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Take Another Look at Cemeteries and the Stories Untold They Hold

Ellen Goodwin, Artifcts
October 31, 2023

Reading time: 5 minutes 

What’s with all the interest in cemeteries? Is cemetery tourism really a thing? Isn’t it bad mojo to tromp around where you don’t belong? And why are cemeteries so interesting as to inspire memes about hanging out with dead people and bumper stickers like, “I brake for graveyards?” Genealogists must have seriously healthy senses of humor about their research sources and habits. 

Not being a genealogist or historian, I’ve never quite understood the passion some people have for taking road trips to cemeteries where family are buried, never mind stopping at random ones you may come across.

I can think of three excuses, aka reasons, most of us visit cemeteries: a funeral ceremony, a history lesson, and morbid curiosity. 

A Place of Ceremony and Reflection 

My grandmother died when I was four. My memory of the day is hazy. I remember better the feeling of watching her casket exit the church and thinking how sad it was I wouldn’t see her again. Many people visit cemeteries to remember their loved ones and to take the space they need for conversation, prayer, and thought, honoring those whom they’ve lost.

The power of reflection can make folks do funny things, too. My mother once told me about visiting her parents’ gravesite with one of her siblings. Her normally rather stoic sibling proceeded to lie on the ground next to their parents and ask, “How do I look?” How can you not laugh, even if in a cemetery, about that?

What's the difference between cemetery and graveyard

A Place of History and Community 

I remember much better the solemn awe of walking on a guided tour through Arlington National Cemetery when I visited Washington D.C. on a school field trip. The sheer scale of it and all that it implied registered even with my 14-year-old self. I took a few pictures, now scratchy because the negatives sat for decades in bins. Take my advice: Digitize sooner than later, but first read about my experience!

On that visit, there was something unique that I captured – the tiny green temporary placard that marked the grave of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She had passed away only weeks before our trip, and her resting place beside President John F. Kennedy was a stop along our tour.

Final resting place of JFK and temporary grave marker and resting place of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Clearly should have gotten a closer shot. But the shadows tell you many people were crowding in for a pic.

Simple Curiosity 

I visited a local graveyard once in high school: St. Patrick’s Church cemetery in Askeaton, Wisconsin. We were curious which were the oldest of the crumbling tombstones. Obviously, there was no choice but for the oldest to date to the 1850s when the church was founded by Irish immigrants, but we knew nothing of that history. We were teenagers!

Nowadays, a variety of genealogical, historical, and lineage societies, among others, help preserve and document cemeteries. Websites even exist specifically for collective recording of grave markers for others to use to unlock family mysteries and reconstruct community histories. (More on that below!)

Curious, even a little, about visiting a cemetery or graveyard? Wondering what use a graveyard visit may be to you? Read on!

Unlocking Family Mysteries and Continuing Family Storylines at Cemeteries 

For the curious, grave markers provide an abundance of opportunity to play detective. Whether measured in days or decades, that dash between birth year and death year represents a life lived.

The grave markers themselves convey a lot about a person:

      • Where is the marker – What city? A public cemetery? A churchyard? What faith and denomination? Where within the space, relegated to a dark corner or a prime position? 
      • What type of marker is it – The material, style, and size can provide clues about wealth and status and also culture. 
      • What is on the marker – name, date of birth, professional titles, next of kin, cause of death … so much potential. And don't forget to look on the back if it's double sided! Sometimes you’ll find adornments, such as pictures and symbols to puzzle out, too. Our friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists recently published an article about tombstone symbols. Check it out >
      • Who is nearby – It may be that you discover relatives nearby that you had not yet discovered or are shocked are directly next to the person whose marker you’re interested in.  

One Arti Community member shared a fabulous historical tale with us about the hero who she found buried next to her grandfather. Click the image to listen in! 

Click to listen

Planning a Visit to a Cemetery

Cemetery tourism like my trip to Arlington National Cemetery aside, if you’re planning a personal visit, we’ve collected tips to make your visit more productive and pleasant.

“Google” first. 

All we mean is do your online research first so you can validate as much information as possible about the site and avoid wasting time on your journey or the day you visit. Popular starting points are BillionGraves (find in AppStore and Google Play), Find a Grave, which also offers a cemetery search (find in AppStore), and Cemetary Census, covering a handful of states.

Reach out to local genealogy and historical societies as well as public libraries, too. You’ll meet hobbyists and professionals alike who delight in helping break through family mysteries and brick walls. 

Call ahead. 

Please, call! You need to confirm the public access hours, details about any temporary or permanent off-limits areas, whether they permit rubbings, and if they have historical records on site you can browse, too. (Bring gloves for safe handling!) While you are at it, ask if they offer maps and guided tours. Some even have mobile apps. 

Bring a small kit. 

A soft paintbrush to gently brush dirt off a marker, a grass clipper to reveal hidden areas, and a blanket or pad to crouch down onto for more comfortable access should suffice. Plus rubbing supplies, if permitted.

Think about the time of day. 

Be mindful of lighting during the season and time of day you plan to visit. Age and material can make it challenging to read, never mind photograph, a marker even if you plan to use photo editing software later. An umbrella can help with glares, and of course protect you and your work from the elements. 

Be careful what you ask for. 

We all know history can be ugly. And if it’s family history you’re tracking down, deeply personal, too. Do you really want the answers? Are you prepared to learn Great Grandma did not get buried next to Great Grandpa, but someone else lies between them? What about discovering a child no one ever mentioned? A false or conflicting date of birth or death? And do others in your family want to know what you find? Tread carefully.


© 2023 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Collection Management Made Easy and Meaningful  

Artifcts thanks Sarah Reeder, Artifactual History Appraisal, for her contributions to the following article.

Reading time: 4 minutes

You may have one or many collections, intentional collections and accidental collections. Part of the fun of collecting is keeping track of it: Knowing what you have and what you’re still hunting for, what is sentimental vs. valuable, and what is okay to sell some day versus you’d prefer to pass down to someone special.

Short checklist about collections

We know a thing or to about accidental collections. Try out our free checklist available here.

If you were a professional archivist, librarian, or appraiser, you’d have a ready tool in your pocket to help manage your collections. It’s called a finding aid. But guess what? As you Artifct your collections, you are implicitly leveraging the best of finding aids, but in a friendly form that all can enjoy and benefit from. 

Here’s your peek inside the world of archivists where we show you how finding aids and collection management are made easy and meaningful with Artifcts!

What Is a Finding Aid, and Why Should You Care?

Unless you are a collections professional (archivist, librarian, appraiser…), the concept of a finding aid is likely foreign to you. For the longest time at Artifcts we even mistakenly referred to them as finding keys. Oops!

A finding aid is exactly what it sounds like: A tool that helps you locate items within a large collection in a fast and efficient way. A finding aid is a guide that describes the contents of an archival collection. A well-designed finding aid makes quick work of determining the topical relevance of any collection. After all, what good is a collection if discoverability hinders locating and using elements within the collection in the future.

Many of us have experienced the feelings of dread and being overwhelmed upon contemplating many boxes of inherited items that probably have something important contained in them but what and where? Imagine if you had a finding aid that told you exactly what was important and where you could locate it!

This is the magic of what finding aids do.

To a large degree, information within a finding aid is standardized per guidelines from the Society of American Archivists, “Describing Archives: A Content Standard,” better known simply as DACS. Standardization means a professional could work with or for any gallery, library, archive, or museum (aka GLAM) and their collections without much difficulty. They might simply display the information differently than one’s accustomed to.

A finding aid would have information such as: reference code, title, date, extent, name of creator, description, dates, and location. Does that list look familiar? If you Artifct, it should… 

For those of us who didn’t go to Library Science school, in our daily lives we probably do not want to think about taxonomies, metadata, bytes of storage, or even finding aids. We want to enjoy and share the meaning behind the items we’ve collected and ensure the stories and value behind them live on!

Enter Artifcts: Solving Age Old Problems of Finding Aids for Every-Day Collectors 

What we created at Artifcts is the solution to several age-old problems of finding aids in an individual and family-friendly fashion. And this means great things for you all!  While finding aids are brilliant tools for professionals, they are disconnected from how most of us describe and catalog the ‘why’ of our collections. We need more multitasking support in our lives.

Here’s how you can use Artifcts to preserve the history and the value of your collections beyond the constraints of traditional finding aids.

Use those QR codes.

If you were to work with a professional appraiser, archivist, or collections manager of any type, they will likely offer as part of their services a description of the collection and list organizing the inventory within your collection, a finding aid of some sort. But how do you link that list to your physical collection? At Artifcts, you can print a QR code or use Artifcts QR code stickers to link the physical and the digital.

music box with Artifcts QR code on the bottom of the base

An Artifcts QR code unlocks the story and value!

Record your stories.

Move beyond “scope notes” and “meta data” inherent to the archivist’s expertise – “This is a 19th-century {name of item}” – and breathe life, context, and personal meaning into the objects in your collection, e.g. “This is what Great Great Grandma brought from France when she moved to New York. And I’m giving it to you now.”  

Artifcts offers the options to share your story, indicate what you want to do with items in the future, and supply critical other information like where on earth you’ve stored the item in your home or elsewhere and the supporting documents (receipts, appraisals, and more). 

Connect the dots.

We typically describe each Artifct you create as connecting the dots, because only you know how photos of those specific items relate to shape a story or history. But we help you go a step further, too. You can use our @ feature to cross reference one Artifct with another, tying together pieces of a collection and pieces of a story that others may not otherwise realize relate.  

Description field on Artifcts with menu open showing options for linking with @

Simply type @ as you add the story or description to your Artifct to link to other Artifcts.

Leverage your community.

Let’s not forget the value in sharing and collaboration to learn more about items in your collections. Through Artifcts Circles and the option to give ‘Edit’ permission to other paid Artifcts members, you can crowdsource information from your loved ones and experts alike to capture important details about your collections that may add historical and family history information as well as increase the value, too. 

Preserve what is.

Add the photos, videos, and original documents you have to your Artifcts. There’s a spot dedicated to securely preserve each as is. No compression. No conversion. What you upload is what you can always download again, too.

In our spring 2024 series finale of Evenings with Artifcts, our expert guests shed light on the 'why' and 'what' of collections.

Ensure that if you work with an appraiser or other collections manager in the future, they provide documentary support through Artifcts, so that you can protect and share the value of your collections with friends and family as well as knock off those “to dos” with your insurance company, financial planner, and estate attorney. 


You may also be interested in these ARTIcles by Artifcts:

What to Consider When You Plan to Donate Art and Other Collectibles

From Rare Art to Family Heirlooms: Tips From a Master as You Consider Selling Your 'Stuff'

Everything You Wanted to Know About Appraisals but Were Afraid to Ask

How to Artifct that Collection

© 2024 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Artifcts® Platform Now Supports Publishing to Custom-Designed Books with Partner Akin

Whether you think about photo books as unique and personalized gifts or dream of publishing a life memoir, we love our books! Today Artifcts announced a new partnership with Akin ( to offer simple, custom designed books to Arti Community members who wish to publish their Artifcts to books. 

You need only look at the explosive growth of photo book companies to support everything from build-your-own to instant print from Instagram or your phone to know how much we love to have and to hold books. 

Together, Artifcts and Akin have made it simple and affordable to publish a custom-designed, premium quality, personalized book of your Artifcts.  

“Not everyone enjoys spending hours combing through photos, uploading them into software, stressing over layouts, colors, and font choices,” commented Artifcts Co-founder Ellen Goodwin. “Our partnership with Akin means you can simply choose the Artifcts you want to publish, share them privately with Akin, and they’ll lay out the book in the template of your choice and ship it off to you! The whole process for our members takes minutes!” 

Artifcts excels in innovation that places the needs of its Arti Community members first. People expect to share their stories with meaningful context that includes photos, audio, and video. Artifcts has ensured this promise translates to printed books, too. Unlike a standard photo book, for every Artifct you publish, you can include a QR code that allows the viewer to scan and access additional photos and video tied to the story. Your book can come alive. 

“We don’t want our members to worry about the book creation process. We want people to enjoy spending time reliving their stories, and recording what they value most,” said Artifcts Co-founder Heather Nickerson. 

For more information, visit Concierge & Other Professional Services or review the FAQs available at 


© 2024 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

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Not Sure What to Write? Tips from Author Jeff Greenwald

He's authored 1000s of articles, several books, and what's maybe the first known travel blog. And during the Fall 2022 series of Evenings with Artifcts Jeff Greenwald shared with us simple but powerful tips, and a healthy dose of perspective, to help us craft our own stories behind the objects of our lives.  

Watch the full Evenings with Artifcts event here.

  • It is hard to write about an object with no personal meaning but even harder when it has tremendous personal meaning. Bear that in mind and go easy on yourself. 

  • Start with something true. This is the trick to writing anything nonfiction. For example, start with a little line about where you got the object: “I bought this in a street market in Istanbul.” And from there go on to describe the scene a little bit and what happened there that connects you with the object.  

Start with something true.

  • Other starters for your Artifcts:  

        • Where were you when you acquired the object? 
        • Was it a gift? Who gave it to you? Tell a bit about them. What was your relationship with them that they felt they should give you a gift like that? “The moon Rocket was a gift for my friend Dave Mccutcheon, and he and I have been friends for many years and share a love of robots and spaceships and dinosaurs... all those things we loved when we were kids.” 
        • Why is it important to you?
        • What feelings does it evoke in you?
  • If a story comes to mind, you can just start jotting it down anywhere. Let your thoughts go where they will. It can be a collection of random thoughts that you can look at later and put together into some sort of a story structure. 

  • We all have stories. Writers block comes from our internal critic. It challenges you with, “Why would anybody want to read it? What could you have to say? What makes you think you're so great that anyone should listen to anything you're telling them?” You have to tell yourself, “I have a right to do this because I’m a human being with a story, and the story deserves to be told whether or not you, my internal critic, thinks that it does.” Push the internal critic aside. 
I’m a human being with a story, and the story deserves to be told.
  • If you value the stories and need motivation to begin capturing and preserving those stories with Artifcts, make a deal with yourself like Jeff did. Jeff made a pact to give away the objects once their stories were told. Maybe you’ll choose to Artifct twice per week. Or perhaps you’ll start with those items that are most meaningful to you.  

  • A bit of advice Jeff shared from esteemed author Kurt Vonnegut: Write your stories as though you are writing them for one person, as if you are telling this person each of the stories. It gives all the stories a similar tone, a singular voice. 

  • Always include when and where the object was acquired. These are important details.

  • Struggling with a title? Write out 10 of them. It will help you to start to shape your story, too.

Our stuff, the objects that we collect, that inspire us, they are really not what's important. We do not need to keep them. The only thing that is important are the stories, and the only way to keep the stories is to tell them.


© 2024 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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