Cemetery Preservation

Using Technology for Cemetery Preservation

Cemeteries provide a lasting reminder of earlier generations, but are often in a state of neglect and disrepair. However, there are several innovative technologies available to help locate, map, protect and preserve these sacred spaces. 

In order to determine which technology or tool to use for historic cemetery preservation:

Observe and Identify Challenges,
Look for Patterns, and
Research Resources.

The Montana History Foundation offers grant funding to historic cemeteries and sacred sites. Our organization and others can help with the cost of using these technologies to preserve your historic cemetery. 

This resource webpage and training video are the result of a Cemetery Preservation Technology Workshop hosted by the Montana History Foundation in June 2018. 


Canine Forensics is a useful tool in mountainous cemeteries.

Canine Forensics is a relatively new method of using trained dogs to identify and map areas of human burial. 

Canines trained to alert on specific scents have long been utilized in law enforcement, U.S. Customs, the military and search and rescue work.  The Historical Human Remains Detection (HHRD) canine is the newest in the evolution of detection canines.

Trained HHRD canines can be used to locate burial sites up to 1,000 years old. This is a highly effective technology for identifying burial sites in challenging circumstances, including:

  • Mountainous cemeteries
  • Locations where burials have been disrupted by erosion
  • Situations of natural disaster
  • Places where GPR is unavailable

The trained HHRD dog is a tool that can be layered to collaborate with other methods of detection.

Adela Morris, President and CEO of the Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF), presented at the workshop with her dog, Jasper. ICF’s handler, John Grebenkemper, and his dog Kayle were also present. ICF has been requested by cultural resource management firms, archaeologists, American Indian tribes, construction companies, federal, state and local agencies, cemetery preservation foundations and families looking to locate lost family cemeteries. For more information or to contract with ICF for your project, contact ICF at:

(650) 503-4473
[email protected] 

Workshop Resources:
Adela Morris presentation
John Grebenkemper presentation
China Row ICF Final Report
Marysville Cemetery ICF Final Report

Observe the presence of cemetery plants and vegetation and document accordingly.

Cemetery Botany plays a role in creating a landscape within a cemetery. Location and type of vegetation in and around cemeteries provide additional information for preservation. For instance, the presence or absence of plants can denote a burial. Certain types of plants can also be clues to ethnicity or age of the deceased. 

Phytoarchaeology, the study of plants in archaeology, can be useful for dating archaeological sites. Further specialization within this study provides researchers the ability to analyze plants as a burial indicator, including the symbolism of certain types and properties of plants. Related studies include:

  • Landscape archaeology: studies of the ways in which people in the past constructed and used the environment around them.
  • Historical archaeology: seeks to understand places, things, and issues from the past or present.
  • Historical ecology: focuses on the interactions between humans and their environment over long-term periods of time, typically over the course of centuries.
  • Historical ethnobotany: seeks to understand past interrelationships between people and plants using written records and iconography.  

John S. Harris, University of Montana Ph.D. student, joined the Cemetery Preservation Technology Workshop and led a session on cemetery site vegetation. In addition to presenting at the workshop, John joined the working field trip to the Marysville, MT cemetery, where he analyzed and cataloged his vegetation analysis. John can be reached at [email protected].

Workshop Resources:
Cemetery Botany Notes from John S. Harris
Botany findings in Marysville, MT

Collect information from headstones prior to database entry.

Data Collection is the process of gathering and measuring information. This is especially important in historic cemeteries, where information (literally) weathers away each day. On-site data collection provides a record which can then be entered into an online database, allowing historians and family members to locate grave sites remotely.

Documenting cemeteries not only honors the dead but also the living. By documenting headstones, monuments, and cemetery symbols, we can better notice patterns, track burials, and improve preservation and maintenance.

Crystal Alegria, Co-Director of The Extreme History Project in Bozeman, Montana, presented and led a demonstration of her data collection marker assessment form at the cemetery workshop. Crystal can be reached at [email protected].

Workshop Resources:
Marker Assessment Survey Form
Crystal Alegria presentation

Online Cemetery Database Examples:

Online Genealogical Research Resources:
www.ancestry.com (subscription)
www.familysearch.org (free)
www.findmypast.com (subscription)
www.myheritage.com (subscription)

Online Newspaper Resources: 
www.chroniclingamerica.com (free)
https://montananewspapers.org (free)
www.newspapers.com (subscription)

Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are useful for mapping cemeteries.

Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) 
To get a better understanding of a site, sometimes you need to get above it. Drones provide this detailed information at a relatively inexpensive cost. Drone footage can produce high quality images; digital elevation maps; and, using photogrammetry, 3D maps of a cemetery. These tools are especially helpful in an abandoned cemetery. 

Before using a drone for cemetery preservation, check with Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Regulations limit the weight of a UAV and the elevation it may be operated it at.

When purchasing a drone, research which features will be needed. How large is the area that will be canvassed? How long will it need to fly? Fixed-rotors tend to have more power, but multi-rotors are a fraction of the cost. 

James Strait, Tribal and Cultural Resource Officer with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, operates the UAV program for the state. James led a demonstration of drone photography at the cemetery workshop. He has been called on to work in abandoned mines, remediation, hard rock, and opencut programs. All of these experiences have given him a greater understanding of wide applicability of this technology tool. James can be reached at [email protected].

Workshop Resources:
James Strait presentation
Sample drone footage from workshop

Forensic archaeology can indicate personal identifiers such as sex, age, height, and more.

Forensic Archaeology uses archaeology methods to recover human remains and evidence in a forensic context. It is related to several other methods:

  • Physical Anthropology: the study of skeletal remains.
  • Bioarchaeology: the study of the human biology in the archaeological context (i.e. human remains, mortuary practices, chemical and molecular).
  • Forensic anthropology: the application of physical anthropology in the legal setting for identification
  • Mortuary archaeology: the archaeology of mortuary contexts including human remains, graves, monumental archaeology that houses mortuary remains, and grave goods.

Forensic anthropology and archaeology can identify burials by class characteristics (sex, age, ancestry, height, weight, and health) and individual characteristics (pathology, trauma, dental restorations). Mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology can be used to completely recover remains, interpret grave goods, and analyze human remains and artifacts in situ.

Kirsten Green, Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Montana, also consults with the State Medical Examiner’s Office on forensic cases. Kirsten presented on “Forensic and Mortuary Archaeology” at the Cemetery Preservation Workshop. She can be reached at [email protected].

Workshop Resources:
Kirsten Green presentation

GPS & GIS are essential tools for mapping a cemetery.

GPS – Global Positioning Systems is used to locate and map burials. GPS is widely available and relatively inexpensive, making its use widespread. Data collected through GPS can identify burial sites and stones within a cemetery and is often used in conjunction with GIS. 

Before purchasing a GPS device, consider asking a local organization to rent or borrow their device (e.g. a local college or university, engineering firm, or cultural resource management company). 

GIS – Geographic Information Systems
By using existing maps and spatial data from a GPS, GIS mapping software can create a cemetery map system. These maps help:

  • Track burial sites
  • Simplify burial site sales
  • Plan for future cemetery management

GIS can integrate data from GPS, photogrammetry, GPR and more to produce a highly compact package. It can also be used to create layers of historical information, searchable at an individual level or used to create mobile-friendly walking or driving tours.

GIS Resources:

https://storymaps.arcgis.com – Story maps use GIS tools to combine geospatial data with photos, video, audio, and text to visually represent an idea, theme or event. Story maps are designed for all audiences with access to the internet. Users do not need experience with GIS software to read or use story maps.

www.QGIS.org – A free and open source GIS.

https://doc.arcgis.com/en/collector/ – Collector for ArcGIS. Use your smartphone or tablet to collect and update information in the field, whether connected or disconnected from the internet.

Mapit GIS – Spatial Asset Collection, GPS Surveys and Data Management for Android.

John W. Olson led a demonstration on GPS and GIS at a local cemetery during the workshop. John can be reached at [email protected].

Workshop Resources:
John Olson presentation

GPR experts can help collect and interpret data collected in local cemeteries.

GPR – Ground Penetrating Radar is a geophysical method that uses radar pulses to capture images of the subsurface of the ground. 

The radar detects below-ground disturbances, such as coffins, vaults, water lines, and other human-made disturbances. When a disturbance is detected, the radar signal returns and is received by the antenna. This data is shown on a control unit as images that give the operator the ability to see the size of objects and the depths at which they are located. 

Once a site is identified and marked, the location coordinates can then be mapped using GPS and GIS.

Ethan Ryan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montana, led an afternoon excursion to the East Helena Cemetery where cemetery workshop attendees benefited from hands-on experience locating unmarked graves. Ethan can be reached at [email protected].

A trained eye can help interpret ground disturbances displayed on the GPR control unit.

Workshop Resources:
Ethan Ryan presentation

Before beginning any restoration or preservation project, remember to do no harm.

Monument repair is necessary in most historic cemeteries. Damage to headstones and monuments can be due to accidents or vandalism. Weather and wildlife can also disrupt and displace monuments, though the majority of damaged headstones can be repaired. 

Before repairing monuments, keep in mind that permanent changes are irreversible to historic stones. Caring for historic monuments is best done using a non-hazardous, biodegradable solution which can be poured or sprayed on, then gently scrubbed with a nylon brush and then rinsed. Mold, moss, and lichen can be safely and easily removed using this low-tech method as well.

D2 is an example of a commonly available biodegradable compound. While D2 is not typically stocked in big-box stores, it can be purchased online at www.gravestonecleaner.com.

John Rummel, owner of Montana Granite, presented on different methods of headstone maintenance and repair. The Rummel family is the fourth generation of Montana Granite monument makers and craftsmen. John can be reached at [email protected].

Photogrammetry and RTI are useful for interpreting headstone or monument inscriptions that are otherwise illegible. 

Photogrammetry uses photography to measure distances between objects and translates the exact position of surface points. This tool can be used in cemetery preservation to read a previously illegible inscription or to better view faded or faint headstone or monument markings

This technique has been successful in documenting stone art by taking multiple views of the subject and “sewing” the images together with software, using exact measurement points to build a three dimensional model. 

RTI – Reflectance Transformation Imaging uses digital cameras and a controlled array of light sources to capture the surface shapes and colors of monuments.

The digital images can then be mathematically enhanced to potentially reveal surface shape, color, texture, and other attributes. The resulting construct often allows the viewer to see a previously indecipherable inscription or image. This technology is highly useful for headstone or monument inscriptions that are otherwise illegible. 

Tim Urbaniak, Emeritus Professor of Drafting and Design Technology from Montana State University, demonstrated these technology applications at the cemetery workshop. Tim manages TRU Technologies LLC, a company specializing in applying technologies to archaeological and anthropological research. Tim can be reached at [email protected]

Workshop Resources:
Tim Urbaniak presentation

Video on photogrammetry

There are many indicators within cemeteries, look carefully, there is much to learn about the deceased.

Reading Cemeteries and Stones involves examining the environment of a cemetery and scrutinizing headstones for the connotations embedded within their form, structure, and style. The following are a small sample of indicators to look for within a cemetery. 

  • Font Choice: The font choice for a headstone can communicate much about the deceased and the values and world-views of their generation, including:
    • Fears & beliefs
    • Social position
    • Associations
    • Ethnicity
    • Kinship
    • Religious Affiliation
    • Landscape
  • Grave Placement: Analyzing the placement of a grave can lead to more information about the interred individual. For instance, the arrangement of the grave and accompanying headstone, the direction it faces, and the space it occupies and the firm or loose boundaries of that space can all denote different facts about the individual. 
  • Divine or magical numbers (usually sets of 3, 4, 5, or 7 or multiples thereof)
  • Religious symbolism
  • Magical symbolism
  • Non-religious symbolism (e.g. military, occupation, association, etc.)
  • Nearby plants and vegetation

Dr. C. Riley Auge’s research projects include the cemeteries of Virginia and Nevada City. Dr. Auge presented on “Hidden Dimensions: Recognizing Embedded Beliefs and Customs in Burial Practices” at the cemetery workshop. For more information, contact Dr. Auge at [email protected].

Workshop Resources: 
Riley Auge presentation

Click Here to Download a Copy of the Workshop Program

Crystal Alegria, Co-Director and MT Project Archaeology Coordinator, The Extreme History Project
Crystal B. Alegria has worked in the field of heritage outreach and education for the past sixteen years with an emphasis on community history, curriculum development, and archaeological site stewardship. Crystal is the co-director and co-founder of The Extreme History Project, a nonprofit based in Bozeman, MT that brings history to the public. She is also the Montana coordinator for Project Archaeology, a national heritage education program based at Montana State University. Crystal was the president of the Montana Archaeological Society and currently serves on the Bozeman Historic Preservation Advisory Board and the Bozeman Preservation Advocacy Group. She has a B.S. in Anthropology and an M.A. in History from Montana State University.

Riley Auge, Curator of Anthropological Collections Facility, University of Montana
Riley Auge, Ph.D., RPA, holds an M.A. in Folklore and Mythology and a Ph.D. in Anthropology/Archaeology. She has spent 17 years researching the material manifestations of traditional belief systems of various cultural and ethnic groups. She recently received the Society for Historical Archaeology’s Kathleen Kirk Gilmore Award for her dissertation Silent Sentinels: Archaeology, Magic, and the Gendered Control of Domestic Boundaries in New England, 1620-1725, which will be published this fall. She has published articles in national and international journals on the material culture of ritual and magic, presented at national and international conferences on the subject, and teaches classes and workshops on ritual, religion, and magic. Her research projects include the cemeteries of Virginia and Nevada City, MT. She is currently a curator for the University of Montana’s Anthropological Collections Facility and teaches in the University of Montana anthropology department.

Ellen Baumler, Emeritus Interpretive Historian, Montana Historical Society
Ellen Baumler earned her Ph.D. in English, Classics and History from the University of Kansas. She has been the interpretive historian and National Register sign program coordinator at the Montana Historical Society since 1992. Ellen is a longtime member of the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau, a 2011 recipient of the Governor’s Award for the Humanities, and co-curator of the Society’s recent award-winning Chinese exhibit, “Forgotten Pioneers.” The author of many books and articles, Ellen’s current project is a book on mortuary customs and cemeteries in Montana. She has also authored National Register nominations including those for Helena’s Home of Peace and Benton Avenue cemeteries.

John Grebenkemper, Historic Human Remains Detection Canine Handler, Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF)
John Grebenkemper joined the Institute for Canine Forensics in 2007 after retiring from computer design. His dog, Kayle, is a certified Historic Human Remains Detection dog. He and Kayle have traveled extensively to various archaeological projects to locate burial locations. The oldest burial they have found has been dated as 9,000 years old. This past summer they traveled to the South Pacific on a National Geographic project to look for the remains of Amelia Earhart. The material found on that expedition is currently under analysis to extract the degraded DNA. Before joining ICF, John spent 40 years working in the fields of physics and engineering research. He received a Ph.D. from Stanford University, has published more than 20 technical papers, and received 8 U.S. patents.

Kirsten Green, Visiting Assistant Professor, University of Montana
Kirsten received her B.S. in Anthropology from Southern Methodist University in 2006, then received her M.A. in Forensic Anthropology from the University of Montana in 2008. She received her Ph.D. in Physical Anthropology from the University of Montana in 2016 with research on stable isotope analysis of burials from a Maya site in Belize. Between her masters and Ph.D. programs, she worked for several Customer Relationship Management (CRM) companies in California before landing a job at the State of California as an associate environmental planner. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Montana in the Anthropology Department. Kirsten teaches osteology, Forensic & mortuary archaeology, introduction to physical anthropology, and a seminar in bioarchaeology. Kirsten also consults with the State Medical Examiner’s Office on forensic cases for the State of Montana. She continues her work in Belize each summer excavating, documenting, and cataloging burials for several sites in the Belize River Valley.

John S. Harris, University of Montana
How might surface vegetation divulge the past story of a place to archaeologists? How do archaeologists know what to look for in site vegetation? These overlooked questions preoccupied John Harris’ master’s thesis, “The Sylvan Blindspot.” He holds an M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Montana, whereas a Ph.D. student, he investigates the vegetal signatures of past human activities at historic log cabins and cemetery sites in Western Montana. His research interests include landscape archaeology, historical archaeology, historical ecology, and historical ethnobotany.

Adela Morris, President and CEO, Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF) 
Adela Morris has been active in human remains detection with her dogs since 1986 and has deployed her dogs on hundreds of searches specializing in cold cases, crime scenes and historic and prehistoric burials. She is an instructor and evaluator for Human Remains Detection dogs. Adela is the founder and director of the Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF), a nonprofit organization that specializes in locating historic and prehistoric burials. She’s also the founder of the Canine Specialized Search Team, a volunteer resource for the Santa Clara County (CA) Sheriff’s Office. Jasper is her 6th certified detection dog and Jett, her 16-month-old puppy, is currently working on his ICF historical human remains certification. 

John W. Olson, Archaeologist/GIS Specialist, The Extreme History Project
John W. Olson graduated Montana State University in May 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology, focus on Archaeology, and a minor in Geographic Information Sciences (GIS). He has volunteered and worked for The Extreme History Project since 2013, and leads historic tours in downtown Bozeman. He is the GPS/GIS project coordinator for the Nevada City Cemetery GPS Mapping Project since March 2015 and has been part of the project to create the cemetery database. While working as the store manager and buyer for the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, MT, he is investigating options and opportunities for pursuing a master’s degree in archaeology and furthering his education in GIS.

Charlene Porsild, President & CEO, The Montana History Foundation
Charlene Porsild, a native of Canada’s Yukon, is an author and historian with a passion for the mountain west. An avid trail user, Charlene enjoys hiking with her sweet pups, Cinnamon and Jack. When not hustling for history, find Charlene exploring Montana’s many ghost towns and historic cemeteries with her family.

John, Robert, and Daren Rummel, Montana Granite Craftsmen
Montana Granite is a locally owned and operated family business, providing almost a hundred years of experience to Montana families. The Rummel family and Montana Granite have a long-established history in the Helena community, dating back to 1930 when John Rummel opened the first shop on Montana Avenue after working with John Kain at the Kain Granite Company. Sixteen years later, the family built the current monument shop on Forestvale Road and then in 1958, expanded to Great Falls. Montana Granite Company of Helena changed hands in 1971 when Ken Ludtke and his family purchased it. They serviced Helena until the early 2000’s when they sold it back to the Rummels who are now the fourth generation of Montana Granite monument makers and craftsmen.

Ethan Ryan, Archaeologist/GPR Specialist, University of Montana
Ethan Ryan is currently in the Ph.D. program for Anthropology/Archaeology at the University of Montana. He has been the ground penetrating radar specialist for iResponse, LLC., an affiliate of the Chippewa Cree Cultural Resource Office of Rocky Boy’s Reservation since Feb 2017. Ethan previously worked for the Bureau of Land Management and has worked on large-scale research projects in Alaska, British Columbia, Montana, and Wyoming. Ethan’s specialties in addition to GPR include GIS, lithic analysis, and spatial analysis. In his free time, he enjoys fly-fishing, hiking, and playing music in two Missoula-based bands.

James Straight, Tribal and Cultural Resource Officer, Montana Department of Environmental Quality
James Strait is the tribal and cultural resources officer, as well as the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) manager for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. James holds a B.S. in Anthropology from Iowa State University and an M.A. in Archaeology, specializing in the Northern Plains and stone tool analysis from the University of Arkansas. James has worked in the private sector doing cultural resource management throughout the Midwest, Southeast, and Southwest, but his primary focus in archaeology has been in Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. Since joining DEQ in 2009, James has worked for the facility siting program. The UAS program within DEQ was started by James in 2012, and has become an invaluable toolset for many of the programs within DEQ such as small miner exploration, remediation and abandoned mine lands.

Mary F. Striegel, Chief, Materials Conservation, National Park Service
Mary Striegel is responsible for NCPTT’s Materials Conservation Program. Mary’s current work focuses on the evaluation of preservation treatments for preventing damage to cultural resources. Among several projects, she and her staff oversee NCPTT’s National Cemetery Preservation Initiative. Through this initiative, the program investigates preservation treatments geared towards cemeteries and develops seminars and workshops nationwide. Mary came to NCPTT in 1995 from the Getty Conservation Institute. She earned her Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis, where she pursued interdisciplinary research on residual stresses in numismatics.

Tim Urbaniak, Emeritus Professor of Drafting and Design Technology, Montana State University, TRU Technologies, LLC
For 20 years, Dr. Timothy Urbaniak led projects that explored archaeology and history through applications of technology. As the past director of the Montana State University Billings Archaeological Field Team, he has led students and volunteers in projects and field schools that have included rock art and historic inscription surveys, 3D reconstructions of historic sites, digital imaging applications, surveying technologies, desktop virtual reality, three-dimensional scanning and applications of multimedia. In 2014, he completed his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Montana where he studied historic inscriptions and their role as a form of residual cultural communication. He is now retired emeritus from teaching following his 29th year at Montana State University in the Drafting and Design Program and currently manages TRU Technologies LLC, a company specializing in applying technologies to archaeological and anthropological research. His research work exploring and documenting historic inscriptions continues.

This project is paid for in part by a grant from the National Park Service. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the Montana History Foundation and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.  This program was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the Montana History Foundation and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.