Documenting a Cemetery – Recording Tips and Sheets

Documenting a Cemetery

Old cemeteries exist throughout BC and represent an important heritage resource in our communities. Unfortunately, many of the grave memorials in these cemeteries are deteriorating at an alarming rate. There is no doubt that many of the inscriptions, motifs and art designs that are faintly visible today will disappear altogether in another generation. Detailed cemetery recording provides us with a permanent record of these sites, and a point of reference for future research and conservation.

A uniform and systematic way of recording these heritage sites is important. What features are important to record? Where do we start? What do we do with the information when finished? All these are relevant questions faced by prospective recorders. The Old Cemeteries Society has developed a system of cemetery recording that has been successfully applied at three cemeteries in the Greater Victoria area and is adaptable to small and large cemeteries elsewhere.

The OCS has produced a report to serve as a guideline to other groups interested in preserving cemeteries.
A Guide for the Recording, Care and Use of British Columbia’s Heritage Cemeteries” published 1997 is a 130 page handbook based on the case study of work done by the OCS at St. Stephen’s Churchyard near Victoria. This handbook can be ordered from Old Cemeteries Society for $30.00.

The mandate of the study was to produce, in a single publication, recommendations for preferred methods of recording, research, conservation, interpretation, funding and use of computer applications for heritage cemeteries in BC. The handbook for groups is geared to help them document, map and understand many aspects of a small to medium-sized cemetery, including the symbolism that appears on the markers themselves.

Documenting a cemetery should include a map detailing the organization of graves, a data recording and filing system using inventory sheets, and some historical and biographical research. Additional information gathered may include an epitaph record, condition reports, videos, and a photograph file.

Before starting a recording project, check whether one has already been done. The best way of confirming this is through the BC Genealogical Society, local museums and historical societies, the Registrar of Cemeteries in Victoria or the BC Archives and Records Service. Even if an earlier recording has been made, it is worthwhile to confirm and update the data, especially grave condition, and add information that might have been omitted.

Planning for a recording project may take months of work, lots of organization and above all, commitment. The initial step is to obtain written permission from the managing authority of the cemetery. Next, plan the recording to take place during the summer months. Make sure all the supplies are ready as needed and recorders have some knowledge of their task.


The society soon realized that recording history was as important as preserving it. In 1987, it began to enter information on all 28,000 plots of Ross Bay Cemetery into a computerized database. Names, dates of birth/death, plot locations, causes of death and various other information were entered from burial registers into the database.

The project was finally completed in 1997. The next project is to record all the details of the plots themselves. For each plot, it would include a pictures of the markers and its condition, a complete description of the marker, including all the words engraved on it and what it is made of as well as any other details of the plot. This project has been ongoing with the help of volunteers. An example of the project:
Section H of the Grave Inventory – Recording sheet (PDF) – developed by OCS for recording Ross Bay Cemetery

Recording Tips

Proper recording is time consuming and should be approached in a systematic and logical manner. Follow guidelines or rules in recording grave sites to make sure all recorders are following the same recording format.
The main objective is to have clear, precise information that has been uniformly gathered and recorded.

A few rules should be followed when recording begins:

  • Use only pencils when recording. Ink runs, leaches, and fades over time and is hard to erase and correct.
  • Always print information to be recorded. Handwritten script is too difficult to read and styles change over time.
  • Use a basic standard form of printing when filling out inventory sheets. Do not use symbols, shorthand, abbreviations or code. Keep your English simple and use straightforward descriptions.
  • Use metric measurements only. All Canadian and international records involving measurements in the heritage field are now in metric.
  • Do not damage the objects being recorded. Do not use abrasive brushes or hand tools to remove vegetation or dirt from fragile monuments.
  • Take a digital photo of the grave.


Old cemeteries vary greatly in physical size, numbers of burials, organization and layout. Many of these cemeteries started as small family plots and grew to serve the whole community.

Most old cemeteries were located away from main population centers. Frequently the residents in outlying areas did not have the means to purchase and transport elaborate monuments from larger centers and in many of these cemeteries graves were marked with wooden crosses, markers or nothing at all. Because of vandalism, many of the gravesites are now unmarked.

The key information needed to begin an inventory project is a map of the cemetery. First, contact the authority that maintains the cemetery, the church, the municipality, the local archives or the local historical associations. There is also the possibility that aerial archives or maps done by various government agencies (e.g., Forests, Lands + Parks) exist. Maps may vary from professional surveyed plans to rough sketches.

Be cautious when examining maps. Very few give an accurate location of each individual gravesite. Most surveyed maps divide an area into predetermined plot sizes only, regardless of whether or not there is a burial in each plot. Check the accuracy of the map against the actual cemetery.

  • Does the map note unmarked burials?
  • Does it list names and burials?
  • Does the map accurately detail the actual sizes of gravesites and monuments?
  • Is it to scale and does it give the name of the surveyor or mapmaker?

If a good map exists, photocopies should be made of specific areas of the cemetery. Establish priorities as to the areas needing attention first. These could be the oldest areas or those where the greatest decay or damage has occurred. Try to use natural boundaries for dividing the map into manageable sections for recording.