where woods closely bound the cemetery, be sure to go a bit into the trees in each direction to be sure that you have found all of the grave sites. Look for fences, stone walls, or corner stones that may mark the boundaries of the cemetery. You may want to bring some graph paper along to diagram the layout of the area where your ancestors are buried. This will help to remember where the graves were. Be sure to write down any fixed objects that will help locate the grave and the drives and also include compass directions (N, S, E, W).

A great way to save your memories of that visit is with a video camera. Take extra batteries and extra video tapes with you. Video taping creates a record of the condition of the tombstones at the time you visited. Some tombstones may not be readable in five or ten years but the video tape will always be there. Why not do a test taping at a local cemetery to develop a technique before you embark on your trip to that distant cemetery. If you don't have a video camera, take along your tape recorder and a couple of cameras instead. A tip for photographers is to bring a roll of aluminum foil with you and set it up to reflect the sunlight onto or away from a poorly lit stone - or better yet - use a large mirror. Take along lots of film and have one of the cameras loaded with black and white film. Take pictures with both cameras in case one doesn't come out. Hopefully one of them will have a long cable release or take along a friend to help you. A tripod would be most helpful. Once you set up your camera and focus as best you can, use the mirror to reflect light onto the stone and take your pictures from different angles with the the mirror placed in different locations. You should definitely make a written record of what is inscribed on the headstone and the footstone if there is one as photographs will often fail to pickup all of the inscriptions on the stone.

Whether you take photographs, rubbings, or both, you may need to clean the stone first. You can try a block of Styrofoam to clean off lichen and moss which damage stone. When cleaning a stone, remember that you must not cause any more damage than is already there. Most accumulated dirt and debris can be removed with a brush. Select a brush that is soft enough to not damage the stone but strong enough to remove clods of dirt. Or use your garden tools to remove grass and dirt from the base of the stone until all of the inscription is revealed. Don't dig farther than necessary as you don't want to cause the stone to topple over. You may need to use a little water to get dirt out of the inscriptions. Plain water and gentle scrubbing from the bottom up does wonders for removing soil and most lichens. Soap is not recommended for cleaning gravestones.

In order to read the inscriptions, some have recommended using shaving cream. Shaving cream is damaging to gravestones and is not recommended. One method you might try - place a soaking wet lightweight piece of white cloth flat on the stone - "ironing" it with the fingers. The words will show up, especially if incised. It is also safe to use chalk, however it is hard to remove. You might consider mud instead or even ordinary baking flour dusted on with a small paint brush.

Rubbings are perhaps the most popular way to record headstones. There are many techniques for making rubbings and many materials that can be used. Make some trips to a local cemetery and practice making rubbings using different materials and techniques until you are happy with your results before you make a potentially expensive trip to a remote cemetery. Take something to sit on, especially if there are chiggers around, or use a small stool if your knees are stiff.

Many types of paper can be used to take the rubbing on, including newsprint, tracing paper, architects paper, shelf paper, or pellon. You can purchase pellon at just about any fabric or craft shop and other papers will be available at most art supply stores. You are going to need some medium to transfer the rubbing. There are many things you can use; crayon, graphite, charcoal and boot wax are a few of the choices. Bootwax on the pellon makes an attractive rubbing, and graphite or charcoal on newsprint is another good selection. You can get boot wax at most shoe repair shops and sticks of charcoal and graphite are available at art supply stores. Graphite sticks are often available in several colors and other drawing sticks are also available. You will need some tape to hold the paper in place on the stone while you make the rubbing. Freezer or masking tape doesn't leave a lot of residue when you remove it from the stone and it will also stick to a damp stone. Cut a piece of your material (paper or pellon, etc.) approximately the same size as the stone and secure it tightly across the surface of the stone using the tape. Begin rubbing at the upper left corner of the stone and work across and down. Rub in a diagonal direction as rubbing straight up and down or side to side will tend to stretch the paper and cause it to tear or make a distorted image. Whatever you have chosen to make the rubbing with, use a broad side or edge (several inches long) to rub with. You do not need to rub hard but rubbing too gently will cause you to lose the detail. Be sure that you are happy with your results before you remove the paper and that all lettering is legible. Once you remove the paper don't try to replace it in the same location. When you are done with the rubbing remove it carefully from the stone, and lay it flat. Remove all tape and residue from the stone. You should now "fix" the rubbing. If you are using charcoal, or graphite the image can be easily fixed with either hair spray or a commercial fixative available at the art supply store. Other mediums may need the commercial fixative or some other special treatment. When spraying the fixative do not spray it on the stone. Use a gentle side to side sweeping motion, and do not apply it too heavily. The fixative will usually cause your rubbing to darken. Follow the instructions on the bottle or can. I store my rubbings in tubes such as from wrapping paper. They are particularly good for this but you can buy mailing tubes commercially if you like. Cemetery rubbings are fun to do. They can be mounted or framed and make an interesting conversation piece. The rubbings can be stapled to a couple of dowels or matted and framed. They are particularly interesting if you use more than one color in your rubbing.

A novel way to do a rubbing - make a "cake" in a margarine tub. Fill tub with plaster of paris and mix with water and allow to dry. When you find a stone that is difficult to read, gently wipe the "cake" across the stone. This will not harm the stone and letters and numbers will be easier to read. You can brush off what's left or the next rain will take care of it.

The Oldstone Enterprises, 77 Summer Street, Boston, Mass. 01110 sells a kit with directions for making rubbings of grave stones. Their materials may also be purchased from the Hearthstone Bookshop, 8405-H Richmond Highway, Alexandria, Va. 22309. The paper you want to use is sometimes referred to as "synthetic rice paper" or "print makers paper". Anything that does not tear easily will probably do. You may also use the non-woven interfacing or pattern materials that are sold at dress fabric stores, such as PELLON (non-fusible variety). Oldstone sells a crayon that is about the size and shape of a bar of hand soap. Carpenter's crayon or Lumberman's crayon may also be used, or a crayon from the thick box of crayolas would do. If you find the right kind of paper, no spray or protective materials need be used.

A "leave-behind" might be several miniature pedigree charts in a small glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. I use a copy machine that reduces a 4 generation pedigree chart to index card size. Be sure your name and address are on each one either with a stamp or a sticker or type it on the back. Put a few of these in a jar and leave it by the headstone.

Be sure to clean up the site before you leave. Once you get back to your car rinse off your arms and legs using either water or a gentle antiseptic. If you have ever had chigger bites you will understand why this is advisable. Once back to the hotel or your home, be sure to wash thoroughly and apply astringent all over. Be careful of tics that you may pick up in the woods.

Add a GPS in his cemetery kit - a hand held device about the size of a cell phone. It receives signals from a series of satellites circling the globe. If you go to the center of the cemetery and take a reading, and record the latitude and longitude those cemetery locations will be known, forever. even if the stones are totally obliterated with time. Generations of the future will always know the location, even hundreds of years from now, of that site. As the ravages of acid rain, vandalism, developement continue, there will be a record of the location of tour ancestors final "home". I know everyone can't afford to go out to buy a GPS reciever, but maybe your local societies can - or maybe you could borrow one from a mountain climber or hiker, when you do your excursions. The price has been dropping on these units, as well as better features have been added. this technology can also be used for marking ancestrial homesteads and lands, so even if the land gets developed into suburban sub-divisions, you'll know where the home originally stood. There are probably dozen of other uses that haven't been thought of yet, but I'm sure will be. It's just nice to be able to put a location down that will never change, even centuries from now. You can compute the exact position of the grave and store this information as a "waypoint".

First - check the condition of the stone on all surfaces. No stone should be cleaned if its condition is questionable or there is some sign that the stone is delicate, brittle, or otherwise vulnerable. If there is any question as to the stone's condition, do not attempt to clean it as the surface could be damaged in the process.

Mix a solution of one heaping tablespoon of ORVUS to one gallon of clean water.  ORVUS is a detergent that comes in either liquid or paste form and can be found in feed stores.

Wet the stone thoroughly with clear water to make sure the detergent solution will not be absorbed directly into the dry stone. Do not let it dry. Use natural, bristled, wooden handled brushes of various sizes and rinse thoroughly with lots of clean water. Never use abrasives, acids, solvents, household cleaners or wire brushes to clean the stone.

When cleaning marble or limestone, one tablespoon of household ammonia can be added to the above mixture. This will help remove some greases and oils. Do not use ammonia on or near any bronze or other metal elements. Do not clean marble, limestone, or sandstone more than once every 18 months. These types of stone may occasionally be rinsed with clean water.  Granite can be cleaned as needed.

             Lichens and algae can be removed by first thoroughly soaking the stone and then using a wooden scrapper to gently remove the growth.  This process may need to be repeated several times.

Cemetery Records Online is the leading online library of cemetery transcriptions. They have over 722,000 burial records from more than 2,100 cemeteries around the world, and all freely accessible. Visit their site at:

To find out what National Cemetery an ancestor was buried in during the Civil War, write: Veterans Administration, 810 Vermont Ave., N.W., Washington DC 20420.

Alexandria (Pineville), LA - 4,723
Alexander, VA - 3,584
Andersonville, GA - 13,738
Andrew Jackson (Greenville), TN - 63
Annapolis, MD - 2,523
Antietam (Sharpsburg), MD - 4,828
Arlington, (Ft. Myer), VA - 40,313
Balls Bluff (Leesburg), VA - 54
Barrancas, FL - 2,360
Baton Rouge, LA - 3,375
Battle Grounds (Tacoma Park Sts) , WA) - 44
Beaufort, SC - 9,751
Beverly, NJ - 272
Camp Butler (Springfield), IL 1,640
Camp Nelson KY - 3,673
Cave Hill (Louisville), KY - 5,445
Chalmette (Arabi), LA - 13,662
Chattanooga, TN - 14,542
City Point (Hopewell), VA - 5,213
Cold Harbor (Richmond), VA - 1,974
Corinth, MS - 5,758
Crown Hill (Indianapolis), IN - 1,100
Culpeper, VA - 1,380
Custer Battlefield MT - 1,667
Cypress Hills (Brooklyn), NY - 13,699
Danville, KY - 363
Danville, VA - 1,331
Fayeville, AR - 1,402
Finns Point (Salem), NJ - 2,654
Florence SC - 3,019
Fort Donelson (Dover), TN - 682
Fort Gibson, OK - 2,606
Fort Harrison (Richmond), VA - 819
Fort Leavenworth, KS - 4,487
Fort McPherson (Brady), NE - 1,120
Fort Scott, KS - 1,105
Fort Smith, AR - 2,641
Fredericksburg, VA - 15,238
Gettysburg, PA - 3,770
Glendale, VA - 1,205
Grafton, WV - 1,351
Hampton VA - 13,863
Jefferson Barracks, MO - 14,603
Jefferson City, MO - 924
Keokuk, LA - 1,073
Knoxville, TN - 3,961
Lebanon, KY - 880
Lexington, KY - 1,266
Little Rock AR - 7,467
Louden Park (Baltimore), MD - 5,302
Mariette GA - 10,639
Memphis, TN - 15,125
Mexico City, Mexico - 1,563
Mill Springs (Somerset), KY - 750
Mobile, AL - 2,479
Mound City, IL - 5,578
Nashville (Madison), TN - 16,907
Natchez, MS - 3,701
New Albany, IN - 3,382
Newbern, NC - 3,484
Philadelphia (Pittsville Sta.), PA - 4,954
Popular Grove (Petersburg), VA - 6,263
Port Hudson, LA - 3,861
Quincy, IL - 320
Raleigh, NC - 1,259
Richmond, VA - 6,675
Rock Island, IL - 651
Salisbury, NC - 12,193
San Antonio, TX - 3,829
San Francisco (Presidio Sta.) CA - 12,821
Santa Fe, NM - 1,571
Seven Pines (Richmond), VA - 1,407
Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing), TN - 3,639
Soldiers Home, (Washington), DC - 9,107
Springfield, MO - 2,785
St. Augustine, FL - 1,886
Staunton, VA - 774
Stone River (Murfreesboro), TN - 6,170
Vicksburg, MS - 17,404
Wilmington, NC - 2,425
Winchester, VA - 4,563
Woodlawn (Elmira), NY - 3,320
Yorktown, VA - 2,204
Zachary Taylor (Louisville), KY - 2
Alaska - 121
Total as of 1933 - 422,365

In addition to the above - Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on Cabrillo Memorial Dr. on the southern end of Point Loma peninsula, San Diego, CA was a burial ground before 1847 and became an Army post cemetery in the 1860s. It is the final resting place for most who fell at San Pasqual in 1846, and for the U.S.S. Bennington victims of 1905. It became Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in 1934 and was placed under the Veterans Administration National Cemetery System in 1973. Over 50,000 who served the U.S. honorably in war and peace lie here.

Tombstones, carvers, symbolism, locations, preservation, etc, - Association for Gravestone Studies/278 Main Street/Suite 207/Greenfield, MA 01301; e-mail:
AGS web site:

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