Terry Tippets, editor of Westward Into Nebraska
The following method of digitally documenting cemetery markers, has decreased by at least half, the time it takes our society to read cemeteries and get the information onto a data base.
There are two distinct advantages in using modern technology to read and document cemeteries, as opposed to the outdated pen and paper method.
First, a digital camera in the hand is faster than a pen in the hand—much faster. With a digital camera, you will be recording information much faster than if you were using a pen and notebook.
Secondly, pairing a digital camera with a computer and a good photo program is like bringing the cemetery into the comfort of your own home. The information you enter into your database is information you will be reading directly from the pictures you took at the cemetery. Having this ability will translate into fewer transcription errors, and thus fewer errors in the database.
The process of transforming marker information into database information is simple. To begin, you need the following tools:
Digital camera–Almost any kind will work for cemetery reading, but if you don’t yet own one, here’s some things to consider before you buy:
Screen size—the bigger the better. My digital has a 3 inch screen, which makes it easier to see the markers, and thus easier to shoot them.
Memory card capacity—is the camera equipped to house a removable memory card? As with screen size, bigger is better. A 1 Gig card will hold over 1000 or so pictures at the resolution you will be shooting the markers.
Resolution—for taking pictures of cemetery markers, a resolution setting somewhere around 1 to 3 meg is plenty for what you need to do. Any higher setting will just use up real estate on your camera’s memory card and will decrease the number of pictures the card will hold. Keep in mind that you are taking the pictures for transcription purposes, not for a photo contest.
Power source—I carry a backup battery at all times. Want to save money? Don’t buy your backup from the camera maker. Go on the internet and order a generic one. I’ve found over the years that the generic batteries I’ve purchased have usually been better than the original that came with the camera, and the cost was about 25-50% less.
Computer Photo program—I use Picasa3 (http://picasa.google.com/). It’s a free download with attractive and functional screens and is one of the best programs for cemetery transcription that I’ve found to date.
Row cards–You will use these on the first marker of each row to document what row number you are shooting and which direction you are walking when you shoot it. (This will be vital information in the data base for those who use that information later on to find their ancestor’s marker in the cemetery.) You make these cards yourself using 15 ordinary 3×5 yellow or white index cards. Using a dark-colored marker, and in large, bold print, follow this pattern for writing on both sides of each card (example: [0 / 1] means to write a “0” on one side of the card, and a “1” on the other side): [0/1], [1/2], [2/3], [3/4], [4/5], [5/6], [6/7], [7/8], [8/9], [0/0], [reading N-S/reading S-N], [reading W-E/reading E-W], [Front/Back], [Left/Right], [End of Row/End of Row]. The Front/Back and Left/Right cards are for the upright markers that have information on more than one side of the stone. If you really want to get deluxe with your row cards, you can laminate them as I did mine. This will help preserve them and makes them somewhat impervious to wet conditions at the cemetery.
Whisk broom– Some cemeteries will work you more than others. Some markers that lay flat may need grass clippings or leaves cleared from them before you can take the picture. A whisk broom is quicker than the hand for doing this. My wife prefers a small broom with a long handle so she doesn’t have to bend over as much.
Drinking water. Fill a couple of 1 liter bottles about three-fourths full (or even a gallon milk jug) and stick them in the freezer the night before you read a cemetery. The ice will melt slowly enough that you’ll have cold drinking water for hours the next day.
Bug Repellant and Sun Screen. Almost every time my wife reads a cemetery, the chiggers lunch on her as if she were a walking buffet. Bug repellant will keep most of them at bay. As for the sun screen, play it safe and use it every day (suggested by my easily-sunburned wife).
Proper attire. As far as I know, there is no all-the-latest-rage style that’s big with the in-the-know cemetery reading crowd. Comfy clothes, wide brim hat on sunny days, sneakers, trousers with extra pockets to carry your camera and whisk broom, and you’re set.
At the Cemetery
Row cards are the first things you’ll use at the cemetery. Your camera and photo program will keep the marker pictures in the correct order on your computer’s hard drive, but you’ll need the cards to document the beginning and end of each row. For the first marker in each row, you’ll want to indicate which direction you are shooting from/to, and what number you’ve assigned to that row. Lay the cards on—or in front of—the marker, and shoot the picture. Just make sure that the cards don’t obscure any information on the marker.
The secret to speed reading a cemetery depends on how quickly you can shoot each marker as you walk the row. I’ve learned to hold and operate my camera with my right hand, a technique that is especially effective when the markers are also on my right. With a little practice and unobstructed markers, you’ll soon be clicking almost as fast as you can walk the row, with just a brief pause at each marker. Keep in mind that you are not trying for a Nobel prize in photography here. You are taking the pictures so that you can transcribe the information into your database program later on. As long as all the information is on the picture and it’s readable, you’ve accomplished your purpose.
One caveat: As wonderful as modern technology is, you will occasionally come across a marker that is so aged and weather scarred that you will have lay the technology aside and do what the non-techie cemetery readers do: trace the lettering with your fingers and try to brail read the information.
Now you’re back home and anxious to get the information out of your camera and into your database. Before worrying about loading the pictures from your camera into your computer, I’d recommend that you get your photo program set up first. As I stated earlier, I use Picasa3, but if you are on friendly terms with the photo program you already have, then by all means use it.
For ease of transcription, you will resize your computer’s photo program so that it occupies the upper two-thirds to three-fourths of your computer screen. The program you have decided to transcribe the information into (i.e. word processor, data base, or spreadsheet) will occupy the remaining one-third to one-fourth of the screen. If you don’t know how to resize a screen, ask someone who does know to show you how. Once you have the screen set up properly, you will be clicking up and down between the photo program and the database program as you work. The two programs can actually overlap each other somewhat. The only stipulation is that your database program cannot block any information on the picture you are transcribing from. This setup may take a little getting used to, but once you do, you’ll be cruising right along.
There are a few features that your photo program must have in order for you to transcribe from the photos with any kind of efficiency. First is the ability to enlarge the picture, so that you can see any small print that may be on the markers. Also, the ability to rotate a picture 180 degrees comes in handy if you have some markers that appear on your computer screen upside down. This will happen if you stood on the other side of a horizontal marker as you shot it so that your shadow wouldn’t get in the way.
For older markers whose lettering may be hard to read, using the photo enhancement features of your photo program may help you to see the information a little more clearly, thus saving you a trip back to that marker next time you visit the cemetery.
If you do much cemetery reading using the method we’ve been discussing, it won’t take long for you to amass a good-sized collection of marker pictures. You will sometimes be collecting the pictures faster than you type them into your data base, so you need to know exactly where to find them when you are ready for them. Your photo program should give you the option of naming the group of pictures after you’ve downloaded them. The photo program will then create a folder with that name to store the pictures in. I use a three-part format for naming: the first part is the name of the cemetery, abbreviated if possible. Space, then the name of the cemetery section. Another space, then the beginning and ending row numbers that I shot. (Example: your file name for “Westlawn Hillcrest cemetery, Sunrise section, rows 27 thru 32” would be “WH Sunrise 27-32”) It’s that simple.
As I stated at the beginning, it’s like bringing the cemetery into the comfort of your own home.
This article has been updated from the original, which appeared in the August, 2006 issue of Westward Into Nebraska, a publication of the Greater Omaha Genealogical Society, and was also published in an online subscription genealogy magazine, The Digital Genealogist, several years ago.
Permission is granted to use this article as you see fit, provided that you include the above citation about where the article originated from.