Are Drones the Next Cemetery Inventory Tool?

Genealogy author and educator Thomas MacEntee wonders if he should use a drone to access a private cemetery where his ancestors are buried . . .

Lately I’ve been frustrated with trying to access information on an ancestral cemetery in upstate New York. The Old Tongore cemetery is located on private property next to the currently active Tongore Cemetery where many of my ancestors are also buried. New York law does not allow full public access to inactive cemeteries located on private land which best describes the current situation for my research.

So what to do? I had this bright idea (well maybe not so bright): why couldn’t I use a drone with a camera to do a quick survey of tombstones? Well, come to find out using a drone is not as easy as it seems . . .

Are Drones the Next Cemetery Inventory Tool?

Drones and Genealogy: The Future is Already Here

Drones are already being used in conjunction with cemetery management. See this statement at the Cloudpoint Geographics website:

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones) can be useful for cemetery managers needing to get more detailed and accurate information about their plots. The resulting aerial photos can be incorporated into a detailed GIS where the public can easily search by last name to find where burial plots are located. With orthomosaic imagery of the cemetery, the plots are located with extremely high precision and there is no mistake as to what sites are occupied. Electronic records can be imported from spreadsheet format to get you up and running quickly and efficiently. If your cemetery maps are in need of an upgrade, contact the professionals. Cloudpoint can provide you with astounding aerial imagery and mapping for all of your cemetery management needs.

In addition, according to an article at Venture Beat, the startup company PlotBox assists cemeteries in using drones to map out plots using drones and GPS software. In fact, PlotBox is already keyed into helping cemeteries attract genealogists for research purposes:

Genealogy Search; PlotBox can make your records available to our public facing website. The deceased records within PlotBox can be made available to genealogists and the public for family history research,  saving your staff time in searching records and giving you the opportunity to generate a revenue back into the cemetery.

Using Drones for Genealogy Research

I can totally see a genealogist or any researcher in need of information listed on tombstones using a drone. One concern I have with the current technology is maneuverability of the drone – can I get it to stop and pause long enough at a grave to take an adequate snapshot? And what about weather conditions? I know that many taphophiles have said a cloudy day is better when photographing tombstones.

So when will we see a “drones and genealogy” workshop at an upcoming genealogy conference?

Drone Regulations

In the United States, there are federal regulations set out by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as well as state and local regulations. Many of these regulations govern basic use of drones including those with cameras, as well as rules on how high or low a drone can fly and if a drone needs to be registered with the FAA.

Recently, several localities have proposed and/or passed “no fly zone” regulations related to cemeteries. The focus on cemetery access has been more intense since the Pokémon Go phenomenon of last year when many gamers were inundating cemeteries with use of the popular virtual reality app.

I advise that any genealogist seriously considering the use of a drone for research take some time to research all pertinent regulations. Not doing so could leave you open to fines from a regulatory body or even a lawsuit from a property owner (see Private Property below).

Drones and Private Property

While you may be following all the regulations when operating your drone, what about privacy issues? Yes, the information listed on tombstones are facts, but it is more complicated than that:

  • In a public space, what right does a person standing in the cemetery have to not be filmed or monitored?
  • In a private space, what about those same rights and the right of “peaceful enjoyment” of one’s property?
  • And don’t forget that there may be copyright issues related to photographing what might be considered “art work” in a cemetery.

The use of drones continues to “disrupt” standing case law on property rights and what it means to access private property. Expect to see more and more drone-related cases in the US court system as this technology becomes more pervasive in American society with every use from personal recreation to commercial delivery of products.

Cemetery Privacy and Respect Issues

There are certain privacy and respect issues involved when using a drone over an active cemetery. Some cemeteries have gone so far as to include drone-related rules and regulations in their photography policies. You should contact the cemetery and ask about any regulations on photography and the use of drones with cameras. Also ask for a schedule of events on the day you anticipate using the drone. Common sense would dictate that you not fly a drone over a funeral or other ceremony, respecting the privacy of the grieving family.


Drone technology will continue to develop and once use of drones becomes more common in our daily life, you may then see genealogists embracing their capabilities for genealogy research. Hopefully within the next few years we may see various “how to” guides and classes as well as a clarification on access and privacy related to drone usage in cemeteries. It is only a matter of time.

©2017, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.

References and Resources

About the Author

Thomas MacEntee
Genealogy educator and author Thomas MacEntee has been researching his family history for more than 40 years and is the creator of Abundant Genealogy, Genealogy Bargains, DNA Bargains, The Genealogy Do-Over and numerous other web-based genealogy and family history properties.