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True Confession of the Cemetery Visitor

I have a genealogical confession. To be honest, it's embarrassing because I know better. But it's a good lesson to remember as we explore cemeteries.

As a genealogist, I've been visiting cemeteries for decades. I've visited cemeteries in various states and countries. I even wrote a book that focused on cemeteries in the Eastern Sierra region of California. I have had my share of great cemetery discoveries and mishaps. One recent visit to a cemetery was a good reminder of being cautious.

I've written about the IOOF cemetery in Denton, Texas before. I had occasion to visit it again in August. Since I had some time to kill (no pun intended), I decided that I would take some photos of gravestones and explore a new-to-me section of the cemetery.

W. L. Jones tombstone, IOFF Cemetery, Denton Texas. Photograph by Gena Philibert-Ortega
W. L. Jones tombstone, IOFF Cemetery, Denton Texas. Photograph by Gena Philibert-Ortega

It was August in Texas. It's hot (106 degrees) and humid. Plus there was some longish grass. So as I walked amongst the gravestones, I thought to myself, "I hope there aren't any snakes."

Yes, snakes are what I really fear. They are no doubt my personal "kryptonite." Though thinking back on it now, that fear was probably illogical since there most likley aren't many snakes hanging out in this populated area.

What I wasn't thinking about in my rolled-up pant legs and cloth shoes was the very real possibility of either falling in a hole or running the risk of coming into contact with a nefarious plant.

And then it happened. I felt something pierce my foot. I didn't pay much attention to it at first, but it soon became pretty painful, so I looked down to see what was causing that stabbing pain.

Yes. Goats Head Thorns. Lots of them. In my shoes and the leg of my pants.
Yes. Goats Head Thorns. Lots of them. In my shoes and the leg of my pants.

Well, here's the problem. Those thorns are difficult (and painful) to remove with your hands because they stick to everything they come into contact with. I was able to yank the one out of my foot and then carefully walk back to the car to take care of the rest.

I love this cemetery, but next time I'll wear long pants and different shoes!
I love this cemetery, but next time I'll wear long pants and different shoes!

The Dangers of the Cemetery

So what's the lesson learned from my carelessness? Cemeteries can be dangerous. We need to carefully consider how we approach cemetery visits. I knew this. I have visited many Texas cemeteries over the years and walked through thorns, tall grasses, and stinging nettles all while wearing Capri pants. But despite my previous experiences, this time I failed to pay much attention to where I was walking.

Now what about my concern over a possible snake? I did have my cell phone, so if that phantom snake ever showed, I could summon help. But besides having access to a cell phone, which is only useful if you have cell coverage in that cemetery, it's also important to consider how you approach your cemetery visit. For example:

  • Are there any poisonous plants? Either plants native to that area or that you are allergic to.
  • How tall is the grass? Tall grasses might hide holes, snakes, or other venomous creatures.
  • What are the surroundings like? Holes, uneven ground, or rocks might result in a twisted ankle, sprained wrist, or at the very least, a nasty fall.
  • How well-tended are the graves? Sunken graves can result in falls and injuries
  • Who is with you? Children who like to run and climb? You might want to visit another time to ensure everyone's safety.
  • What type of markers exists? Unstable above-ground markers and monuments can fall, so never lean on them (this is very serious because people have died).

For years, I've cautioned researchers to be careful and prepared when they visit cemeteries because they can be hazardous. I know firsthand because I've faced some of those dangers including walking through stinging nettles, falling in a sunken grave, and the time a tree limb hit me in the head.

Let's face it, we genealogists can't resist the siren call of the cemetery. But it's important to remember that cemeteries aren't without danger. While a nicely manicured city cemetery might hold few risks, other cemeteries can contain a host of hazards resulting in an injury or even death.

So yes, take some time to stop at that cemetery. Family historians benefit from perusing gravestones, but make sure that you are careful as you explore.

 

Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.

 

Comments

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Oh no! You discovered goatheads! lol They are very "popular" here in Arizona also.

Carry a small comb for your hair. Makes getting rid of goat heads or sand burrs so much easier. Just come them off.

As an Australian, I had never encountered stinging nettles before a visit to England, and so did not recognise the hazard when visiting cemeteries there. Yes, several painful lessons later I became very cautious about plants I didn't know in the older cemeteries..

Also if you are a lady, be careful about going alone. There have been episodes in the Tomball area where "stalkers" are just watching for women alone. In fact there were two episodes in different cemeteries where the women got away from a mugger. Soooooo, be very careful!

Thank you, Gena! That was a very informative message. I'll be double careful next time visiting a graveyard.

All true. Thanks Gena.
I carefully prepared for an Iowa cemetery visit. The fact that it was located on Tick Ridge did not escape me.
But imagine my reaction (picture shock and horror) when I unlatched the tubular iron gate and out came a swarm of angry yellow jackets! I'm glad the car was only a few steps away.
Expect the unexpected has become my cemetery motto.
Safe exploring!

In Australia snakes are a real danger in cemeteries in spring and summer. On my last visit to an old rarely tended roadside cemetery in southern farming districts of New South Wales, my daughter and I came within 12 inches of stepping on an Eastern Brown Snake. This snake is the second most venomous snake in the world (Wiki), responsible for the most snake deaths in Australia. It is bad tempered, fast and aggressive. We slowly walked backwards to let it get away into longer grass. Daughter sought refuge standing on an old concrete grave, until I told her how old it was, that it could break, and she could fall in.
Lucky we had long jeans and boots on. We left quietly and returned the following morning, walking much more cautiously.

About the tree limb - did the limb fall off the tree or did you use your head to hit the tree limb? All of my experiences with head and tree have required my head to do the moving.

Laurel, that is the BEST motto for a cemetery trip. Maybe we should get that printed on a t-shirt ;). --Gena

Thank you Mary. I hope you found it helpful--Gena

Lanna, I draw the line at snakes. If I was with you I would have probably screamed and fainted. I'm so glad you and your daughter escaped unharmed. --Gena

Celeste, good advice. In general I think it's important not to go alone just in case there is a physical danger or you get hurt. Thanks for your comment.--Gena

Mark, I think your story is a common one. I didn't recognize the plant either when I walked through it on a Texas trip. It's important to beware of things that might not seem particularly dangerous.--Thanks for your comment. --Gena

Sue, I LOVE that suggestion. I really wish I had one with me that day. Thanks for that!--Gena

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