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How to Create a Cemetery Transcription

Creating a cemetery transcription for other genealogists to use.

By Steve Johnson, Editor

Creating a cemetery transcription to share with the public is a labor of gratitude for all the free genealogical resources you've been blessed to find and benefit from.

So, how do you go about doing it the right way?

Should You Transcribe a Cemetery That Has Already Been Transcribed?

Yes, of course!

Just about every cemetery has been transcribed before, often many times over. Each person creates his or her own unique method that no one else can duplicate. Even if you're transcribing tombstone inscriptions, you may interpret faint, hard to read inscriptions better than people have done before. Once you get used to transcribing cemeteries, you'll discover that transcriptions of the same cemetery you are doing, done by other people, may be far less complete and detailed as yours.

How to Select a Cemetery to Transcribe

Start with a small cemetery, one with open gates, and one you feel comfortable with visiting. Don't worry if other people have already transcribed this cemetery.

Older cemeteries are higher in demand by genealogists. Cemeteries located far away from civilization, not well known about, or difficult to get to via vehicle, are also high in demand.

What Information To Gather

Cemetery information can be broken down into two parts..

1. Cemetery Information

2. Records of interred remains

Cemetery Information - refers to information about the cemetery itself. This is the current (and official) name of the cemetery, the exact location of the cemetery (GPS coordinates, street address), who owns the cemetery or who owns the land the cemetery is on, history of the cemetery (prior names, what was the land used for before the cemetery), current condition of the cemetery, etc.

Records of interred remains - These are records of persons buried in the cemetery. These usually include tombstone inscriptions, but can also include sexton records (sexton is the person responsible for keeping records), newspaper obituaries, previous transcriptions, church records, etc.

How to Get All This Information

Tombstone Inscriptions - Record all the inscriptions on each tombstone. Not just the name and dates, but also other inscriptions including, "RIP", "Beloved Mother", "U.S. Navy", and even note symbols such as the Masonic symbol, or Cruicifix symbol, etc. These other inscriptions tell something about the deceased and can even help other genealogists identify him/her. Use a digital camera (or your cellphone) to photograph each tombstone, and then type the inscriptions into a spreadsheet. (See our Publishing Page for a sample spreadsheet, click here).

Sexton Records - Most cemeteries, particularly those that are still active, have someone in charge of maintaining the records. These records include those who are buried in the cemetery, but also the person who purchased the plot, the funeral home that administered the burial, and even historical information about the cemetery itself. Finding the sexton of a cemetery, along with the contact information, is a lot more easy than you might think. Start by contacting the closest funeral homes in the area, and they usually know. You can also contact the County Recorder's Office, and they will know the land owner of every parcel, and have their contact info.

Newspaper Obituaries - Locating archived copies of old newspapers can offer a wealth of information through obituaries. These usually tell you where a decedent was (or will be) interred. It will give you the date of death, and often names of surviving spouse of children. The largest online archive of old newspapers is GenealogyBank (click here).

Previous Transcriptions - When using previous transcriptions, it's important to only gather what information you were not able to get from other sources. Even though records of burial are public records, and entirely factual information, copying whole transcriptions is generally considered impolite, and defeats the purpose of creating your own unique work. Websites like Find-a-Grave and USGenWeb Archives are great places to collect additional information on interred persons. Family History Libraries (operated by the Church of Latter Day Saints), also have thousands of old cemetery transcriptions on microfilm and in vintage books.

Church Records - Cemeteries operated by churches usually have additional records on funeral services performed at their location.

Do You Have to Include Tombstone Photographs with Each Record?

No, you do not.

Websites like Find-a-Grave and Billion Graves have popularized the use of tombstone photographs with each record. They are certainly desired by genealogists wanting to get a photo of their ancestor's tombstone, but what's more important is recording the information from the tombstone and from other records so that people can identify where an ancestor is buried.

How to Cite Sources

It's important that every cemetery transcription cite its sources for information. It's not enough to say that you created this transcription. You need to explain that information came from tombstone inscriptions, or from additional sources. The reason why is because when a genealogist is research one particular person, they will come across conflicting information on dates, proper names, places of birth and death. Hence, it's helps them make a better decision on what the actual truth is if you explain the sources of your transcription.

You do not have to cite sources on each person buried in a cemetery. You can just explain your sources in some kind of introductory paragraph. However, it's still acceptable to make notations at the end of each record indicating where information came from. For example...

TI = Tombstone Inscriptions
OB = Obituary
FG = Find-a-Grave
SR = Sexton Records

JOHNSON, Michael, F., b. 1888, d. 1968, "Beloved Father", (TI, OB)
JOHNSON, Robert John, b. 1856, d. Sep 1932, h/o Marjorie Johnson, (TI, SR)

Double Burials

Many cemeteries allow couples to be buried in the same plot, usually one casket below, and the other casket placed on top. The tombstone inscription will note two persons.

Use the abbreviation, "s/w" (shared with) to indicate this person is buried with another person. For example...

PETERSON, Martha A., b. 12-Mar-1903, d. 04-Jun-1977, s/w George Peterson
PETERSON, George, b. 30-Jul-1900, d. 13-Aug-1954, s/w Martha A. Peterson

Recording Plot Information

Getting plot information on each buried person is difficult to do because most cemeteries don't make any physical indication of which section, row, grave# you are at. Moreover, it's easy to get this information incorrect, and thus it's better to leave it out.

However, if you are able to get access to sexton records, you will usually get this information. And in that case, by all means note it with each record. The sexton will usuall have a map of every section, rown, and grave. Photograph this map and include it with your transcription.

How Much Information to Include in Each Record

Include only the information presented with each cemetery source. That is, include all the information on the tombstone itself. Include all the information in a sexton record. Include all the information in an obituary.

However, do not include other information not associated with these sources. For example, if you happen to know the college where this buried person graduated from, don't include it. It's not pertinent to the cemetery record. Include only what information you get from cemetery sources (tombstone, obituary, sexton, church...)

Don't go on to note this person's grandchildren, aunts and uncles, grandparents, etc. The purpose of cemetery records is to identify where someone is buried, and what information comes with it. It's not to create a full genealogy on each buried person.


At the very minimum, you the need the following tools:

  • Notebook
  • Pencil

Though, my personal choice is a combination of using a digital camera and a Palm handheld computer. See the following articles for detail:

Other useful tools include:

  • A brush to wisk away dirt and grass clippings
  • A lawn chair to sit on while you're taking a break
  • A bottle of water (or Gatorade)

Choosing a Cemetery to Record

While it would be useful to produce recordings of all cemeteries, some cemeteries are more worthwhile than others. Genealogists and historians are more interested in the older cemeteries, because the information is more valuable. Cemeteries in rural areas are often more difficult to contact and visit, and thus are higher in demand.

Active cemeteries have a sexton in charge of maintaining records. People can call the sexton to get records. Inactive cemeteries often do not have an official sexton, and especially not "abandoned" cemeteries. Thus, recordings of such cemeteries become highly valuable.

Inactive and abandoned cemeteries are often situated on private property. Before setting about to visit and record such cemeteries, take care to gain permission before entering the grounds.

A cemetery that you plan to record may have already been recorded by someone else. Don't give up the idea of recording it yourself. Each person records a cemetery in their own way, and your work might prove to be more valuable. It may also be that the previous recording is being restricted by access fees (such as a book, or commercial database), and thus producing a second recording, one that will be freely accessible, will prove to help many researchers.

Photographing the Cemetery

My preference is to take several photographs of the cemetery at large, capturing the view of the tombstones, and the extenuating scenery. This illustrates the condition of the cemetery and adds another dimension to the overall presentation. It also freezes the scenery in time, preserving the look of the cemetery for future generations to enjoy.

Providing photographs also helps the family history researcher get a feeling of visiting the cemetery. Visiting a grave is perhaps the closest one can ever get to meeting an ancestor. But in reality, many people don't get the chance to visit a grave if the cemetery lies thousands of miles away. If they could see a photograph or two of the cemetery, they can at least get a feeling of what it would be like to be there.

Directions on how to get to the Cemetery

If you were to find an ancestor on a cemetery recording, you'd think about visiting the cemetery at sometime. Thus, it's necessary to provide directions on how to reach the cemetery.

Start by noting an easily identifiable landmark, or highway. Note the mileage between turns. Try not to use "left" and "right" when describing turns. Instead use "north", "south", "east" and "west". This is because "left" and "right" are relative depending on which direction one is coming from.

Find out the address to the cemetery, or the nearest cross streets, or landmarks. If you have GPS Device, mark the latitude and longitude coordinates. (see our article How to use a GPS Device).

Please also read our article, "Location, Location, Location!" about recording cemetery locations.

What Information to Record

As a general rule, record all information on the tombstone. Certain epitaphs, however, may not be worthwhile to record. For example, "Rest in Peace" does not necessarily have to be noted. But epitaphs that provide information about the interred should be recorded. For example, "Beloved Wife and Mother" has genealogical value, and also provides additional identifying information.

Unidentified Markers

Every cemetery will have some grave markers with no inscriptions or unreadable inscriptions. It is necessary to note how many of these graves exist. Otherwise, if a reader did not find their ancestor listed, they might conclude that their ancestor is not interred there. But if they knew there were unidentified graves, they would not make such a conclusion.

Double Graves

It's very common today to find more than one person interred in the same plot. Usually, the people were a married couple. But it's common to find sisters and parent and child occupying the same plot.

When you find such a grave, you should list each person separately, but add a note indicating that they share the plot with another person, and identify that other person's name. This tells the reader that some kind of relationship exists between the two. If the two people were a married couple, there will usually be an inscription of "Wife" and "Husband" by each person's name. If these inscriptions are not there, do not make the assumption they are married.

Fraternal Organizations

Grave markers sometimes includes the logo of a fraternal organization. Making a note of the organization is helpful, though is not critical. A recordist may not be able to identify all the symbols and logos, and would probably do more damage to attempt a guess.

Sexton Records

After recording the tombstone inscriptions, you can contact the sexton to view their records. The sexton may or may not be willing to cooperate. Some sextons have even gone so far as to shoo recordists off the premises. Thus, it is a good idea to record the tombstone inscriptions before making your presence known.

The sexton will often have more information than is necessary to record. There is often information of the surviving family. It is not appropriate to note the names of living relatives. You may find the person's occupation, cause of death, last known residence, military affiliation, etc.

What is important is to record enough information to sufficiently identify the interred. If all you were able to get from a tombstone is the person's name and death year, it may be necessary to get the sexton's record to get the person's parents, spouse, or siblings (but only if deceased), as a means to sufficiently identify that person. The person's occupation, or place of birth, may also be necessary.

Obtaining sexton records is not mandatory when producing a cemetery recording, but is very beneficial towards obtaining sufficient identifying information.

Plot Information

Noting the exact burial location of each interred will provide the reader the ability to find the grave when visiting the cemetery.

The problem, however, is that such information is difficult to derive, if you do not have access to the sexton records. If all you are able to record are the tombstone inscriptions, it is difficult to identify the sections, rows, and grave numbers. If you were to make educated guesses, you would more than likely produce errors and cause people to get lost.

Thus, capturing the plot information should only be done if you have sexton records.

To Sort or not to Sort

Perhaps the biggest argument among cemetery recordists is whether to sort names in alphabetical order, or to list names in the order by which they are buried.

By sorting the names alphabetically one can easily find their ancestors. This becomes apparent with large cemeteries. But listing the names by burial allows readers to see who is buried next to one another. Relatives are often buried next to each other, or in close proximity. If one were to find two Smiths buried next to each other, one would presume the two were related. If the names were sorted alphabetically, this information is lost.

One way around the dilemma is to make a note on a person's record that they are buried next to another. Another way is to note the plot information.

If the cemetery has a small number of graves, perhaps 20 or less, it's probably best to list the names in the order by which they are buried. Though keep in mind, that Cemetery Records Online still prefers to sort the names alphabetically for the sake of consistency.

Cemetery Description

If possible, perform some research of the cemetery you are recording, and write a short history of it. Indicate the age of the cemetery, current ownership, the ethnic and religious background of the interred.

Describe the conditions of the cemetery. You might make a note of how well the grounds are cared for.

cemetery records

A free online library of cemetery records from thousands of cemeteries across the world, for historical and genealogy research.

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What makes us Different?

Single-sourced, not crowd-sourced

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.