Orienting – Which Way Did They Go?

Which way is up?

There is a compass in the Hunting Down Headstones logo for a good reason! I have found that a compass will be handy, if not indispensable. If your vehicle does not have a compass, I highly recommend that you go buy one! It does not need to be anything fancy, because what you want to be able to answer the question, “Which way is North?”

Most maps are drawn with a North arrow pointing up, but when you are standing in the cemetery can you tell which way you are facing?

If you follow my advice and hunt when it is overcast so the photographs look better, you will not be able to use the sun’s position and time of day, since the sun will be behind clouds. If you cannot see the sun, you cannot easily find North.

I have found out the hard way that not all roads go north-south or east-west. In fact, I think it is one of Murphy’s Laws that on an overcast day the road next to the cemetery will be at some funny angle.

Turn the page

The Map Reading Purists and Professional Navigators can yell all at me they want, but trust me when I tell you that it is OK to turn the map so that the North arrow is pointing to the North. Things will make a lot more sense to you then, believe me.

Divide and conquer

I look at the nearest roads, or obvious pathways, and play a dividing game. I divide the distance along the road or path in half, and ask “Is the marker in the first or second half?” For a large space, I may have to do this again, refining the game “Is the marker now in the first or second half of this half?” Sometime I tell myself “It is no farther than the halfway point.” and I know how far I may have to walk. I usually find that I am within a few rows, and I will be able to see and read the markers even if I am one or two rows off.


I have tried to find a headstone using a “It is six rows over and fifteen plots up” method. This has mixed results, particularly when the cemetery layout is not exactly square and some of the rows are crooked, or shorter, or stop for no reason. Besides, you can see the plots on they map but there are no nice neat lines on the ground to tell you where the plots are.

Using trees and bushes is “Iffy” since they may have been on the map when it was drawn, but they may not be there any more.

Sometimes there are gaps in the plots near the headstone that I am hunting. Gaps are common around curves, and around tree and shrubbery planting. I look to see where the plot is in relation to a gap, and then look for a similar gap in the pattern of headstones.

Take the time to look around

I cannot tell you how many times I have found a headstone and taken a photograph, and then discovered another headstone nearby with the same family name! Sometimes there is a headstone right alongside, with the same patterns and carvings but a different family name that turns out to be someone who married into the family I am hunting. Look around, walk around, and photograph anything you think may be part of the family.

Oh, and walk around the stone. Often, military marker is on the back of the stone.

Read the fine print

Don’t read just the names and the dates, take time to read the fine print, that sometimes contain a witty inscription, or valuable genealogical data such as names of children


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