New Brunswick

Tales from the crypt: 6 tips for exploring N.B. graveyards

Graveyard exploring sounds macabre to some; however, local historian John Elliott says decoding centuries-old grave markers offers a unique glimpse into the past.

Even broken, weathered stones can be a gold mine for researchers - if you can read them

Several tombstones of United Empire Loyalists survive at St. Paul’s Anglican Cemetery in Hampton, where the original church was built 1810-11.

Graveyard exploring sounds macabre to some; however, according to one local historian, the sites are a gold mine of information on local history.

John Elliott, author of the four-volume series Gone But Not Forgotten: Cemetery Inscriptions of Kings County, said decoding centuries-old grave markers requires a bit of practice and familiarity with a few basic techniques.

"The stones in many cases are either broken, fallen over, just plain weathered away," said Elliott, who has learned a lot during his decades of deciphering the inscriptions.

Here are six expert tips for those looking to do their own spooky detective work:

The early-19th century stone of Maj. Richard Witham Stockton, who served with the Loyalist regiment New Jersey Volunteers, is the earliest one surviving, 'though there were certainly earlier burials, according to Elliott. (John Elliott)
1. Go analogue

While snapping photos can be helpful, Elliott said, a pen or pencil are the best tools. Photos don't always adequately capture time-worn carvings, but they can still be "very useful, if you can get clear enough images to read them," he said.

2. Reach out and touch it

Grave rubbings might be aesthetically interesting, but they're also "cumbersome and time consuming," according to Elliott — and can damage the stone if done too vigorously. Elliott recommends people use their hands to trace over the inscription instead. Sometimes, it's possible to feel letters that are too worn away to be visible.

Ebenezer Spicer, who originally settled in Kingston, but then moved to Sussex Vale where he operated an inn, was buried 'encircled with the bodies of four children and six grandchildren.' (John Elliott)
3. Step into the light

Older, sandstone markers are particularly difficult to read in certain light. A small mirror or a piece of white paper on a clipboard can be used to "redirect sunlight across the face of the stone to make them a little more legible," said Elliott. "The time of day affects how well you can read the stones," he said, adding it's helpful to return at different times to see if an inscription becomes more readable.

4. Look for longer inscriptions

Longer inscriptions sometimes offer surprising glimpses into the lives of the deceased. The grave of George Leonard and his wife, Sarah, at Trinity Cemetery in Sussex Corner, for example, offers a long description of "what a wonderful couple they were, where they were in Massachusetts, when they died, and the couple's personal characteristics," Elliott said. "That one is more detailed that most, but it can be that much — or it can be nothing more than the name."

5. Check online

Once someone has found something interesting, an online search is the best next step, said Elliott. "There are lots of sources that are becoming more and more available online," he said. He suggests the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Library and Archives Canada, and local libraries as a start, as well as free genealogy sites, such as

The grave of Rachel Northrup indicates she was married to two different Loyalists: first to James Fowler, who died in French Village in 1802, then Benajah Northrup in 1814. (John Elliott.)
6. Ask locals

In some cases, grave markers can be difficult to find and it helps to know where to look, says Elliott. "In the very, very early years" of Loyalist settlement in New Brunswick, he said, "a lot of people buried people on their own property, which led to small private burial grounds that are now overgrown with trees." He suggests "digging into other sources" for references to burials in other historic documents — not to mention asking older folks who live in the area.

For those interested in doing their own graveyard history digging, John Elliott will give a public lecture on Loyalist burials in the Kennebecasis River Valley on Oct. 13 at the Saint John Free Public Library, at 1 Market Square, at 7 p.m. For more information, call (506) 634-7783.

With files from Information Morning Saint John