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How to Explore a Cemetery
Visiting a cemetery doesn't have to be scary; in fact it can be quite educational. This may seem a little macabre, but exploring cemeteries is a great (albeit unusual) way to gather information and experience the history of a region. By exploring cemeteries, especially those that are older, a fairly accurate catalog of events can be constructed about an area.
Cemeteries not only give are departed ones a place to rest in peace, but they are also a memorial; a memorial we should cherish. When we enter any town, village, or community we benefit from the labor and determination of those that have gone before us. Exploring cemeteries might even add to your sense of community and at the same time help you feel a little more, dare I say it, grounded.
Familiarize Yourself Local History
One of the best ways to heighten the experience of exploration is by familiarizing yourself with the local history. With so much information on the web, it's easy to find interesting facts about an area's history, even before you get to it. Chambers of Commerce and Community Sites are great ways to find local resources such as museums and libraries. Even a quick, but observant, drive through town can yield information that will make your exploration that much more relevant. Here is a list of things you could look for.
- Prominent names will likely show up on business signs, street signs, park dedications, and community buildings.
- Memorial plaques are a quick and easy way to get information about significant events and important locals.
- Smaller towns might have a town square which may hold some keys. Most little town residents are proud of their heritage and more than willing to give up local folklore and bits of history.
- Statues and monuments usually come with historical facts about the honoree.
This shouldn't be a homework assignment. This should feel more like a Nancy Drew mystery, and you're gathering facts for a great adventure.
Searching For Information
When searching for information, look for that which relates to the type of information you will see in the cemetery. Names, dates, and significant events that would have a profound affect on the population of the town. Look for local events that affect an entire community, such as hard winters, forest fires and tornadoes. It's easy to get caught up in the local history of an area, but if you keep your search to general history instead of the finer details, I think you will enjoy it more.
Things to Bring to the Cemetery
So you've gathered the information, and you're ready to begin. Here are a couple of items you may want to bring. They are certainly not mandatory but, in my experience, they will certainly come in handy.
- Notes or information that you looked up, and something to write with.
- A flashlight can be useful for reading headstones in those overgrown or shaded areas.
- A soft bristle brush or whisk broom. Useful for cleaning off clutter, lichens, and such.
- An umbrella works equally well for sun and rain.
- Insect repellent.
- Sensible shoes are essential. There are many way to twist an ankle or stub a toe.
Don't burden yourself with too many goodies; remember that you are an adventurer, not a pack mule. This should be fun and relaxing. Some of the cemeteries we visited were quite large, but usually the car can be moved to the general area that is being searched.
Investigating the Cemetery
Once you arrive at the cemetery, take some time and look around. If the cemetery is large, figure out the best way to investige the cemetery. It's very easy to get side-tracked looking between markers and you don't want to miss an important one, or an entire section, because of it. Kids can help with arger cemeteries also. Give them a name, of siginificance, and let them do the legwork. They get to burn off some steam and feel important to the process.
When investigating the cemetery, look closely at the areas around big trees and bushes that look out of place. They may very well hide the markers of a deceased family member whose memorial, now eighty-years older, is no longer a sapling.
Look for clues in the dates on the markers. In older cemeteries it is not uncommon to see children that have similar times of death, usually due to the spread of a disease or infection. Many times the markers of young men will tell the tale of a war or industrial accident. Families that have been in the community since its founding may have a complete history from beginning to present day.
Things to Remember
The first thing to remember is that this should be an enjoyable experience. Find the ideas that work for you. Start with a local cemetery and learn a bit more about your own community.
Most cemeteries are open from dawn until dusk. Please be sure to observe the rules of the park, if any, and always be courteous to those that are there for other reasons than curiousity. Remember that the markers are memorials to a family member, so leave them the way you found them. Whisking off the leaves is okay, but leave the maintenance work to the pros and families.
This may not be a vacation destination for everyone, but to me it adds a whole different dimension to understanding the history of my surroundings. It can be both satisfying and educational.