Ever since I read Doing Cemetery Research, I’ve been digging a little more into the subject of graves. On a whim, I decided to look up information about three of my favorite cemeteries: Essex Common Burial Ground and Mountain View Cemetery, both in Essex, VT, and Addoms Hagar Burial Ground, in Plattsburgh, NY. Surprisingly enough, all three of them have been transcribed, the Essex ones by James Cutler, a local genealogist, the Plattsburgh one by the Church of Latter-Day Saints [huh?!].
Cemetery transcriptions have their value, I suppose, but Doing Cemetery Research has pointed out the perils of trusting them too much.
1. Transcripts don’t tell you where to find the cemetery. In the case of the Addoms Hagar Burial Ground, there is absolutely no mention of how you have to cut through someone’s yard, right next to the fence of their horse pasture, back quite a way, to get to the plot. In the case of Mountain View Cemetery, the transcript says nothing about the fact that it’s at the end of Cemetery Road, which used to have a DEAD END sign prominently displayed. Har har.
2. Transcripts don’t give details about the inscription. James Cutler notes Masonic symbols and stuff in his transcriptions, but he completely omits any other ornamentation when I happen to know for a fact that there are hands pointing skyward, hands joined in marriage, open books, broken roses and many other types of imagery in the Common Burial Ground alone. The LDS transcription of the Addoms Hagar Burial Ground also omits the best gravestone line ever on the stone of John Hagar: “In Death he exclaimed I see the Angles!”
3. Transcripts don’t give details about the stone. What material? Is there a footstone? Is it broken? Who cares?
4. Transcripts may give a false impression about the cemetery. Cutler’s transcription of the Mountain View Cemetery dates from 1985. Though it notes that there is “some information being withheld,” you really have no way of knowing, unless you’ve been there, that Mountain View remains a living, active cemetery with frequent burials. Transcribing living cemeteries certainly helps [with historical record-keeping, I guess], but it also freezes in time an incomplete version of the transcribed information.
Transcriptions do have their uses, though. In the case of my beloved Essex Common, I quickly scanned the dates, finding that the earliest burial date was 1792, just one year after Vermont’s statehood! [Have to find that stone.] I could also see that the cemetery was alive for almost 150 years, with the height of its activity in the mid 1800s. So transcriptions can be good for surveying the population of the cemetery, but they are just the beginning of cemetery research.