Visiting Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries
John E. Sterling
There is nothing more exciting for a genealogist than seeing the final resting place for several generations of his or her ancestors. Genealogists who come to Rhode Island seeking their roots in the state's more than 2,800 small family burial grounds are, however, frequently surprised at what they find—or, more likely, fail to find. Having visited almost 2,000 historical cemeteries in Rhode Island over the past fifteen years in connection with the Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Database, I have some advice on when to come, how to prepare for the trip, and how to make the most of the experience. These remarks are limited to the small family lots, rather than municipal or church cemeteries.
Come in the off-season. Many burial grounds, while once in a prominent location on the family farm, are deep in the woods that now cover the site of the homestead. They are commonly overgrown with trees, bushes, bittersweet, briars, poison ivy and other vegetation. When we visit these cemeteries to record them for the database, we usually go in November through May. We try to finish by June 1st, as it is considerably more difficult to get to and to read the gravestones in June, July, August, and September. Most genealogists arrive during precisely these four months when getting into the cemeteries is the hardest. Some leave disappointed that they were able to get to the wall of their ancestor's cemetery but were unable to see a single gravestone for green briars and poison ivy. Visiting off-season also lessens the risk of insect-borne diseases.
What to expect.
As with any genealogical research do your homework before going into the field. Learn as much as you can about it from the Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Database. The complete database is available on computers at several libraries, and the index is available on the internet at two sites. Books that have been generated by the project—ones with maps and photographs of many gravestones—are available for many Rhode Island towns. See p. 44 for more information. Look hard at the condition of the cemetery as described in the Cemetery Data screen, finding it by the cemetery number. In the database the cemetery condition is assessed by the recorder as good, fair, or poor, as the lot would look after a weekend of cleanup. A cemetery that is nicely maintained but full of broken or missing gravestones will be judged in poor condition. A cemetery with upright, unbroken stones will be judged in good condition, no matter how overgrown. Expect briars, expect poison ivy, and between May and October expect ticks and mosquitoes. Tuck a pair of nippers in your jacket pocket to cut back briars. Dress appropriately (long pants, long sleeves), and take precautions against insects, by tucking your pants into your socks and even duct taping them. Wash up carefully after the visit to wash away ticks and the oil from poison ivy.
Finding the lot.
The database has much information that will help you find the lot. First, check to make sure the burial ground is still at the location specified. Many lots have been moved to larger cemeteries; they have been reassembled as "virtual cemeteries" in the database from historical information. Look carefully at the description of your ancestor's gravestone. Is it upright? Is it in fact still there? The database contains readings of thousands of stones that no longer exist. The reading of your ancestor's stone might come from, say, a Victorian transcription. You do not want to waste precious research time in a quest for a marker that disappeared before you were born.
The database has other clues that can help you pick out the burial ground in the vegetation when you get close. It shows whether the lot is surrounded by a stone wall or granite posts and iron rails, or whether it is unenclosed. Learn how far is it from the road, and decide how you will measure the distance? How long is your pace? Look at the geological survey maps to location, elevation, and any distinctive features of the surrounding landscape such as streams and paths. Do you own a GPS? Many of the cemeteries our volunteers have visited since 2000 now have the longitude and latitude coordinates in the description so you can navigate right to them. For cemeteries set back more than a thousand feet from the road, it is a good idea to set a waypoint where you park your car so you can navigate back to it with your GPS if you get lost. You can also use the GPS to measure how far you are into the woods.
Many small family plots are in suburbia rather than the forest, and these pose their own problems. Before venturing into someone's backyard, it is only common courtesy to ring the doorbell at the house and explain to the owner that you are visiting the cemetery. Never, ever undertake to cross an electronic dog fence, even if no dog is in sight.
Photographing the stone.
The experience of visiting your ancestor's burial ground can be enhanced with proper preparation and shared with others with well-executed photographs. Although photographs of gravestones are notoriously difficult, one can get quite satisfactory results with practice and a bright, sunny day. Paradoxically the best time to photograph gravestones is in the morning between 9:00 A.M. and 11:00 A.M., although most eighteenth and nineteenth-century gravestones, which face west, will be in shadow then. The trick is to "light" the stones by reflecting sunlight at a raking angle with a mirror. By holding a 12 inch by 48 inch mirror (available at a home supply store) three feet to fifty feet to the left of the stone and about ten degrees to the front face, you can reflect the sunlight coming over the stone at a raking angle across the stone and cast shadows in the carving, making it ideal for photographing. It helps to have another pair of hands to hold the mirror while you take the photo. If you have never used this technique, you should practice it in a large open cemetery to make sure that you can create good gravestone pictures.
Without a mirror to light the gravestones, you can use natural sunlight, provided that there are no trees in leaf overhead. Between 1:00 P.M. and 2:00 P.M. the sun will create lighting on west-facing stones similar to that made with the mirror. The problem is that you will only have about half an hour to work. With or without a mirror, plan to take photos only on sunny days.
Although it is acceptable to clip a clump of grass in front of the stone to reveal the inscription, do not try to scrub the stone itself or rub anything on it to enhance the photos. It is only too easy to damage a gravestone that has been standing for two hundred years.
Once you have found your ancestor's burial ground and have gotten over the shock of how overgrown it has become since last a descendant had cared for it, you may want to have it cleaned up. The town of Coventry has a perpetual care program into which you can place a burial ground with an endowment to provide for maintenance. About 45 of the 196 cemeteries are in this program. I am not aware of such a program in other towns, but, if you obtain the landowner's permission, you can contract with a local lawn care service to clean up and maintain a cemetery. Check such a service out carefully, however, as a great deal of damage is done to gravestones each year by lawnmowers and trimming equipment. Consider your commitment to the idea: to be effective, cleanup must be done faithfully—and forever.
People frequently ask how they can fix broken gravestones. Never try to repair them unless you have been properly trained. The Association for Gravestone Studies has an excellent one-day class in gravestone conservation at its annual conference. They can show you how to mend a marble gravestone with CP Bond Epoxy and how to reset the stone into its base. Not only does this job require training, it demands a surprising amount of equipment for handling heavy gravestones. In my years of visiting historical cemeteries I have seen some horrible repairs and have concluded that well-meaning people trying to repair and preserve gravestones have done far more damage than all of the vandals who ever set foot into cemeteries.
Forewarned is forearmed.
You now know some of the difficulties of visiting Rhode Island's small cemeteries and how to manage them. With preparation, timing, perseverance, and a certain amount of luck you will be able to stand next to the last physical symbol of your ancestor's existence left on earth. Here are some further sources to help you in your quest.
R.I. HISTORIC CEMETERY DATABASE
Complete: Rhode Island Historical Society Library (Providence), East Greenwich Free Public Library, Warwick Public Library, and American French Genealogical Society (Woonsocket)
Index Only: NEHGS website or RI GenWeb website
Many of these can be ordered through RIGS - see Shop Online. Other are sold out, but are available through many Rhode Island libraries.
East Greenwich, Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Inscriptions
Bruce MacGunnigle, 1991
Graveyards of North Kingstown, Rhode Island
Althea H. McAleer, Beatrix Hoffius, and Deby Jecoy Nunes, 1992
Exeter, Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries
John E. Sterling and James E. Good, 1994
Warwick, Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries
John E. Sterling, 1997
Coventry, Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries
Dr. Bill Eddleman and John E. Sterling, 1998
Hopkinton, Rhode Island Historical Cemeteries
Gayle E. Waite and Lorraine Tarket-Arruda, 1998
North Burial Ground Providence, Rhode Island Old Section 1700-1848
John E. Sterling, 2000
Elm Grove Cemetery Inscriptions, North Kingstown, Rhode Island
Althea H. McAleer, 2000
South Kingstown Historical Cemeteries [coming soon]
John E. Sterling and James L. Wheaton, 2004
ASSOCIATION FOR GRAVESTONE STUDIES
278 Main Street, Suite 207
Greenfield, Mass. 01301
John E. Sterling, the creator of the Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Database and author of many books and articles on Rhode Island cemeteries, can be reached at 12984 W. Milbrook Dr., Huntley, Illinois 60142 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in Rhode Island Roots, Vol. 30, No. 1 (March 2004), pp. 41-45.