The usability of gravestones and memorial markers

October 5, 2015

Not something perhaps you’d think about… But none of us is getting out of here alive!

A bit of back story… In some of my spare time, I transcribe information for various genealogical projects and digitized newspapers. I do this from my computer, so it’s easy to volunteer a few minutes here and there, and thus help add to the wealth of information available to the world.

Recently, I found a website — BillionGraves — that has the lofty aim of photographing, mapping, and transcribing the headstones and memorials from graves throughout the world. Although some cemeteries have their records online and are searchable, many don’t, particularly those cemeteries that are no longer used and are rotting away. BillionGraves uses the power of crowdsourcing to gather and process this information. In addition to their website where you can transcribe information on headstones, BillionGraves also has an app you can download to your phone or tablet so that when you’re out and about you can visit an uncatalogued cemetery, take photos of the headstones, and upload them to the site (the geographic coordinates upload with the photos). Then you can either transcribe them yourself via the app or website, or leave them for others to do.

What a cool idea for going for a weekend drive and picnic, and having a purpose for that drive! (yes, I’m weird like that…) BillionGraves has the locations of long-lost cemeteries on its website, so you can plan to visit one that hasn’t been catalogued and that you may not even know exists because it hasn’t been used in decades. For example, in Western Australia where I live, we have many bush areas that are peppered with graves from the early settlers. The houses and settlements have long gone, but some of the graves remain.

So what has all this got to do with usability?

Remember I said that none of us is getting out of here alive? Well, most of us (at least, most of us in the ‘developed world’), will be either buried or cremated and will have either a headstone or memorial plaque made in our honor and placed in a cemetery somewhere. A little bit of forethought as to how that memorial is designed and what goes on it could make it VERY usable for future generations researching your family tree.

What’s become evident to me while transcribing other people’s information is that so much of that information is not complete, is insular (making assumptions that readers of the memorial will be reading it in the same country and century it was made, for example), and/or is unreadable.


Here are some things I recommend (in no particular order) based on what I’ve discovered while transcribing headstones etc. and based on what genealogical researchers need to know. If you have any say in what goes on a loved one’s memorial (or your own), then consider these recommendations — future generations hunting you down will love you for it!

  • Good contrast is essential. Pink granite is an awful carrier for carvings and most colors used for text — much text is unreadable, and the color and mottled nature of the granite makes it hard to photograph. Gray granite with just carved letters and no color is nearly as bad, as are gold letters on mottled gray granite (see the unreadable images below).
  • List a date of birth AND death — you don’t need ‘died aged xx years’. A date of death is usually given on a memorial, and sometimes an age at death, but rarely is a date of birth given. Genealogists put a lot of store in dates of birth AND death, and an age is just not good enough. If you state that the person died on 15 June 1985 aged 76 years, were they born in 1909 or 1908? Depending on the birth month it could be either. A date of birth is likely fewer characters to pay for than a ‘died aged xx years’ statement, AND confirms to future generations that they have the right person AND provides a date of birth if it is missing from other records.
  • List the maiden (or birth) name of a married female. Maiden names (awful term…) of females are rarely given, yet they are crucial to genealogical research. So many women in family trees get ‘lost’ when they marry as their married surname is not known. And if they marry more than once, they are even harder to find. Including the maiden name helps identify if that person is part of your family tree.
  • Use four-digit years. Two-digit years are useless. Does 15 June 85 mean 1885 or 1985? Or some other year? Memorials can last for several centuries, so make sure there is no confusion as to which one. Don’t assume that a future reader will be from the same century.
  • Write months in letters, even if abbreviated. Numeric dates only are problematic for researchers and transcribers from other countries. Does 4-5-1962 mean 4 May 1962 or April 5 1962? Depending on where you went to school, it could be either! Better to use 4 May 1962 or 5 Apr 1962 to remove any possible confusion. Using a three-letter abbreviated month is fine.
  • Use the full name of the deceased, including any middle names. Middle names are important in helping distinguish many individuals in a family tree with the same name.




Mottled gray granite with gold carved text — impossible to read from a photograph.


Pink stone of some sort (likely a sandstone not granite, but I’ve seen plenty of pink granite ones as bad), with carving but no colour used in the carved text (or it has worn off). Impossible to read from a photograph.


Good contrast, full name of deceased, has first name of wife (a bonus), dates of birth AND death, but uses numerals for the months (not too much of an issue in this case as they can be figured out by someone with a North American background and can’t be confused), and only two-digit years.


Great contrast, has dates of birth and death (with abbreviated months in letters and full years), has names of parents and siblings, has middle name.


Great contrast, has dates of birth and death (but only numerals for months so potentially confusing for a transcriber from a different country), full years, full names of both people (but no maiden name for the female), and then there’s some information that has no meaning or connection to anyone outside the family (i.e. who is ‘Pat’? a son, daughter, relation, friend??)


Even though I can’t read the language of this one (Russian?) and couldn’t transcribe it, it has great contrast, lists dates of birth and death (but months are in numerals), and uses full 4-digit years.


  1. I love reading and I am always searching for information like this. This is very informative article. I really enjoy reading it.

  2. Thanks for the cool read about gravestones and memorial markers. I actually didn’t know that using middles names is important, especially for distinguishing individuals. This seems really important for genealogy or if someone wanted to find where an ancestor was buried.

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