How To Compile a County Cemetery Book

Many counties in western states have not had a cemetery book produced. You can be of great help by taking on the chore of compiling a cemetery book. All you need is some free time, and gas money. Instructions on how to produce such county cemetery books are difficult to find. The following set of instructions is offered as a "how to do it" guide. You may disagree with some of the methods, but they have been generated in the process of compiling cemetery books for some ten counties in North Dakota. Feel free to copy this guide and improve it to your satisfaction.


by George Barron, Jamestown, ND,

A photocopy of a recent county atlas on which to mark and write
  Then "pink" in all the cemetery symbols marked on the atlas
An early atlas, like a microfilmed 1909 atlas of the county.
  Go through section by section verifying early cemeteries and early churches
with present cemetery locations, marking your atlas copy with possible
"forgotten cemeteries".
Read all of the old county history books, especially the section on churches,
and township histories.  Old cemeteries and single burials frequently are
given including locations on numbered sections.
A list of names and cemetery locations from the State Health Department
A similar list from the county Register of Deeds, if one is available
A list of cemetery names and GPS coordinates from the Geological Survey
page on the internet
A similar list of church names and GPS coordinates from the Geological
Survey page.  Often the church is gone but a cemetery still exists.
An organized plan of how the cemetery book will be arranged. (For example
we number all of the cemeteries to be put in the book in order of increasing 
Township and Range numbers. So if there are three cemeteries in the far
southeast township in the county, these would become numbers 1,2,3 to be
shown later on diagramatic county map included in the cemetery book.  They
would then appear in the book and table of contents in that order)
A county highway map with places to visit pinked in. (can be ordered from
the State Highway Map Sales Office)
Lists from area funeral directors of current cemetery sextons


car compass
Cardboard box of all your maps, atlases and paperwork to be checked
Insect repellent
extra pens red and black
Long handled garden shovel, to excavate  stones buried in abandoned
cemeteries and removing sod from overgrown flat stones
pitchfork, to locate stones overgrown with turf
crowbar for turning over fallen stones in abandoned cemeteries
pruning shears to cut lilacs away from the stone face in abandoned
Large mirror
clipboards equipped with elastic bands to resist wind
whisk broom
small mason's steel trowel
some blue carpenter's line chalk
spray bottle of water (NOTE--no shaving cream, please!)
stick of comfortable height, topped by a 9"x12" board for portable podium
  (some wild color like orange, can be left on ground to find your place again)
magnesium lawn chair for sitting
portable GPS receiver if you plan on giving GPS coordinates
rubber boots, long sleeved shirts and trousers, straw hat
Your lunch, coffee, water, first aid, and some plan for emergency peeing
pooper scooper if dog goes along


Grey stones in the shade can be read at another time of day.  A mirror can be
used to reflect sunlight at a shallow angle in order to read the lettering.

Stones having massive lichens covering the lettering can be read by scraping
off the lichens with the steel trowel, if it is a stone that would not be scarred
by using a trowel.  For soft stones, lichens can sometimes be partially
removed with the whisk broom.  If enough lichens can be removed such that
the lettering still contains lichens, often the lettering can be read as lichens of
a contrasting color.

Concrete stones in which the shallow German script has eroded can often be
read by chalking the lettering area, sweeping the blue chalk into the lettering. 
One person can read the lettering while the second bathes the lettering with
bright mirrored sunlight from a shallow angle. Since chalk is a powdered
form of calcium carbonate, the same composition of marble, and limestone
markers, it should not cause any kind of chemical reaction.  The blue chalk
can be removed with a spray of water, or left for the next rain. (We feel that
someone else might wander along and appreciate being able to read the stone
for a week or so until the blue color is gone.)

A spray of water into the lettered area can sometimes be used as a reading
aid in similar fashion to the blue chalk method just described.

It should be noted that the use of shaving cream and a squeegee is a no no
and even the suggestion will cause hemorrhaging from the Association for
Gravestone Studies experts. (They seem to think the fatty acids in the cream
will cause chemical harm to the stone) You are to put nothing on a stone
beyond water and perhaps an approved "neutral" liquid soap.  Steel tools
are not to be used, although brushes of natural bristles are suggested.  Recall
that the owner of the stone would take a dim view of any action you have
taken that would deface the stone.


Describe the cemetery in notes.  Is if fenced? Does it have a sign?  Copy the
sign message.  Is the cemetery well maintained with grass trimmed etc, or
only mowed occasionally?  Is it an abandoned cemetery grown up to weeds
and brush? Almost every cemetery has several names.  It is well to show these
name variations.  Show the name, address, telephone number of the current
sexton.  Who hold the records?  What is nature of the records?  Is there an
interment book which started with the cemetery, or did the book start in
1939 with the first 50 year's records tossed?

What is the legal description of the cemetery to the nearest 40 acres, giving
fractional part of the section, township and range numbers.  Take or
determine the GPS coordinates.  Give the directions for finding the cemetery
from some well known map location such a village, or an intersection of
highways etc.  Tell how many miles south along what 911 street or avenue,
then how many miles west along the named streets and avenues, then which
side of the road, such as east of the road and how far from the road, such as
over the hill about a half mile west of the road.

Where are you going to start?  Ideally you would have a map of the cemetery
and you would proceed to read the markers such as in section A, block #101,
grave numbers 1-12 etc.  This is nearly always unlikely.  Many cemeteries
don't even have the lots numbered, and describe where the grave is by saying
it is north of Minnie but south of Harold etc. etc.  Tell  what fraction of the
cemetery you are starting in and from which side, and which direction you
are going. (Such as the NW 1/4 of the cemetery north of the center drive,
starting form the north side, reading to the east by first reading north to the
north end then reading south on the east side of the lots etc. etc..  That way a
person can tell from the book who are the victim's neighbors, who are often
relatives even though they have a different surname.  A cemetery book
purchaser should be able to follow your tracks in reading the cemetery by
following the order of names in the book.  In that way he will have little
trouble finding uncle Max's grave even though this is his first visit to the
cemetery.  If there is no logical order of reading the cemetery, people trying
to find a grave with the help of the cemetery book are completely frustrated.


1. Computer data entry number--to cause the printout to be in the order of
    reading. Used in re-checking cemeteries, but does not appear in the book--6

2.  Surname-- 18 characters

3.  Stone column --2 characters
       ns= no stone or marker
       ss= this person is on the same stone as the  previous person
       A= surname was not on the stone and was assumed from the family stone
             also use an asterisk * following the surname so that appears in the index.
             This tells the reader that we are not too certain that this guys name
            is Adams!

4.  Given name--15 characters

5.  Data column --up to three horizontal lines of 40 characters each
        (not possible with most non Q&A programs)

         In the data column we record all that is genealogically significant.  We
show the dates as Mar 3, 1988, or  13 Mar 1988 even though the
unabbreviated date is shown on the stone.  We record such things as mother,
father, sister, funeral home names on any temporary marker, the complete
data on military stones, with some things abbreviated such as WW2 for
World War Two etc.  We do not record poetry or expressions of grief or
loving adjectives, and if the grave has several stones our data reflects a
combination of data from all of them.  If a long poem in German does
indicate that this mother had seven children, we record the seven children. 
We record occupations if shown, titles such as state senator and the years,
and things generally of interest to someone searching for ancestral

6.  page number--put in after the pages are printed in order to build the
index but not used in the body of the book.

(If minimum data is recorded on the stone, all of the data read prints in one
horizontal line.  If entries in the data column exceed the 40 characters, then
succeeding lines are printed in that column as the printer advances. Make
sure each person has a surname shown.  Do not show the surname on the
family stone in caps and then all of the given names only.  If you think they
are all Peterson and there are five of them there ought to be five lines each
starting with a Peterson!

In printing we use 12 cpi for a page width of 102 characters.  This allows on
the order of a 3/4 inch border on each side for binding.  We print the index in
two column format with a similar set of borders.


The raw data should be entered into the computer as soon as possible after
reading the cemetery, even if the cemetery readings are not completed for
that particular cemetery.  Recall of unreadable hand writing does not occur
beyond a day or two.  A sample print out of the data is then run including
the computer entry numbers but not the page numbers, and printed in such
a way that individual reader's work output can be isolated.  On a return to
that cemetery, printout sheets can be given to someone who has not read
those particular stones and corrections made on the sample sheets in red
markings. (It is at this point that errors can be fixed if you don't try to re-
check too fast.  It is very easy to confirm that what the stone sez and what the
sheet sez are the same when they are not the same at all, and need spelling or
date corrections etc.  Even with this step in the process, many errors still

We use spiral notebooks ruled with vertical columns to match those
described above.  That way the readings stay in the order of reading forever,
unless a page is torn from the book.   The spiral side of the book resists
blowing in the wind, and pages can be turned and elastic bands reset by
shielding the clipboard from the wind with your body.  We use strips of
sewing elastic perhaps 1/2 inch wide which far out performs rubber bands. 
We use a plastic mirrored surface affixed to the reverse side of the clip board
as a handy mirror. (available from surplus as an insulation device)


Stones missed at first then found when re-checking can be added on this
sample page in red print, assigning new numbers such as 435.1, 435.2 etc. so
when the book is printed, the stones will be in proper reading order.


Multiple names on stones are read from left to right, or top to bottom or
around all four sides of a vertical oblisk.

Check the back of stones for more inscriptions.  The back or base often
contains the children's names.


Try to get actual photocopies of interment books or what cemetery records
do exist.  We have found most sextons are agreeable if the photocopies are
made nearby.  Some have even allowed the books to be taken overnight for
copying.  In the summer of 1999 we carried along a fairly large photocopier
that handled letter and legal size, with reducing and enlarging functions.
This allowed copied of quite large books.  When a sexton was told that we
had a copier in the car, the response was usually, "Bring it in!"

Once your computer data entry for that particular cemetery is complete, an
alphabetical list can be run of those markers you recorded.  If it is a large
cemetery, you may have to install edge tabs and put the whole thing in a
temporary three ring binder.  Then you can check the cemetery records with
your records by following name by name through the cemetery records. 
When you find one you don't have, record the name and data.  These are
usually "no stoners" which you want to list in the book anyway.  Sometimes
they are just buried under a different name than shown on the stone.  Then
you will be able to generate three lists that might be of interest to the sexton. 
1.  A list of "no stoners", 2.  A list of stones you found but are not shown in
the cemetery records, and 3.  An alphabetical list of all those you found and
didn't find.

We use soft covers of card stock, printed by the local printer.  We have
included photos on the cover but that adds to the cost for screening photos. 
We bind our books with plastic combs.  It may not be as permanent as
stapling, but it has some advantages.  We get many requests for copies of
specific pages.  The plastic combs allow you to photocopy all of the printed
part of the page.  We attempt to add corrections and missed cemeteries in the
back of the book.  Those books still in stock can be unbound, the old page
tossed and new pages added, then the comb closed.

For books we donate to the local library or to the State Historical Society, we
laminate the covers before punching for combs.  It makes the book a little
more permanent where it gets much use.  We have had trouble with the
laminant not punching well and fouling the punch.  We recently found that if
the laminated cover is placed in the freezer for a hour or so, the punching is
much easier. We have, for the last year or so, made library copies of our covers by 
sticking the card stock cover onto an 8.5 x 11 piece of picture framing matte board
with four short pieces of doublestick tape before laminating.  For the back cover we use
just the matte board without laminate.  This makes a fairly stiff cover that is useful
for heavy book traffic.  We have found that  irregular matte board (called fault board) 
is availble for about $2.50 a 30 or 32 by 40 piece, instead of the $7-$10 for the first class
mattte board.  We cut our own from the large board using a box cutter.

Rottsa Ruck!