Most genealogists are quite familiar with cemeteries. I often see bumper stickers with something like “I brake for cemeteries” when going to genealogy conferences or meetings. I also love how at those meetings you can say you were wandering around a cemetery and there would be no strange looks!
Finding a Gravestone
There are many useful tools for finding an ancestor’s gravestone. Findagrave.com and BillionGraves.com are two of the most popular websites for finding gravestones online. These are all volunteer run and can be excellent if you can’t get to where your ancestors died.
Also, some areas have indexes, images, or other records available online through local genealogy societies or even through their own county/city/church websites. It’s always a wonderful idea to see if this is available for you.
There are also some published books from the DAR with transcriptions of some of the graves found in cemeteries they visited. Keep in mind that not all the information you would want is transcribed in these books. As always, it’s best to see the original but this can give you clues if you weren’t sure where the grave was. The Family History Library also has some of these books in their microfilm collection.
Finding a Cemetery Record
One thing that some people may not think of doing is getting the actual cemetery record for that gravestone. How do you do that? You need to find out who runs the cemetery. It can be the city, county, or even a religious institution. Sometimes, there is a sign in front of the cemetery that states who to call for the office or where the office may be. Sometimes the office is right there on the cemetery grounds, but I don’t find this very often. For older cemeteries, there usually isn’t a sign at all, (including a sign with the name of the cemetery) so your best bet is to then check with the city the cemetery is in.
Sometimes contacting the city parks will get you the information you need or at least possibly point you in the right direction. The library or a local genealogical society is also a good choice if available. There are many small, rural cemeteries, that may no longer have records attached to them or the records exist but no one knows where. If you can find a death record, that can help point you in the direction of a funeral home that could have more information as well if the funeral home still exists. This is also a good idea if the ancestor is buried in a private family cemetery.
The Cemetery Record
So, why is a cemetery record so valuable? It tells you who owns the plot! This can be WONDERFUL if you hit a brick wall, like with a female relative, especially if they died young and may be buried with their family rather than with their husband. This has given me clues to help with my brick wall on Lily McLeod. It is a wonderful resource!
Usually what you find in a cemetery record will include the deceased’s name, their position in the cemetery, dates of birth/death, next of kin, and sometimes references to books. If that is so, ask to see if these books still exist as it can show a diagram of the plot and include people who may not have a marked grave. Sometimes a picture of the plot is also included in the individual’s record or in the plot owner’s record. Get both of those records if you can!
As mentioned already, the funeral home can have some information for you as well if it still exists. That can include mortuary records as well and can sometimes have more information than is on the death record or even on the cemetery’s record.
Funeral home records are kept privately by the business itself so getting these records depends on them. Some are more than willing to share and others are not. Also, these records are as accurate as the person who gave the information so keep that in mind!
Gravestones can give you many clues or leave you with very little information. They vary quite a bit! Sometimes they state the full date of birth or death. Sometimes, it’s just the year or an age. It can also mention something historic – like that they were some of the first people in the area, or something about their career.
It’s also best to see who is around the gravestone as those could be relatives as well. Families tended to be buried near each other.
There are many cemeteries that are in very bad condition. In these cases, it is sometimes very difficult or even impossible to find the gravestone. The older the stone, the more likely it has been destroyed by weather or lack of upkeep. Not every cemetery is supposed to be kept well either. In some cultures, they leave the cemetery alone so as to not disturb the dead. So if you happen to visit a cemetery where it is covered in vines, weeds, grasses, etc., see if the reason for it is a cultural one. Otherwise if you try to clean it up, it could be seen as rude or even against the law.
A gravestone rubbing is where you put a piece of paper or something over the tombstone inscription and use something like a charcoal pencil to rub over the words. DO NOT DO THIS! It harms the stone, especially the older ones. It can cause the stone to fall over or even crumble under the pressure of the rubbing.
There are alternatives to this. The best is to visit the cemetery during a sunny day and take pictures from different angles so you can read the writing. Taking a mirror to reflect the light is also a good idea, especially if the stone doesn’t get much light. This is really one of the safest methods for getting the information without ruining the tombstone and it is the one I personally use.
The National Genealogical Society’s UpFront with NGS blog posted about how to read an unreadable gravestone that I recommend reading.
Tombstones can also tell you a lot about your ancestor just by the look or design of them. For example, those who participated in the Civil War can have different shapes on their tombstone depending on what side they fought on. Amy Johnson Crow from No Story Too Small describes this in one of her blog posts.
Some tombstones can also have a symbol on their gravestone that can give you clues as well. The Freemason symbol is a common one as well as a star for Civil War Veterans with GAR written in it. I have seen this outside of the actual gravestone too, like in my 2x great-grandfather’s grave:
Cemetery’s can be a great place for quite a bit of information! Leave a comment below if you feel I left something out or if you just want to comment on searching for ancestors in cemeteries.