Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday From The Collectors - A Monumental Task

18 April - Guest Blogger
Terry Thornton

My Approach to the Monumental Task of Photographing
and Inventorying a Country Cemetery:
Some Grave Considerations
Becky Wiseman, writing in this space last Friday, established that photographs are windows to a moment in time --- and in the absence of a photograph, what better glimpse of the past is there than a grave marker? Next to census records and written family documents, the data recorded on tombstones are considered primary source materials by most researchers. Both family history and community history are recorded in words chiseled in the stones of the local graveyard --- and because that record is waiting to be read, recorded, transcribed, and preserved, I work with collecting gravestone information and gravestone photographs in the Hill Country.

The last complete inventory of New Hope Cemetery, Parham, Monroe County, Mississippi, one of the oldest cemeteries in the Hill Country, was probably the 1939 effort of the late Dr. W. A Evans of Aberdeen. His work was published the year I was born --- almost seventy years ago. His out-of-print writing is held very closely and not in general circulation. The lack of an inventory of the burials for the last seventy years is a glaring hole in the primary research data for Monroe County--- so I've attempting to inventory, transcribe, and publish a transcription of all the markers at New Hope Cemetery.

I do not transcribe cemeteries for profit --- I believe strongly that genealogy, especially the part of genealogy based upon reading the graves of the dead, should be removed from the "for profit" sector. In short, a transcription of New Hope Cemetery is long overdue; it is a research tool I will use frequently. And over the next several days and weeks I plan to write such an inventory of New Hope Cemetery and publish the transcription online at New Hope Cemetery blog.

I have always been interested in photography, in recording tombstone images, and learning about unique stories, traditions and customs concerning cemeteries.

My earliest work with a camera involving the dead was a very personal disaster --- as a thirteen-year-old, I was asked to photograph a dead child in its coffin so that its father who was in the Army in Korea would have a picture of his dead baby. My camera malfunctioned --- and I've been haunted by the sadness of that event since. I have recounted this most vivid recollection at in Hill Country.

When I am in a cemetery, I always look for the unusual --- the unique or the strange --- and several of my Hill Country articles reflect my interest in cemeteries. Recently I wrote Beauty's Grave about a marker I discovered in a rural cemetery in Itawamba County, Mississippi. Earlier I've written about some of the unique pottery gravemarkers from the hills of Itawamba County at Hand-turned works of art. And I'm always looking for more images of hands carved on tombstones.

One of the most pleasing and unusual images I captured at New Hope Cemetery last week was the carved image of the dog "Wolf" on his master's grave shown below. Stones tell stories beyond who is buried beneath a marker. It is obvious that "Wolf" was a special pet to be forever chiseled on the dark stone marker.

But the major reason I work in cemeteries is to learn of the history of a community and of its people. I consider a tombstone and the information chiseled in stone a word picture into the past. And it is that "picture of the past" I am trying to collect as I photograph gravestones and transcribe the words and information written upon them.

Although I've transcribed in photographs and words a few small abandoned cemeteries with fewer than a dozen markers, I've inventoried only one large cemetery currently in use --- Lann Cemetery near Splunge, Monroe County, Mississippi. A transcription of that work is available at the Lann Cemetery Blog, a site I have under construction. And that list, done in 2002, is in need of updating as several new burials have occurred at Lann Cemetery. In fact, my gravemarker (click to see) now stands at Lann Cemetery waiting and should be included in a new transcription. [Don't ask. The monument salesman described the sale of the stone to me as a "pre-need" whatever that means!]

For the remainder of this article, I will discuss how I go about transcribing a large Hill Country cemetery. Please know there is no one "correct" method of reading the history of a cemetery --- each researcher/photographer has to develop a set of techniques best suited for his needs. I hope this discussion of my method will be of some value the next time you visit a cemetery or take gravestone photographs.

On a personal note, let me say that my approach differs from most because of physical limitations --- I use a cane for walking and the artificial hip joint I have precludes much bending over. Thus my technique for working up a cemetery in photographs and words considers my physical limitations.

Once I decide I need a complete transcription of a specific cemetery, I do an Internet search to determine if one exists --- and if so, where? How recent or how complete? There are partial transcriptions available online for New Hope Cemetery --- but no where can I find a complete and up-to-date inventory of all those buried there.

Because I grew up less than one mile from the edge of New Hope Cemetery, I was already well acquainted with its general layout. But I did a search for a map of New Hope Cemetery. I then traced on paper the cemetery directly from the screen --- and used this crude drawing to walk around the cemetery.

The map at showed New Hope Cemetery as being in two sections lying a few yards apart on opposite sides of the current Hatley-Detroit Road. The eastern most section of the cemetery is known locally as the "Old Part of New Hope Cemetery." The section on the west side of the road is known as the "New Part of New Hope Cemetery."

The Old Part of New Hope is a burial ground for both white and black individuals from the surrounding community. Some of the oldest burials in the Hill Country are recorded in this part of the cemetery. For the purposes of this inventory, the Old Part of New Hope, white and black burials, will be designated as Section A. See the map below.

The New Part of New Hope has grown so rapidly over the last several decades, that it was divided for this transcription into Sections B, C. D, and E. The driveways within the new part assist in this division. The map acquired from was thus modified and expanded to show both this growth and the section divides.
The graves within each section will be inventoried, numbered for location purposes, transcribed, and photographed. Section B was completed last week and is the basis of this "how I did it" report.

I started with Section B for purely selfish reasons --- Section B is where my parents and grandparents are buried along with several aunts and uncles and cousins. Further, Section B is where many of my father's friends and associates are buried --- and walking there is like revisiting old friends from forty and fifty years ago. And Section B is where so many of my personal friends are buried --- from classmates in high school to mentors who taught me such fine points as how to swim, how to dive,how to swim underwater, how to fish, how to pick cotton, how to cross-pollinate bearded iris.

Section B was inventoried following these steps.


1. After considering the layout of the cemetery noting the location of driveways and the public road, I decided to start in the lower left side of Section B. I began each entry by assigning a number to each stone in the first row as I came to it. I used graph paper and indicated a number at the approximate location of stone number one. On the paper I indicated the surname and given name of the person buried there. And I noted on the graph paper, and this is important to my approach, the type of marker: Does the marker have only one name on it? Is it a marker with two or more names? Is it just a family plot marker with nothing but a surname? Is it a military marker?

2. I then photographed the marker. And then I moved to the next marker and repeated the process. When I finished across the front of the section, I went to the next row and worked my way back across the section --- and continued the process working back and forth across Section B until I'd assigned a number and photographed each marker in the section.

NOTE: Any stone on which it was difficult to "read" or to photograph, the names and dates were transcribed completely in writing while I was in front of it. Additional photographs were taken, some with close-up settings, for validation of the transcription.

3. EQUIPMENT USED: I carry two cameras for field work in cemeteries. My camera of choice is a small, light-weight CanonPowerShot A520 with a 1.0 GB memory card (but I have an additional memory card for backup). The Canon powers from two AA size batteries --- and requires frequent changing of batteries. I used eight batteries in short order and I wasn't using flash lighting.

My backup camera is a Sony Digital Mavica powered by a rechargeable lithium battery. Although I favor this camera and still have an external floppy disc drive so that I can use it with my newer computer, it is now just back-up in case my primary camera malfunctions when doing field work.

The best and newest tool I'm using is a mono-pod or a one-legged camera stand which also doubles as my walking cane. This device is lightweight, adjustable, has a universal camera mount hidden under the knob, has a wrist-strap for ease in holding, and serves as a steady platform from which to take photographs. Heretofore I used a camera neck strap to "tote" the camera, one hand to hold my cane and the other hand to hold my clipboard and paper. With this device I have cane and camera combined in the best of all combinations. This one-legged camera stand is sold locally in Wal-Mart's photographic department for about $20.

Using this stand, I did not have a single photograph to blur because of movement. I strongly recommend that you get this device to steady your digital camera; it is ever so much easier to use than a tradition tripod stand. It makes a neat walking stick too.


1. Armed with handwritten notes and hundreds of digital photographs, I returned to my office and started the process of transcribing my field research. I wished to produce an inventory/transcription/record of the history on the gravestones at New Hope in order to accomplish the following four tasks.

Grave location: Any list should indicate the approximate location of the graves within the cemetery. New Hope Cemetery is divided into two separate locations; the larger and newer section is divided into four distinct parts. A good list of burials would help the reader go directly to the proper section of the cemetery and find a specific grave without walking over several acres.

List of burials in relationship to other graves: Many times names from a series of individuals buried in close proximity to each other can assist in the writing of the history of a family or of a community. Certainly I wish my list of burials to show this grouping/arrangement.

Alphabetized list of all names from the stones at New Hope Cemetery. This list will perhaps be the most used of any I produce --- and I will transcribe my work with the requirement for computer generated alphabetized lists in mind. I will use, for the most part, data separated by commas into "fields" so that later when all five sections of the cemetery have been inventoried, I can create a master list in alphabetized order of all people buried at New Hope Cemetery.

D. Photographic record of all of the tombstones
: All of the lists I am making will indicate the image number of the photograph upon which I'm basing my transcription. In the future I will also post an image of each marker at New Hope Cemetery Blog or elsewhere on the Internet.

Using the graph paper locater and number codes from my handwritten field notes, I generated an initial list on a word processing program. Here are the first five names on that initial list.

B0001, HILL, Barbara
B0002, HATHCOCK, Dell and Geneva
B0003, CHISM, Alvin and Retha
B0004 CHISM, George
B0005, LITTLE, Ronnie
2. Next I looked at the photographs and transcribed information to indicate the type of stone, the complete names of the individuals and relationships if known, the date of birth and the date of death, and the image number of the photograph. The first five entries from my field notes thus increased to the following eight entries:
B001s, HATHCOCK, Barbara Hill, 1882, 1954, Wife of R.G. Hathcock, img 3027
B002a, HATHCOCK, Dell T., December 22 1909, April 14 1999, married Geneva Hathcock July 2 1933, img 3028, See also Delmus T. Hathcock
B002b, HATHCOCK, Geneva, November 14 1915, September 12 1994, married Dell T. Hathcock July 2 1933, img 3028
B002m, HATHCOCK, Delmus T., December 22 1909, April 14 1999, US Army World War 2 Silver Star, img 3029
B003a, CHISM, Alvy Y., January 14 1903, April 27 1936, on marker with Retha P. Chism, img 3031
B003b, CHISM, Retha P., July 31 1902, August 6 1974, on marker with Alvy Y. Chism, img 3031
B004s, CHISM, George C., August 20 1934, April 29 1940, img 3032
B005s, LITTLE, Ronie, 1896, 1938, Wife of W.J. Little, img 3033
To the left of the surname is a code to indicate: the Section of the cemetery (B), the approximate location by number (the higher the number the further to the back of the section), and a series of lower cases letters to indicate the type of stone ("s" indicates a single name on a stone,"a, b, c, d, e" indicates multiple names on a large stone, "f" indicates a family surname marker only, usually used to mark a family plot, "m" indicates a military marker --- usually a small flat marker at the foot of the grave, "t" indicates a temporary marker --- usually a small metal marker indicating the name and dates of the burial placed at the grave by the funeral home).

Surnames and given names were transcribed directly from the photographs of the stones; birth and death dates were standardized with full spellings rather than abbreviations and the birth and death dates separated by a comma. If the stone indicated the date of marriage (and many do), that information was recorded. If more than one name was on a stone, that information was noted as "on marker with" --- in most cases it can be assumed that the two names on a single marker indicate husband and wife but that is not always the case. If the relationship is stated, it was noted as "on marker with mother" or "on marker with daughter" etc.

4. The list of the eight names above was then sorted alphabetically by computer using the information in Field 2 and Field 3. When all five sections of the cemetery are completely inventoried and proof-read, a single alphabetized list of all the burials at New Hope will be published. Here is how such a list will appear using just the eight names above from Section B.
B003a, CHISM, Alvy Y., January 14 1903, April 27 1936, on marker with Retha P. Chism, img 3031
B004s, CHISM, George C., August 20 1934, April 29 1940, img 3032
B003b, CHISM, Retha P., July 31 1902, August 6 1974, on marker with Alvy Y. Chism, img 3031

B001s, HATHCOCK, Barbara Hill, 1882, 1954, Wife of R.G. Hathcock, img 3027
B002a, HATHCOCK, Dell T., December 22 1909, April 14 1999, married Geneva Hathcock July 2 1933, img 3028, See also Delmus T. Hathcock
B002m, HATHCOCK, Delmus T., December 22 1909, April 14 1999, US Army World War 2 Silver Star, img 3029
B002b, HATHCOCK, Geneva, November 14 1915, September 12 1994, married Dell T. Hathcock July 2 1933, img 3028

B005s, LITTLE, Ronie, 1896, 1938, Wife of W.J. Little, img 3033
I've described why and how I am transcribing the burials at New Hope Cemetery, Parham, Monroe County, Mississippi. But I think I would be remiss if I didn't add a few random comments, cautions, and concerns.

RE-DOs: Be prepared to return to the cemetery for missed photo opportunities. Glitches happen, batteries go dead, interruptions make you miss a marker, or you lose your place. Of approximate 300 stones I photographed and transcribed in Section B, I have to return for a re-do on 14 stones. Two of those were military stones covered with grass and dirt and unreadable; I will take a trowel and broom and make usable pictures. Four were missed pictures when my batteries went dead; this small camera often indicates it has a picture when it doesn't; three markers need another look because of conflict in field notes and poor image quality; three family plot markers were missed completely according to my field notes; and one photo shows the marker and my left shoe. That I am having to re-photograph approximately 5 per cent of the stones is about par for the course for me. I live approximately 25 miles from this cemetery; it is, therefore, not difficult to return for follow-up work.

I was pleased with myself this time, however, in that I had only one photograph showing my big foot.

VALIDATE WORK: Some cemetery photographers use strings to mark off a section and work it up completely on site before moving on; others use pennies to indicate that a stone is completely done in the inventory; some place a checkmark in chalk on the stone when finished. I attempt to process the information from the cemetery without use of any such markers. As a final control, I will take a printed copy of the inventory for each section and do a walk-through verifying that the information is correct.

GET HELP: Always get as many helpers as you can; divide and conquer --- but realize that you can't control all aspects of the work; have forms preprinted; have specific instructions as to what to record and how to record it.

MY RULE NUMBER ONE: Never, never under any circumstances put substances on a marker. I don't advocate the use of chalks, cleaners, or shaving cream to make the wording clearer --- nor do I do paper rubbings except in the most extreme cases. In order to read a stone I've resorted to two rubbings over the past eight years.

MY RULE NUMBER TWO: Don't remove decorations from a marker. During the all-day session at New Hope last week, I removed one tomb decoration (from the marker of my parents) prior to photographing the tombstone; I then replaced it. Many of the markers have decorations clamped into place and attached to wires and stakes in the ground. I would never recommend the removal of such in order to take a photograph. On those stones where decorations are covering the words, I transcribed the names on site and photographed what I could.

Remember that folks get awfully upset when flowers/decorations are moved/removed from their relatives' graves. Most of those decorations are lost because of winds blowing them about. Animals move some --- deer, raccoons, dogs, etc., but most lost decorations are blown away. While I was at New Hope, floral decorations were blowing about like tumbleweeds. If I am known to remove flowers to take a picture, guess who is going to be blamed for the lost flowers?

SUGGESTION: Be prepared for the unexpected. Take plenty of backup materials for your camera and your writing.

SUGGESTION: Be prepared for the expected. Take plenty of liquid refreshments, hat, insect repellant, sunscreen, and clothing. The sun, wind, and activity can dehydrate in short order. Most rural cemeteries are so isolated that you may need to take water and food. Also be aware that most rural cemeteries don't have bathroom facilities. The terrain is uneven; wear sturdy comfortable shoes.

REMEMBER: It will always take longer to inventory a cemetery than you think. My experience is that it takes twice as long as I plan. My plans for field work in the New Hope Cemetery suggest I can do that part of the job in five days if I have assistance from others. The transcription of those field notes and photographs will take probably another twenty days. And the final editing and proofing will take another five days. So for a cemetery as large as New Hope, I estimate about a month to complete the task.

HINT: If you have a choice, don't photograph a cemetery on a bright sunny day. On an overcast day, the light is much better for photographing tombstones so that the markings are readable. If you go, however, on a bright sunny day, take along a large umbrella to shade the marker from harsh sunlight. It is easier for me, however, to pick my days or to work very early morning or very late afternoon.

WARNING: Watch where you step. Critters live in cemeteries; the occasional lizard, snake, skunk, rabbit, raccoon, deer, etc. can startle you if you encounter it unaware. Black widow spiders also seem to thrive within grave decorations.

DON'T TRESPASS ON PRIVATE PROPERTY: Secure permission in advance before entering a cemetery on private property. When possible, have a local person serve as a guide.

The completed alphabetized list and locator code for Section B just finished has been posted at New Hope Cemetery blog. The images will be posted later. The remainder of the transcription is a work in progress and will appear as finished.

And I close with these words, modified from a folk song handed down by slaves, called

Sometimes I Feel Like An Eagle In The Air

You may bury me in the East,
You may bury me in the West,
But I'll hear the trumpet sound
In that morning.
I know the moonlight,
I know the starlight;
I lay this body down.
I walk in the moonlight,
I walk in the starlight;
I lay this body down.
I know the graveyard,
I know the graveyard,
When I lay this body down.
I walk in the graveyard,
I walk through the graveyard
To lay this body down.
I lay in the grave and stretch out my arms;
I lay this body down.
I go to the judgment in the evening of the day
When I lay this body down.
And my soul and your soul will meet in the day
When I lay this body down.


"Sometimes I Feel Like an Eagle In the Air," American Folk Song. Lyrics modified from James Weldon Johnson, editor, The Book of American Negro Poetry, Preface. 1922. : 2008.

Wiseman, Becky. "Friday From the Collectors --- A Moment in Time." FootnoteMaven,
Shades of the Departed, April 11, 2008. : 2008.

"Wolf, A Dog Image on a Tombstone," Gravemarker B296s, James Doyle Thompson, New Hope Cemetery, Parham, Monroe County, Mississippi. Photograph by Terry Thornton. April 8, 2008.

Article and Photographs
Copyright © Terry Thornton


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