Lesson 2: Reading the Tombstone


Reading a tombstone or other marker might seem an easy thing to do. However, there may be some additional things you may not know. I want to offer a few tips to you:

  1. Read every word on the marker. If something is in a foreign language, copy it in its entirety exactly as inscribed or take as high quality a digital image as possible so as to capture all the details. Once done, make sure you obtain an accurate translation later. A translation should never be done using a translation dictionary.  Try to locate a bilingual native who can help. Otherwise, contact a university’s language department that may teach the language. An instructor may have a student who can perform the translation for you for little or no fee, and it is a win for the university, the student, and you.
  2. Check the backside of every tombstone. Sometimes there is additional information to be found there. Examples might include a poem, birthplace and date, immigration and naturalization information, military service unit and rank, names of other family members and/or relationships, and any number of other items.
  3. Check the base of the stone. There may be the initials or the name of the artisan who created the monument. This may provide a potential lead in that research area.  Administrative records in the sexton’s office concerning the creation and placement of a monument may provide further details.
  4. Make notes of the family names of the burial plots in each direction from those of your family. Family members often purchased adjacent lots, and even arranged to purchase individual plots from adjacent lot owners so as to be buried next to their family members for posterity. Names may not make any connection now, but you may later find that an adjacent family was related by marriage to yours.
  5. Make note of the epitaph. An epitaph is seldom chosen at random; it usually is selected by the deceased or the family to reflect something about the person. An epitaph may well be a descriptor of the person’s personality.
  6.  Learn more about the images on the markers of your family members, also referred to as iconography.

There are many books and websites relating to cemetery marker symbols and iconography. One good starter site can be found at https://www.memorials.com/Headstones-Symbolism-information.php.

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