Find a Grave Photography Tips

A little while ago, I wrote a post about Find a Grave, and how I have been more active as a contributor. I have been going through my photos and doing some photo editing as I go. It’s been a great way to use my photography to help others, creating memorials that don’t exist yet, and contributing to existing memorials.

Find a Grave is a hub of burial information, that includes photos, burial information, biographies and so much more. It’s volunteer-run, as its members claim and fulfill photo requests to aid in genealogy research, transcribing gravestone photos, and creating memorials. It’s a great resource. When receiving a photo request, you will be given all the information available; cemetery name and location, deceased’s full name, and birth and death date if known. You may also be given the location of the grave, such as the lot or section. It’s up to you to claim this request and fulfill it. I would recommend only claiming requests that you know you can fulfill. 

While looking through my photos I picked up on two very different styles of photography I have developed over the years; my personal style and my contributor style. They are both very different. One reflects what I see when visiting graveyards, and the other is the result of wanting to achieve the best photo for transcribing and reflecting what a person would see when visiting their loved one. 

I thought it might be helpful to share some tips on how to get the best photos as a volunteer photographer for Find a Grave. If you are just getting started or looking for some new ideas, here are some tips to help you get great photos:

Once you have claimed your photo request, the fun can begin! 

  • Always take a photo of the cemetery sign when you first enter. Not only can this photo be added to Find a Grave, but it will also make it much easier when looking back at your photos to determine which photos were taken in which cemetery. This is especially helpful when visiting multiple cemeteries in a day. I would also suggest taking photos of any other signs that may be at the entrance. Sometimes you can find plaques describing when the cemetery was established and its history. These are always interesting to find.
  • Visit the cemetery office, if there is one. Sometimes, they carry cemetery maps to some of the more notable graves, and also show the layout of the cemetery. This is most often the case in larger cemeteries.
  • Keep the grave information you are looking for handy, so you can refer to it easily when needed. Find a Grave now has an app that makes this super easy to do. The app is available for both Android and Apple OS. Before the app, I would take a screenshot on my phone and refer to that photo.

When you have found your stone:

  • For headstones flush to the ground, it does not hurt to brush away any debris like leaves or grass to make sure the stone is legible.
  • Take photos of the headstone face on, this makes reading the inscriptions easier. 
  • Make sure to check the back of the headstone for any additional inscriptions. This is important for obelisk stones as they often have multiple family members inscribed on each side. 
  • Take a wide-angle shot to show placement or unique features of the grave, such as footstones.
  • Take a close-up shot of ceramic portraits if they are present.

Are you excited to get out there and take some photos? Let me know if you found my tips helpful. Do you have some tips you would like to share? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

A collection of hands

One of my favorite cemetery symbols are hands. They can represent so many things from only how they are positioned. I also find them beautifully detailed, and they have a lot to say. Hands are a very common symbol in funerary art and can be found in almost any cemetery.

I have photographed many over the years, ranging from very simple to very detailed, and wanted to share some of them with you today.

A hand pointing upward often represents going up to heaven. You may also find a hand pointing down, which can look a little odd, but it does not mean what you may have first thought. A hand pointing down usually represents a sudden or unexpected death. Clasped hands or praying hands often represent devotion but can also be seen as a plea for eternal life.

Handshakes are a very common variation and also can have a few different meanings. When the handshake depicts limp fingers held by a firm handshake, this often represents the deceased being welcomed to heaven by loved ones or maybe even God. When one finger is extended, it is a masonic handshake, meaning the deceased was a member of the Freemasons. You may also find a double masonic handshake, where one finger is extended on each of the hands. This is meant to resemble the square & compass, the emblem of the Freemasons. You should also look closely at the wrists of the hands, this can also give more clues. If both hands look masculine, this could represent fraternal brotherhood. If one of the cuffs is more feminine and one more masculine, this is most likely a marital handshake, to indicate the deceased was married.

When you find a hand holding a book, that book is often meant to be the bible. Sometimes it is more obvious, as it may have “holy bible” inscribed on it.


Snider, Tui. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards. 1st ed., Castle Azle Press, 2017. 

Keister, Douglas. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. 1st ed., Gibbs Smith, 2004. 

A tombstone by any other name…

When we hear the words tombstone, headstone, or gravestone, they all bring the same image to mind; a stone marked with a name, birth date, death date, and maybe some funerary art and an epitaph. It is a stone representing a person laid to rest.

While working on some blog posts recently, I noticed I used the term tombstone very often. To avoid repetition, I found myself using some other words synonymously like headstone, gravestone, and grave marker. It got me thinking, ARE these words interchangeable, or is there a subtle difference? I decided to look into it a little deeper.

My term of preference seems to be tombstone, so that is where I started in my search. The dictionary defines a tombstone as “a stone marker, usually inscribed, on a tomb or grave”.1 The first known use of the word in print was in 1565.2 According to Merriam-Webster, a tombstone is also defined as a gravestone.2

So tombstone and gravestone can be used interchangeably. After a little more reading I found that a gravestone is a Middle English word dating back to 1175–1225.3 It has a similar definition to tombstone, but I read that the term gravestone comes from the practice of covering whole graves in stones, to mark the grave as well as “keep the occupants in the ground”.4

A headstone, according to dictionary.com is “a stone marker set at the head of a grave.5 This term was first recorded in 1525-35.5 It is interesting to note that this definition specifies the location of the stone, similar to a footstone, which is a smaller stone laid at the foot of a grave. The first known use of the word headstone was in the 15th century.6

Grave markers, also known as cemetery markers, are smaller and sit flat to the ground. They can sometimes be angled like a wedgestone, to make them easier to read. They may be small, but they still carry the same information, such as name, birth, and death date.7

Two other possible terms are monument and cenotaph. These are a little different as they are not as interchangeable. A monument refers specifically to a very large -monumental- stone.7 A cenotaph may seem similar to a tombstone or monument as it sometimes has names and dates engraved on it, but there are no bodies buried beneath it. Cenotaph means “empty tomb”.8 They are often used to memorialize and commemorate those buried elsewhere, such as soldiers who died in war.

All that being said, tombstone, gravestone and headstone can be used interchangeably. Although at one point in time they may have looked different than what we think of today. It’s interesting to look at how language has changed over time and how these words have all become synonymous with each other. After doing so much reading on the subject, I think tombstone is still my favourite term.

Do you have a preference? Or maybe you use a different term? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks for reading!


1https://www.dictionary.com/browse/tombstone

2https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tombstone#synonyms

3https://www.dictionary.com/browse/gravestone

4https://classroom.synonym.com/origin-gravestone-21957.html

5https://www.dictionary.com/browse/headstone

6https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/headstone

7https://www.headstonehub.com/blog/the-difference-between-headstones-monuments-markers-and-urns

8https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/tombstone-gravestone-or-headstone-whats-the-difference

The road so far

I recently started reading the book 199 cemeteries to see before you die by Loren Rhoads.

It’s a beautiful book, that can be used as a travelogue, that lists must-see cemeteries all over the world. It highlights the history that makes each of them unique. The descriptions are accompanied by beautiful photos as well. I get wanderlust just looking at them! 

It got me thinking about what my tally actually is for visited cemeteries. When I was younger, in the early days of my cemetery traveling, I did not document my cemetery photos that well, and have actually lost a large amount of those photos. They would have been taken with film cameras and an old digital point-and-shoot camera. I may still have the negatives somewhere. 

I remember getting lost in the large cemetery in Guelph, Ontario, but don’t have the photos to prove it. I also remember chatting with the caretaker at the old cemetery in Amos, Quebec, and how excited he was to show me some of the more interesting stones there. I don’t have the photos from that trip either. That is one I really regret, as my Mother is from Amos. In that cemetery, it was amusing to see her turn around in circles, amazed at all the family that was buried there. I really wish to go back to visit there again someday. 

So based on my folders of properly labeled and dated photos, here is the breakdown of how many cemeteries I have visited, so far:

  • Sudbury – 19
  • Ontario – 56
  • Other Provinces:
    • Quebec – 6 
    • Saskatchewan – 2
  • United States:
    • New York City – 2
  • Total – 85 cemeteries

My record for the number of cemeteries visited in one day is 13. Maybe one day that record will be broken, but it has been standing since 2019.

Thanks to 199 cemeteries to see before you die, I have added a large number of cemeteries to my bucket list. Due to the pandemic though, those won’t be added to my tally anytime soon. For now, I will focus on continuing to visit cemeteries close to me. Maybe by the end of the summer, I will have hit 100?

Do you have a running tally of visited cemeteries? What is your number? 

Chute de Philippe Cemetery, Quebec ©2014