Tracking Your Past: The Value of a Cemetery Visit

Alight with spring flowers, the hilltop contours of Old Helena Cemetery model the heart of the Driftless Region. Located on Iowa County Highway C, across from Tower Hill State Park, the cemetery memorializes some of Wisconsin’s earliest white residents, with graves dating from the 1840s to 2016.

The text on some markers is no longer decipherable and details about 117 burials can be more easily seen on the database www.findagrave.com. Yet a cemetery visit transports you physically to the past. You can often absorb more in person than from staring at a monitor, and a marker’s placement can lead to an understanding about interrelated families or other “Aha!” moments.

Checking findagrave before you visit can provide useful background. If the cemetery is large, you can search online for any rules about visiting or make an appointment with a manager who might provide information about individual plots.

When you arrive, take photos to document your experience — taking care to respect any funeral services or other visitors. Take photos of the entrance and the area around your ancestors’ graves to help orient later visitors and place your family history into context. Photos of individual headstones might reveal:

Symbols, such as weeping willows, lambs, angels or Masonic emblems.

Intriguing monument shapes (obelisk, tree trunks or other statuary) created from bronze, granite, limestone and other materials.

Quotes revealing how an ancestor was viewed by friends and family.

A cemetery visit inevitably yields clues about ancestors’ communities. Consider when — and where — the first people buried there were born. Look for surnames that may still be common in the area today. How many infants are buried there? How many veterans and in what wars did they serve?

If the headstones are in poor condition and their text is difficult to read, resist the urge to clean them or do a rubbing using paper and a crayon, which might damage crumbling stone. You can enhance your photos by bringing along a flashlight or asking a friend to hold a mirror or other reflective shield to highlight a headstone. If you spray distilled water over the marker, the engraved portions may dry last, making them more visible. Date your photos and document a marker’s position (consider noting GPS coordinates). For more on gravestone maintenance, see www.gravestonestudies.org.

P.S. Visit Basswood Cemetery this month to see peonies blooming near most headstones. This cemetery is west of Muscoda, north of Highway 60, on County E.

Doris Green is the author of “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery,” available from http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon and bookstores. She lives with her husband and three distracting cats on a hillside south of the Wisconsin River. Visit https://dorisgreenbooks.wordpress.com.