Some hints about the process and some examples of grave markers you might encounter:
A PHOTOGRAPHIC ESSAY
by Terry Thornton
[NOTE: There were too many photographs to easily "fit" the typical article posted at this site --- so I've provided links to the images to illustrate this article. You are your own slide-projector operator --- so click the links to view the images and then return to the article and continue reading.]
Recently I was explaining to a friend who asked about my Book of the Dead research. He wished to know how I went about inventorying the names from a cemetery --- and after listening to my explanation he exclaimed, "Well, Thornton, you'd photograph a scrap a paper if it had a name on it, wouldn't you?"
"Well, yes, if the scrap of paper with the name on it was inside the cemetery," was my reply.
Some of you know I'm interested in preparing cemetery inventories with photographs of all of the existing grave markers. This work gets me into some interesting places and makes for some interesting comments about why and how I do this work.
Without belaboring the issue of "why" I do such research, let me establish that I firmly believe family history and local history researchers must have access to the record already written within cemeteries. Many cemeteries have never been inventoried and the majority of them have never been photographed. When I founded the Association of Graveyard Rabbits I had great hopes that this online group would help to preserve and to promote the records found in local cemeteries by preparing and publishing such inventories.
I develop an inventory of names from a specific cemetery by transcribing the words and dates from photographs of the grave markers. All names on any sort of grave marker are entered into my data base and a link to the photographic record is provided. Anyone who wishes to validate my list can easily obtain the photographic images and transcribe the names and other information from the markers.
For those who wish to do similar projects in their own local communities (and I strongly encourage you to do so), this photographic essay was prepared to assist in the planning and execution of such an inventory and to show examples of some of the many types of graves and markers found in typical rural cemeteries. Please know there is no one correct way to approach field studies of a local cemetery --- there are numerous suggestions in various articles by many experts in the field about what should constitute a transcription of the burials within a cemetery. But I'm not providing a transcription --- I'm providing an alphabetized index to the names on grave markers and, just as important, I'm providing a photograph of each marker found in the cemetery. I leave a complete transcription of a cemetery to others. An alphabetized listing is most helpful to family and local history writers --- and from the images provided in my listing, anyone can produce a complete transcription of what is written on the grave marker and what other names are on the markers.
Before heading off to a cemetery with your camera, however, I caution you to remember the following points. (Click the photo links to see the examples)
1. Make sure you have good directions or a guide to show you the way to out-of-the-way cemeteries in remote areas. I recommend that you always have someone accompany when doing field work in isolated cemeteries.
Abandoned cemetery. Directions to this cemetery were provided by a drug enforcement officer who, during a chase of a drug suspect, ran into this cemetery one dark night a few months ago. My visit to the cemetery in early spring with a guide found it by following the officer's directions and pieces of marking tape he kindly placed for us --- but with the greening of the plants I'd bet this cemetery has about disappeared back into the undergrowth.
2. Have a good map in your possession if working in an area not well known to you. Highway maps and topographical maps are both recommended.
3. Take a cell phone (fully charged) with you into the cemetery and be prepared that in remote areas you might not have a signal.
4. Make sure you have a good supply of batteries for your camera and that you have sufficient memory space on your data storage card. I try to follow the rule of thumb to have an empty mega-memory card (minimum of 1 GB) in the camera when I start and another memory card for backup --- and to have at least three sets of fresh batteries for my camera when I head off to a cemetery photography session.
5. Consider the season of the year. Some cemeteries that are no longer in use may not be cleared --- so the winter is best for those visits. Cemeteries that are "scraped" and clear of grass are most accessible anytime of the year -- but don't go after recent rains. Since most cemeteries have little or no shade, work during the hot summer months early in the morning. And above all dress appropriately. Heavy shoes or boots and long pants and long sleeves will help protect from briars and insects. When the wind chill is low, it might be best to stay home. Consider these examples.
Abandoned cemetery. This cemetery was visited on an early spring morning with a mixture of sleet, snow and rain falling. No way would I attempt to visit this cemetery in the middle of summer.
Example of a scraped cemetery. All of the rural cemeteries of my childhood were scraped clear of grass. This cemetery will be easy to photograph other than it is huge covering several acres! It is the largest scraped cemetery I've visited in Hill Country.
Example of a scraped cemetery. The older section of this cemetery is maintained in the traditional style --- scraped --- whereas the newer section has well-manicured grass.
Markers and trees. Even in winter the grave markers in this abandoned cemetery were difficult to see. In summer months they would be almost impossible to find.
6. Always take lots of photographs. It is easier to have photographs to discard with multiples for backup than to have missed a marker because of bad angle or motion blur. And where special problems exist as the following images show with markers overgrown with trees, take several photos from many different angles to get as much of the information as possible.
Markers and trees. Example 1
Markers and trees. Example 2
Markers and trees. Example 3
7. Use the largest pixel (photo size) setting on your camera. It is amazing what detail is lost when viewing tiny pictures of a marker --- so think large. My favorite camera has a default setting of 2272 by 1704 pixels which is adequate for most research. It is my opinion that any size less than about 1000 by 800 pixels will make your work more difficult. [A few years ago while photographing a cemetery in a remote area my first digital camera malfunctioned and not only did I end up with just small images (600 by 400 pixels of poor quality photographs), but the malfunction caused the camera to use up memory storage space at many times the normal rate. I ran out of memory space before the day was over and before the cemetery was finished resulting in a return to the cemetery for additional work. And I was 325 miles from home.]
8. Find and use the most comfortable-for-you camera-platform whether it is a tripod or a monopod to steady your camera. Your photographs will be improved and your arms will be less tired at the end of the day. What works best for me in all cemetery types is a monopod which also serves as a walking stick and as a "critter" stick. My monopod came from Wal-Mart for under $20 a few years ago.
9. Regarding camera settings, I find if best to turn off the automatic flash setting. There is no need to waste battery time using the flash when working outdoors in the daytime. Resist the urge to turn your camera sideways and do portrait orientation images unless you are doing artistic work --- landscape orientation is easiest to manage and with multiple images of the same tall marker, it will be easily read. The use of landscape orientation throughout will lessen your work later when reviewing thousands of images.
10. If entering private property or property under lease, make sure you have permission to enter. A guide is usually best to take you direct to the cemetery rather than to tromp about searching for the unknown. If the cemetery is on lands under lease to a hunting club, know the local hunting season dates and work around the major hunting events of the year. Contact a member of the local hunting club and ask for a guide to the cemetery. Usually they will be happy to find a member to escort you to the cemetery. If you must enter the woods during hunting season to search for a cemetery, make certain to wear hunter-orange clothing.
11. State laws vary regarding entering private property to visit a cemetery. Know and follow the law.
12. Rural cemeteries are often remote and not connected to any office, church, or organization. As such they have no facilities --- so be prepared. Take plenty of water and if you are planning a several hour visit, consider packing a picnic lunch.
13. Leave the cemetery in better condition than you found it. Remove trash or debris --- certainly don't leave any of yours. Pick up and remove small limbs that are on the graves or covering a marker --- and be prepared to remove vines that may have grown over the marker obscuring the information. A pair of light-weight work gloves and a small set of pruning snips can make your work go easier.
14. Don't, under any conditions, put any substance on the grave marker. I do not advocate the use of chalk, talc, and other contrast materials to make the marker easier to read. Nor do I recommend the use of "rubbings" to transfer the writing of the stone to paper. If you must put something on a marker let it be a mist of clear water on the stone to assist in reading. But I don't read the markers in the field --- I do my reading from the photographs which can be enlarged so that a single letter or numeral completely fills the screen. Sure beats trying to squint in the sun and glare to determine what's on the stone and fight mosquitoes and no-see-ums at the same time.
15. Don't remove and don't relocate any items found on the markers. At times large, drooping floral arrangements make reading the marker impossible. If you can't photograph from a variety of angles and get all of the information you need, then use caution in moving flowers and other items to photograph the marker. Caution should be used in handling older floral arrangements of silk and synthetics as they often they become excellent habitats for Black Widow Spiders and other critters. Do not attempt to move any items that are wired or secured in place with tie-downs or glue.
16. Walk completely around each marker. Photograph all sides of the marker on which information is written. Some of the older tall monuments mark more than one burial; sometimes they have a different name on each of the four sides. Some of the newer monuments have a wealth of family information on the back of the stone.
17. Absolutely make certain that you can see the surname clearly on new monuments for a couple --- some of them have the surname on the bottom of the middle base and often that base becomes completely obscured with grass, leaves, or dirt. And a few double markers for a husband and wife have the surname only on the back of the marker. Don't move to the next marker without double-checking that you can easily see the surname. It may be hidden. If you can see it, then it will show on your photographs.
18. After you get home from your cemetery photo-shoot, download your images into a file labeled with the name of the cemetery and the date of your work. And then make a backup copy using your favorite method of file backup. I upload the images used in my inventories at an account at Flickr and then provide a link to those images. A professional account with Flickr is not expensive and permits unlimited daily uploads.
19. I find it easier to do the actual transcription of the names and dates using two computers; the images I download to a laptop which fits besides my desktop keyboard. On the desktop I type in the name, dates, and other pertinent information including photograph number from the laptop image which is easily enlarged using the zoom feature. Again, there is no easy way to do this part of the work --- develop a system which works for you and start transcribing a cemetery --- and when you finish, post an alphabetized index to the inventory of that cemetery online. Examples of my approach to cemetery inventories can be seen at Itawamba County Mississippi BOOK OF THE DEAD.
20. Plan and do the photographic work on multiple cemeteries during the best "weather" season in your locale --- and then do the transcription from those photographs when the weather is uncomfortable for outside work.
Most cemetery researchers are well aware of the many different types of grave markers. Below is a discussion of the types of graves and grave markers one is likely to encounter in typical rural cemeteries. Below each type of marker are links to photographs which serve as examples.
When doing field work in older, established cemeteries or in abandoned cemeteries, the most obvious division of the types of graves are marked and unmarked graves. The unmarked graves are usually only noted by a depression in the ground whereas the marked graves present themselves marked with a variety of items.
Marked graves can be further divided into two broad groups --- those without names and those with names. The unnamed marked graves sometimes are only marked with plants --- the photograph below shows two burials "outside the fence" marked only with plants. [Two grave dowsers visited these graves after I pointed out the plant-marked burials outside the cemetery fence and both agreed there were two burials there. I don't endorse dowsing --- it was perfectly obvious that the plants marked two grave-sized and grave-shaped depressions in the ground but it was interesting to watch the dowsers work --- and they even let me try my hand using their dowsing rods. And then I stubbed my toe on a rock marking the end of one of the graves.] See two photo links below.
Many graves are marked with slabs of local stone. Here in Hill Country local stone is usually a type of sandstone often found in thin sheets. The following photographs show the use of sandstone to mark the presence of a grave.
Rock cairn 1. From Monroe County is this image of a large rock cairn in one of the early pioneer cemeteries of Hill Country.
Rock cairn 2. Often rock and brick grave cairns are difficult to see in the forest rubble of abandoned cemetery. This rock-covered grave is from Itawamba County.
The majority of such rock-marked graves have no writing on the stones but cemetery researchers should look carefully at such stones for the occasional one that does have chiseled markings. Click these links to see examples of local sandstone which has been worked and chiseled into a grave marker with writing upon it.
Rock with name. Example 1. Information for this burial is continued on the foot marker. See Example 2.
Rock with name. Example 2.
Rock with name. Example 3. I'm still trying to decipher the words on this rock grave marker.
Rock with name. Example 4. An excellent example of using local stone to produce a grave marker.
At one time wooden grave markers were used. Long, wide, thin boards were decorated and engraved or painted bearing the typical grave marker information and epitaphs. Every few years the marker's base, rotten from contact with the wet soil, would be sawed off and the marker reset. Over time the markers grew shorter and shorter --- and eventually all of the wooden markers in the southern humid hills disappeared. There are still attempts to mark graves, however, with wood. Most appear as simple wooden crosses but on occasion one of the crosses will have information written upon it.
The only modern-style wooden marker I've found in Hill Country is shown below. It is a large attractive marker with information on both sides.
Several generations ago, locally fired brick were often used to mark the presence of a grave --- and in older cemeteries the use of brick to mark graves takes many forms. Large cairn-style stacked brick grave-enclosures or just a single brick standing on end may indicate a burial. Sometimes a family burial plot is enclosed with locally fired brick as seen in this example.
Concrete markers are often used to both mark the presence of a grave and to convey information about the dead. Simple concrete blocks are used to mark the presence of a grave; unfortunately, many of the graves marked with a concrete block have no information written upon them.
Concrete block. Example 1. Actually this un-named burial announces its presence three ways: a depression in the ground, a small rock at one end of the grave, and a concrete block at the other.
Concrete block. Example 2. Numerous burials marked with concrete blocks and no names are found in the cemetery pictured here.
Poured concrete markers with information etched in the wet concrete have been widely used to mark graves. Such markers are found in most older Hill Country cemeteries --- and concrete markers range greatly in style and size. From a small simple slab with the name scratched into the wet cement with a stick or tool to large complicated designs with symbols pressed into the wet material along with die-pressed names, dates, and epitaphs, concrete markers take many forms. [The AGS Quarterly, Bulletin of the Association for Gravestone Studies, Volume 34, Number 1, Winter 2010, has an interesting article "Documentation of Folk Gravemarker Tools" by Annie Chance about the production of concrete markers.]
Locally produced concrete markers are often difficult to read because the concrete didn't weather well or because the maker had difficulty pressing the letters into the wet concrete. Often the writing was done free-hand and there are spacing problems which add to the problem of reading the marker. A variety of styles were made, however, as can be seen in the following locally produced examples of concrete grave markers.
Concrete marker, single burial, Example 1. This 152-year old burial is clearly marked with a concrete grave marker. It is not known when the concrete was mixed and the name etched upon the wet surface.
Concrete marker, single burial, Example 2. My favorite locally made concrete marker was transcribed as "Early West, 1933 - 1934." Others have suggested that the epitaph is "In Heaven Early" and the marker is for a West infant without a surname. "Early" is used as a given name in this community --- but more research is needed to determine if the individual was named Early West.
Concrete marker, single burial, Example 3. The maker of this marker for Jim Gosa pressed glass marbles around the edge many of which survive.
Concrete marker, single burial, Example 4. It is believed that the name on this marker is "Susan Pallie Nix Allen" but more work is needed to validate that name.
Concrete marker, single burial, Example 5. The small concrete marker is of a design I've not encountered elsewhere. I am still working on the transcription of the information of the "Asborn" name and dates on it.
Concrete marker, single burial, Example 6. This marker was made from a slab of poured concrete. Note the maker lined off the wet concrete and free-handed in the name and dates. Knowing that the surname "Northington" is often encountered in this Hill County community helped with the transcription of the information from this marker.
Concrete marker, single burial, Example 7. This simple marker could also be used to mark a corner of a family plot but from the placement in the cemetery, this one is believed to mark a single burial with no given name and no dates.
Larger concrete markers were also attempted locally in the Hill Country. The first two examples show a double marker (two names) on a single upright slab. The third example shows a large flat concrete grave covering marker which to date, I've not been able to transcribe because of problems with weathering and with the concrete crumbling.
Concrete marker, double burial, Example 1. This locally made concrete marker for a couple was made in Monroe County sometimes after 1941.
Concrete marker, double burial, Example 2. This large double marker is well designed and well marked. It appears to have been painted since it was made circa 1938.
With the standardization of concrete mixes and the development of wooden and metal dies/letters to emboss the wet concrete, attractive and durable concrete markers came into widespread use in the Hill Country. The styles vary greatly from community to community --- and the symbols and epitaphs are varied and often personalized. Numerous examples of these more sophisticated concrete markers survive through the region. [All of the following examples come from a single cemetery in Hill Country.]
Concrete marker, pressed design. Example 1. An open book symbol is found pressed into many concrete markers.
Concrete marker, pressed design. Example 2.
Concrete marker, pressed design. Example 3.
Concrete marker, pressed design. Example 4. Compare the placement of the letters and words in the epitaph to Example 6. The maker of this marker probably used the same template over and over again to press this epitaph into the wet concrete.
Concrete marker, pressed design. Example 5. Note that over time the epoxy cementing the marker to its base has all been lost. This loss allows a view of the marker design. It appears that a metal rod has been used to stabilize this marker.
Concrete marker, pressed design. Example 6. Same design as Example 7 but with different epitaph.
Concrete marker, pressed design. Example 7. A good example of a common design of a concrete marker from more than 100 years ago. The ivy and anchor symbols were used frequently on markers from this period.
Concrete marker, pressed design. Example 8. The marker detail shows a different "font" size for the numerals which often cause difficulty in reading dates from this style of marker --- but note the personalized epitaph at the bottom of the marker.
Concrete marker, pressed design. Example 9. Note the placement of the dates and the wording of the epitaph.
The use of fired clay markers (stoneware or pottery markers) was once widely used in Hill Country. A patented process of the Loyd Potters of Tremont, Itawamba County, Mississippi, was used for several decades beginning in the 1870s and lasting through the 1920s. The Loyd-process was licensed to several local potters and their work can be found in most local cemeteries. There is some variety in the style, size, and shape of the Loyd-style slab markers. A typical intact Loyd-patented marker is shown below. Loyd-style markers consisted of a "head" marker made of a slab of fired clay with the names and dates set into the wet clay and colored with cobalt blue. A smaller "foot" marker was prepared with the individual's initials upon it to mark the foot of the grave. On occasion a Loyd-style marker is found using other colors. Click the following links to see a variety of Loyd-style pottery markers from Itawamba and Monroe County, Mississippi, cemeteries.
Loyd pottery marker, intact. Example 1. Few intact Loyd pottery head markers survive. The base, which is a turned "pot" style object is often broken. The marker, a slab of fired clay is typically covered with a Bristol slip (white) with cobalt blue lettering.
Loyd pottery marker, intact. Example 2.
Loyd pottery head and foot markers. Example 1. Many of the small foot markers from a Loyd installation have not survived. They are so small they are easily buried or broken. For comparison purposes the foot marker is approximately the width of a package of cigarettes.
Loyd pottery head and foot markers. Example 2. The base to this marker is missing. Note the notch on the bottom of the marker which was used to attach it to the base.
Loyd pottery head and foot markers. Example 3. All three parts of a Loyd-style pottery marker are shown: the turned pottery base; the slab marker; and the small foot marker with initials. This marker has been heavily damaged and repaired. It is not known why the foot marker is not in place.
Loyd pottery marker, fragment. Early example. Most of the base survives for this marker. Although the slab is broken, the name and dates are still clear. This example is unique in that the lettering seems to be from hand-carved alphabets and numerals not as exact as later Loyd-style markers.
Loyd pottery marker, fragment. Wide slab example. Although the base is gone, this marker from a burial in 1881 still provides the essential information.
Loyd pottery marker, fragment. Unusual color. This marker was uncovered recently in an abandoned cemetery in Itawamba County. Reports of two others of this color combination have been received.
Other local potters have used their skills to shape local clay into a grave marker. The one shown below is from an unknown potter in Monroe County
Several large "thrown" jug style grave markers exist in Hill Country. These one-of-a-kind pottery markers are so rare that images of them are not included in this discussion because of concern for their safety and well-being.
In the early 1980s, potters Titus and Euple Riley of Peppertown Pottery, Itawamba County, made a few grave markers in the style of the 100+ year-old Loyd pottery markers, two of which may be seen by following the links below.
Loyd-style pottery marker made in 1980s. Example 1. The 1980s reproduction pottery marker doesn't seem to be holding up as well as the 1880s Loyd pottery markers if this one by Peppertown Pottery is any indication. Note the numerous nicks where the glaze is giving way (probably due to weeding machines).
Loyd-style pottery marker made in 1980s. Example 2. This "God Bless Granny" marker (see epitaph) is made in the style of the Loyd pottery markers. This one is tentatively attributed to potters Titus and Euple Riley, late of Peppertown Pottery, Itawamba County.
Metal grave markers were introduced in Hill Country about 1870. Although many metal markers were installed, few intact ones survive. The metal marker usually consisted of a glass-covered hand-written and decorated parchment set on the "head" marker and a smaller "foot" marker of metal set in a concrete base. Over time, the glass was either broken or the seal around the edge of the glass weathered away and the information lost. Numerous metal markers with no readable information can be found through the area.
Metal Marker. Example 1. Typical metal markers as found today with no name nor dates. Few intact metal markers survive.
Metal Marker, intact. Example 2. Note the design elements of the large metal marker and how it is set into a concrete base. The glass protects the hand-lettered parchment.
Metal Marker shown with author. I included this image to show the relative size of this intact metal marker.
Metal Marker with foot marker in background. Metal markers were installed as both "head" and "foot" markers. The foot marker can be seen in this image. Neither of these markers have readable information about the burial.
The most common grave markers found in Hill Country are those made of granite or marble and chiseled by professional stone masons. Those markers range tremendously in size and complexity and durability. The markers shown below indicate the range of materials, styles, and workmanship.
Cemetery researchers should always be on the lookout for temporary grave markers. Small and usually made of metal and paper covered with glass, these temporary markers are installed by the funeral director to mark a grave until the family can secure a permanent marker. Unfortunately these temporary markers are often the only ones placed at a grave and should be examined carefully for information. Further, if both a temporary marker and a permanent marker are found, the information from both should be recorded and compared. Often additional information is available on the temporary marker not chiseled on the stone marker.
Temporary marker, Example 1.
Temporary marker, Example 2.
Temporary marker, Example 3.
Temporary marker, Example 4.
Temporary marker, Example 5.
Markers continue to be made locally of a variety of materials. The following two links show the front and back of a unique marker of unknown materials of a burial in Itawamba County. It is a wonderfully made marker and I hope to learn more about its construction.
As you visit cemeteries and photograph the markers, you will often be surprised by unique and one-of-a-kind grave markers. The marker whose image is linked below is often overlooked as a stump when approached from the back --- but the front of the stump of fossilized wood has a small granite marker embedded within it.
A few CSA iron crosses survive in some of the rural cemeteries of Hill Country. The small iron symbols were placed on the grave of Confederate Soldiers.
Unfortunately many names of early settlers in Hill Country have been lost forever because of no marker with a name was installed on their grave or the marker they once had was lost to problems of breakage due to tree fall and ordinary weathering. Modern mowing machines have probably done more damage than all the rest --- and care should be taken when introducing motorized machines into cemeteries with century-old grave markers.
Beginning cemetery researchers often confuse head and foot markers --- and the old-fashioned foot markers are almost as large as some of the head markers of today. Foot markers usually have no information upon them or, if they do, contain only the initials of the individual who is named on the head marker. Local custom seems to indicate a discontinuation of the use of small foot markers --- and today a veteran's military marker is often located at the foot of a grave.
As one becomes experienced in the photographing of cemeteries for inventory purposes, the various types and styles of markers will become easily recognizable. And through experience one learns to carefully watch where to walk in rural cemetery as there are many small markers to trip one's progress.
The photographic record of the markers in a cemetery will help to preserve the record currently waiting to be written. Please help to preserve this record. Get out to a cemetery --- and photograph all of the markers. Go home and at the comfort of your desk, transcribe the names and dates from the images you took. An inventory of those names will be an asset to researchers for years to come.
Article and Photographs Copyright © 2010. William T. "Terry" Thornton, Fulton, Mississippi. All Rights Reserved.