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Location, Location, Location!

by Steve Paul Johnson
June 24, 2001

When compiling a cemetery transcription, it is necessary to identify the precise geographic location of the cemetery.

There are a few good reasons why.

Identifying the Correct Cemetery

Identifying the correct cemetery has proven itself to be a difficult task for us folks at Interment.net. Some transcriptions sent to us have very little information describing the location of the cemetery. Sometimes, we don't know which cemetery it is. We do have our reference books with us, and we make use of various web resources out there, but still, sometimes we really don't know which cemetery was recorded.

For example, in Los Angeles County, there are two cemeteries named "Holy Cross Cemetery", one in Culver City, and another in Pomona. If the transcription does not identify the town it is located in, we have no way of knowing which cemetery it is referring to.

In many rural areas, there are several small cemeteries scattered about. Quite often, these cemeteries don't have signs identifying their names. The best way to identify these cemeteries is by providing its exact location. Without this information, it becomes nearly impossible to identify the cemetery. What happens is that we publish the transcription under whatever name is given to us. Then in the future, a different person may submit their own transcription of the same cemetery, and we won't realize that it is the same cemetery we published earlier.

People are going to want to visit the cemetery

When someone discovers their long lost great-grandfather in a cemetery transcription, they usually want to either visit the graveyard, or find someone to photograph the tombstone for them. If the cemetery is a small graveyard in a rural area, it may be impossible to locate if the transcriber did not provide location information.

Believe it or not, the majority of people who use Interment.net are trying to locate the burial site of a friend or family member. These people usually know all the details about an individual, except that they don't where they are buried. Genealogists often consider cemetery records as a valuable source of vital information, which they are. But in reality, the most popular use of cemetery records is to locate lost people.

Without clear location information, finding the cemetery may be just as big of a problem as finding a loved one.

Cemetery Preservation

My best guess is that there are some 1 million cemeteries and graveyards in the United States covering a period of time from 1700 to the present day. A good number of these cemeteries are long gone, due to construction, destruction, vandalism, or ignorance.

Many people compile transcriptions of endangered cemeteries as a means to create lasting records before they disappear forever. Recording the precise location of a cemetery is of obvious importance when producing such a record. Without it, there would be no way to determine where that cemetery really was.

How to Identify Location

Below are ways to identify a cemetery's location:

  • Street Address
  • Driving directions from a starting point
  • Legal Description
  • Latitude & Longitude Coordinates

Street Address: This needs no further explanation. But for those cemeteries located in rural areas, they may not have actual street addresses. But if the cemetery is situated near a road, indicate that it lies near that road. If looking up the address in a book, be aware that the cemetery's mailing address may not the same as the physical address.

Driving Directions: I recommend writing a set of directions explaining how to reach a cemetery from a well known starting point. Take the time to note distances in miles or kilometers between turns. Identify landmarks that the reader should watch for.

Legal Description: This is a system of determining where a plot of land is located, often used with land purchases. It is based on a series of coordinates referred to as the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). The PLSS covers only 30 states, excluding the 13 original colonies, Texas and Hawaii. Each state is plotted out into a grid, where each cell is generally a six-mile square. Each cell is a called a township. Each township is further divided into 36 one-mile squares, known as "sections". Then each section is further divided into halves and fourths, and can be further divided again. A typical legal description might read:

N 1/2 SE 1/4, SW 1/4, S24, T32N, R18E

Legal Descriptions are read backwards, starting with "R18E" in the example above. In fact, "R18E" and "T32N" represents the "x-y" axis of the grid, which identifies the township. The "S24" identifies one of 36 sections of the township. The "SW 1/4" identifies the southwest quarter of the section, while the "SE 1/4" identifies the southeast quarter of that portion, and the "N 1/2" identifies the north half of that portion.

In terms of identifying cemeteries, you need to first obtain a map of your state's PLSS grid. Then you need to pinpoint the precise location of the cemetery on the map. From there, you can plot out the township, section, and halves and quarters.

Latitude & Longitude Coordinates: This is perhaps the most precise means of identifying location. And its probably the most convenient means to do so these days, since GPS devices have become affordable.

You will need a GPS device to provide you with the coordinates. With the device in hand, you need only to stand in the middle of the cemetery, and let it calculate the coordinates. You can either store the coordinates in your device, or write them down in your notebook.

When someone wants to visit the cemetery, they can enter the coordinates into their GPS device, and it will point them in the direction. More sophisticated devices can display a street map advising you which roads to take and where to turn.

Read our article, "Using a GPS Device" for more info.

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Each transcription we publish comes from a single-source, be it the cemetery office, government office, church office, archived document, a tombstone transcriber. Other websites already do an excellent job of crowd-sourcing a single cemetery together. But genealogists also need to see the original records from a single source. That's what we offer.