My relatives are in a cemetery where the gravestones are losing their readability. The hamlet office does not know who is buried in some of the graves anymore and they have asked our family for help. We only realized the extent of the deterioration of the cemetery after Grandma died and we realized that there are no oldtimers left in the town anymore to care for the graves (she was covered in weeds). My parents spent days mowing, hauling good soil, sowing grass, and replacing broken vases for the clan.

What steps can I take to track down the (now hidden) members of the cemetery? And are there any preservation techniques for headstones?

  • If you mention the name & location of the cemetery, perhaps the question about tracking down the members could be better answered.
    – Jeni
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 11:27
  • @Jeni The community is in rural Alberta. Doubtful that anyone on here knows about Hughenden, but thanks for the thought ;) Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 12:10
  • Have you tried having library volunteers at Alberta Genealogical Society agsedm.edmonton.ab.ca/library.html help?
    – Jeni
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 14:23
  • Jonathan Appell, Monuments Conservator, operates the website GravestonePreservation.info which he describes as being dedicated to gravestone & cemetery monument preservation, information, education & training.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 13:11
  • FOUND: an excellent 89-page pdf Saskatchewan Historic Cemetery Preservation Guide created by the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society covers assessing, gaining permission, organizing volunteers, managing and maintaining, preservation and conservation methods. Commented May 9, 2015 at 9:56

7 Answers 7


If you can determine who owns (or owned) the cemetery, you might be able to track from there to a record of who was buried there. Possibly a local individual or historical society may have kept an old record. Another way to find information would be to scan historical newspapers that covered the area. Descendants of founding families can sometimes lead you to old sources of information. Check for any local written histories. And also deeds for the land itself (at some point cemeteries started giving deed to folks who bought grave plots). As for the deteriorating headstones, from what I've read so far, there aren't many ways to preserve a headstone that is in bad shape. If you can afford to, placing a small bronze grave marker might be an idea. More importantly, photographing the existing cemetery grounds and points of reference nearby, along with getting latitude and longitude coordinates, and publishing that information along with knowns burials is another way to preserve the history.
Here in the States, county governments want to know where cemeteries are in case someone wants to develop the area.
I'd encourage you to turn over every leaf you can think of. And once you think you've done it all, go back over everything from the beginning and see what else might point to another source.
Ground-penetrating radar and other technologies can help identify where something is below ground, but can't to a thing to determine who's buried there.
Best of luck to you!


Two methods that may work are these:

  1. Photograph the stone in slanting sunlight. About 30 degrees across the face of the stone should make the lettering stand out. An assistant holding a large mirror to reflect the sunlight may be necessary.
  2. If this isn't possible or doesn't work try the aluminum foil method. Wrap a piece around the stone and tape it together in the back. Don't apply the tape directly to the stone. Gently rub the foil over the lettering with your finger. As the foil compresses into the lettering you should be able to read it.

Both of these methods have been discussed in great detail on Find-a-Grave. (E.g. try searching findagrave.com for "aluminum foil".)

Good luck.

  • 2
    Very nice. Consider including a link to the discussions on Find-a-Grave that you mention.
    – GeneJ
    Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 1:24
  • 1
    Taking rubbings also work. There you wrap the stone in paper, and rub it with crayon, coal or pencil led or similar. That has the benefit of making a legible impression of the stone that can be preserved, which is hard with the foil method. Commented Nov 4, 2012 at 21:11

Please do not use chalk - or shaving cream as some might suggest on a headstone. There are many discussions of this on Find-A-Grave and it has been banned for members there to use these techniques. Try spraying with water - as it dries the writing can sometimes be read better, and this does no harm to the stone.

As far as preserving the headstones - One suggestion there is to work on improving the cemetery. Look also at the website The Association for Gravestone Studies. The FAQ has good directions for rubbing a stone (since they are related to you) - and this may be a good way to get more information.

This publication by the Alberta Genealogical Society may be of help, although I suspect your cemetery is the one without information "A01 - Alberta Sources: a listing of all known Alberta cemeteries and other surname sources by nearest town indicating which have been recorded, and which have been published or entered on the "master surname index". This item is now available as a free download in PDF format. Note: This is a preliminary draft only. File is available here."


Ask for cemetery information at local historical societies, genealogical societies, and local libraries. Ask to see what they may have stashed away that they never look at or have cataloged.

I found my G3GF's lot after it had been deemed "lost" by a search team in the 1920s. The management office had no name cross-references for 1,000s of burials prior to 1900. However, it turned out that the local historical society had some old cemetery ledger books that had been discarded many decades ago that were molding in their basement. One of the books contained the cemetery's copy of some of the earliest lot deeds. My guy's deed was there. I found out not only the lot number (therefore, where he was buried), but how much he paid for it, his address at the time, and his signature. His marker is illegible.


Burial records at the local churches may be helpful for identifying the who and when of the graves. Death records and obituaries, if accessible/available, will also be helpful.

If your cemetery is on the list of Provost Municipal District cemeteries at "Alberta: CanadaGenWeb's Cemetery Project", then the Alberta Genealogical Society may have some information.


Probate records are useful in finding graveyards.

With a soft brush and light misting of the headstone with water. Air dry and do a rubbing with transparent paper. Although unlikely, The best way to preserve a headstone is said to be moving it to an indoor location.


Once you have the weeds out of the way, you can often take a legible photo of a stone that appears too worn to read using off-camera flash. See this question and answer including some before and after photos.

You might also get such a photo using lucky sun position or the mirror method, but off-camera flash gives you much more control, and you don't have to wait for certain sky conditions. Beware of any method that might damage the stone mechanically or chemically. Light-based methods avoid any concern of damage.

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