How to Make a Map of My Cemetery

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When the Associated Press reported on the receipt of a $2,000 grant given to the Fort Pierre cemetery so a surveyor could be hired to map it out, readers might have learned for the first time that grave mapping isn’t a rare occurrence. In fact, it’s become commonplace to map vintage cemeteries before time and weathering make it impossible to interpret crumbling headstones. Whether your cemetery has 950 monuments like the one receiving the National Trust for Historic Preservation grant--or 25--enhance your link to the past by undertaking this worthwhile project.

Collect as much data about the inhabitants of individual grave sites as possible by consulting township, city and community birth and death registries, church records, and family archives. Talk with senior relatives, friends and neighbors who may be able to pinpoint the final resting place of individuals in your cemetery.

Purchase a measuring wheel and graph paper to create an original map pinpointing the location of individual graves. Methodically walk down rows recording readable engraved information appearing on each monument. Alphabetize rows to give your grid structure and provide an easy way to distinguish one row from another—particularly if the cemetery resembles an overgrown ruin.

Assign a number to each headstone beginning with the A row and mark your graph with each code (e.g., A-1, B-2). Jot down discernible letters, dates and epitaphs within that field. Follow the lead of those who have had problems due to severe decay: if the first row is too deteriorated to glean information, begin your mapping with a row that's easy to spot because it borders a path or a road and assign individual codes from that point.

Take senior community members along for a second walk-through, as they may be able to help you unravel some of the mysteries you found during your first mapping experience. Anticipate surprises when you recruit seniors—read about one cemetery mapper’s experience (link below) when he asked for help and received instead a hand-drawn schematic drawn up decades earlier that helped speed up the map’s completion.

Expect to have setbacks when you work on your cemetery map—most will involve leaving out rows or overlooking hard-to-discern headstones that can often require recounting and renumbering rows and headstones.

Secure your cemetery map by scanning and saving your work to your computer’s hard drive. Alternately, obtain one of the many software packages on the market (see link below) designed exclusively for helping cemetery mappers organize their information.

Based in Chicago, Gail Cohen has been a professional writer for more than 30 years. She has authored and co-authored 14 books and penned hundreds of articles in consumer and trade publications, including the Illinois-based "Daily Herald" newspaper. Her newest book, "The Christmas Quilt," was published in December 2011.