There are many ways to document a gravesite each method will look at different aspects of the gravesite’s significance: Satellite images can document the site from above allowing mapping of the graves and landscape; Simple digital photographic methods are now in the hands of most people and can document monuments; ground penetrating radar can document unseen artifacts underground but can be cost and equipment prohibitive.

Establishing the type of documentation, a site needs is of utmost important, and this should be defined by the scope which the site can logistically and financially achieve. Noting the simple method of one person taking handwritten notes based on a simple assessment form alongside a camera can be as effective, with the right commitment, as a whole team of expensively assembled experts. Forming a small committee of volunteers to document a site can be the first step that can have a lasting and significant impact for a site.

Types of Documenting methods

  • Hand survey forms and a Camera
  • GIS mapping
  • Ground Penetrating Radar
  • Websites and Web applications

Documenting and assessing Material Condition

Condition assessments help identify potential safety hazards, required preservation work, and any additional conservation that is needed for stabilization and protection of grave markers. Assessments also provide important baseline information about deterioration affecting grave markers. The collected information is helpful in determining and prioritizing maintenance tasks, identifying unstable conditions that pose an immediate threat, and for developing a plan for any needed repair or conservation work. Assessments should be recurring, preferably every spring. Condition assessments also help determine the extent and severity of damage following a disaster.

Depending upon the size of the cemetery and funding available, the initial assessment may be carried out by a team consisting of cemetery staff, a materials conservator, and, where necessary, an architect or structural engineer for cases involving large monuments and mausoleums (Figs. 15a and 15b). For smaller cemeteries without large monuments and mausoleums, and where funding is problematic, volunteers can be trained to prepare a condition assessment under the guidance of an experienced individual.

The first step in any condition assessment is to gather background information, including cemetery records and documents, historical photographs, records of previous repair and maintenance work, and current practices. The next step is to conduct an on-site survey. Following the survey, recommended maintenance procedures should be provided. If the team or individual conducting the survey is experienced in repairing historic grave markers, their assessment should include information about appropriate materials and techniques for restoration and stabilization.

Survey forms facilitate both recording of field conditions and needed maintenance or repair work. Most forms include sections for marker type (headstone, obelisk, etc.), construction materials, orientation, dimensions, soil type, and grave marker deterioration. There are a number of excellent examples of survey forms available for download, including the National Park Service Condition Survey Form. However, because each cemetery is unique, it may be necessary to modify an existing form.

A tool kit for the condition assessment may include binoculars, digital camera, magnifying glass, measuring tape, clipboard, carpenter’s rule, level, magnet, and flashlight. For large monuments, a ladder or aerial lift may be required. Photographs of each marker, including overall shots and close-up details, are an essential part of the documentation process. Photo logs are helpful for recording the date, direction, and photographer. Digital photographs should be captured in a standardized size and format (.tif, .jpg, .raw). Defining conditions can be challenging, especially for cemetery staff and volunteers who are new to the process. There are a number of illustrated glossaries that can assist with determining accurate terminology for describing conditions.

Assessing and documenting damage to monuments and structures.

  • Before, during, and after work begins, photograph and create written documentation on the condition of the cemetery.
  • Document any repair work done to the monuments as well as the cemetery as a whole.
  • Photograph an overall view of the lot and the areas that were damaged.
  • Inventory fragments and where they were found. If possible do not move broken stones away from their locations. Flagging fragments will help keep them visible. Make sure that clean up crews know how important the fragments are to prevent inadvertent removal of historic fragments.
  • If fragments must be moved to complete restoration work, mark a map showing the location of the fragments. Make sure to label the fragments in some way such as a wire tag or padded box.
  • Make multiple copies of all documents and photographs and house them in different locations (possibly a local or state historical society, a courthouse, library, or associated religious house).

Where deterioration is apparent, the assessment should address questions such as:

  • What are the physical characteristics of the defects? Has deterioration obscured ornamental work or made the inscription difficult to read?
  • What is the extent of the affected area? Are all areas of the marker affected by deterioration or is there a pattern?
  • Do the conditions appear to be stable or getting worse.
  • Are the defects affecting other materials or impacting the safety of visitors?
  • Is deterioration contributing to loss or theft?
  • Is further investigation required?

Unmarked Burials

As cemeteries and burying grounds age, temporary or fragile grave markers may change or disappear. In some cases, such as hospital cemeteries and potters’ fields, burials were never marked or were marked by wooden or other temporary markers. The extent of burials may not be readily apparent as perimeter fences, walls or defining vegetation degrade over time; and, as adjacent development increasingly creeps toward cemetery boundaries, unmarked burials may be threatened. Conducting a land-use history of a parcel, including site-specific cartographic and documentary research, may assist in locating these burials. Once identified, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and other geophysical techniques have been very successful in locating grave shafts and determining the limits of historic burial sites. Further archaeological investigation may be needed if areas are targeted for cemetery expansion or other development.

Last updated: December 21, 2022