Many years ago, I was lucky enough to take a class from the queen of Chicago cemeteries, Helen Sclair. She was not just a singularly fascinating person, but also a principled one. Her concern for cemeteries, and their residents, has always stuck with me. In that vein, I wanted to set down a bit of the methodology and ethics that I use in my research.
My research methodology, at base, involves using publicly available documents to learn about someone’s life. These documents are most often newspapers, but can extend to city directories, vital records, inquest reports, and other public documentation. I’m accessing what anyone can access. However, sometimes these public things are behind paywalls (I know, I know). If it’s behind a paywall, I pay for it.
Respect the dead. I can’t always avoid casting judgment on the people I study, but I can try to temper it. I try to remember that their motivations are not mine, and not always evident to me. The best I can do is relate my findings with compassion and kindness.
Respect the living. Because I choose to limit my research to publicly available archival records and documents, I am somewhat hindered. The story I find will always have gaps.
While it would certainly help to have family information, it’s not the descendants’ job to feed my curiosity. So I don’t contact them, don’t pester them, and don’t look them up. And neither should anyone else. For this same reason, I try to avoid publishing the names of living relatives.
Cast a sharp eye on the record. Vital records are fantastic — but not always accurate. Newspapers give a great portrayal of the time — but not always correctly.
Newspapers, with their short deadlines, are particularly prone to stories changing from day to day. When this happens, I do my best to lay one version over another and seek a consensus on what happened.
My research can only be as good as the data I find, so I try to corroborate facts using multiple sources. And if sources are in conflict, I will mention that.
Be aware of biases. Because the cemeteries most accessible to me are on the north side of Chicago, their residents will mostly be white, and mostly people who could afford a headstone. Their lives are representative of their own experience, not a universal experience.
It’s good to question why those places are mostly white and people of means.
It’s also wise to remember who is not seen. Cemetery areas that appear empty or unmarked may well be the segregated resting places of people of color, people without money, or both.
This goes similarly for newspapers. Especially before the 1980s, newspapers were published with a chiefly male, chiefly white slant. African-Americans rarely appear in some papers. Women may be portrayed with sexist and stereotypical imagery. I do what I can to watch for these angles and note their presence.
And on a more practical note…
Practice good cemetery manners.
- Steer far clear of any ceremonies or people who might be having a moment.
- Don’t leave litter, but pick up obvious trash (bottles and mementos on grave sites, obviously, are not trash).
- Take only photos — no grave rubbings. Even if you’re certain that your method (e.g., aluminum foil, shaving cream, chalk) won’t damage the stone surface, you’re probably wrong. Just don’t do it.
- Bring a soft whisk broom to brush away leaves and grass clippings.
- Bring your own water to drink. Those “not potable” signs on the sprinklers mean business. Even those without signs… How to put this? That water flows through tombs, and through the people in them. The chemicals alone… Just bring your own water. ☗
Photo taken by author; Bohemian National Cemetery.