Cemetery visits can provide a wealth of information to the traveling researcher. An obituary or death certificate can provide the burial location for one ancestor and with a little luck you may find that other family members or in-laws are also buried there.
Internet sites can help you Search High and Low to find the cemetery, others can occasionally help you see what is Above Ground, but only the cemetery records will really let you know what is Below Ground!
The lecture Search High & Low, Above & Below is based upon this article and has many other examples.
Cemetery Records - Search High & Low, Above & Below
By Jeffrey A. Bockman
Originally published in Heritage Quest, Issue #107 September/October 2003, page 36.
The gravestone shows Hiram Demary 1814 - 1899 but the cemetery records show that four people are buried in the same grave including Esther West, his mother-in-law. Talk about "spending eternity!" The old saying about the family that plays together stays together might be true, but for a genealogist, the family that is buried together really stays together and can be found together. Several generations can often be found buried in the same or adjoining plots.
What you see at a cemetery may not be what is there. There are graves with no gravestones. There are stones without anybody buried there, either as a memorial, their burial plans changed, or they have not died yet. You also need to check the cemetery's records to know what is really there or you will be missing a lot of valuable information.
There are several basic types of Cemeteries. People were buried in the Churchyard. When that was full the Church purchased additional property that was not adjacent. The Government (city, township, county, and military) own and operate them. Some are privately owned and are run as a business or there is the old burial plot on a family farm.
Knowing what cemeteries were in existence at the time of an ancestor's death will help to narrow down the search. As communities and especially larger cities have expanded many cemeteries have had to be moved with the bodied removed and reburied in another cemetery. Lincoln Park just north of downtown Chicago at one time contained several cemeteries. Knowing that a grave had been moved may explain why some headstones are cracked and now laying down.
Searching High and Low
There are many records that can help you find out where someone is buried: Obituary, Death Certificate, Probate records, Indexes (books or web sites), Tombstone Inscription books, and internet sites. If you do not have any other clues then use the proximity to the home or town based upon the time period, their church or religious beliefs, or their ethnic background to start your cemetery search. When researching a female ancestor you need to remember that her death and burial will be recorded with her last married name. Family linkage programs have her recorded with her maiden name. You will probably also only think of her with her married name at the time your ancestor was born. With cemetery and any other research dealing with their death it is extremely important to know if she was married again or divorced and what name she was using.
There are a number of Internet sources to help you locate cemeteries:
GNIS - Geographical Name Index Service
[GNIS Results for Pitkin County, CO & Cemetery]
Google Search for
[Spring Lake Cemetery in Aurora, IL]
There are also a variety of cemetery projects such as the Illinois State Genealogical Society Cemetery Project that lists the cemeteries by county.
There are also a variety of printed sources that can help you: Gazetteers, maps, city directories, and telephone books. There are also books that list the cemeteries for a state, county, or city. Books like Permanent Parisians by Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall help you locate famous people buried in Paris and help turn cemeteries into tourist sites.
Many people dislike visiting cemeteries. This is probably because the only time that they have been at a cemetery was after the death of a loved one.� Finding and visiting the gravesite of a distant ancestor provides a connection that you can not get from any other type of research except maybe visiting an old home or finding an artifact. Cemeteries can be beautiful and peaceful places. The tombstones of the rich and famous are often very ornate works of art. The Political Graveyard polygon.intranet.org/tpg/index.html lets you see the graves of many famous and not so famous politicians. Visiting an old family cemetery where the current owner is not related to the deceased and does not respect the site can however be somewhat depressing.
How do you find a grave in a large cemetery if there is not an office and you do not have any published clues? See if the local library or historical society has the old cemetery records or a helpful publication. If not, you will just have to walk. You can often narrow down your search if you know the time period since you can concentrate your search on the really old section, or eliminate the newer ones, etc. You should have a mental or written list of all of the surnames from that area that you are researching. While systematically walking the rows, if you find one of the names then be sure to look around at all of the adjoining plots. Single burials are tougher to find than those with a larger family stone. Burials without a headstone are impossible to find without help from the office.
Gravestones can provide you with some very useful information.
Some information and photographs might be found online at
GenWeb Project at www.usgenweb.org/index.html - county projects often include cemetery information.
Interment.net www.interment.net gives the location and transcriptions for listed cemeteries.
Google Maps maps.google.com/ can provide location and contact information, plus show a satellite view.
Some of the stones can really help to fill out the basic genealogy forms. These stones will usually be located next to you ancestor's stone with minimal information.
Here is a completed Individual Data Sheet or Timeline found in Concord, MA.
Born in Switzerland 1833
Emigrated to United States 1852
Graduated Harvard 1855
Doctor of Medicine Harvard 1855
Practiced in Boston till 1865
In New York City After That
Founded there a Dispensary for
Diseases of the Throat and Chest 1859
U.S. Commissioner to Vienna Exposition 1872
Established the NY Goethe Society 1884
Died on a visit to Concord 1892
The Ancestor Chart for six generations of the male West family was found in Tolland, CT.
Different countries and ethnic groups have different cemetery practices. In Slovenia photographs on the tombstones are very common. To help identify numerous people with the same names they often show the town and house number.
Here is a tombstone that just about lets you fill in a family group sheet.
Family Kaps (lived in) Stari trg (house) number 25
Peter, father *(born) 7 June 1894 + (died) 13 Aug 1963,
Joze, son *12 Oct 1919 Missing 1945
Ivan , son *10 Mar 1925 Missing 1945
Lucija, mother *13 mar 1894 + 13 Nov 1966
Rest with Peace
Headstones can be interesting and you may learn something about the person or their sense of humor:
In Old Deerfield, MA there is one with the saying
"Death is a debt to nature due, That I have paid and so must you."
Another famous one in Key West, FL says "I told you I was sick."
Some may give you information on how they died
The shape of and symbols on the stone can also tell you about their religion, ethnic origin, affiliations, interests or military service. Woodmen of the World insurance company erected tombstones for their deceased life insurance policyholders. You can see photos and an index at www.Interment.net.
Military cemeteries are very moving. You can read about the number of people killed in a battle but it really strikes home when you see row after row after row of white crosses or monuments all lined up in every direction. The locations for and indexes of military cemeteries can be found at the following websites:
American Battle Monuments Commission
www.abmc.gov/ - WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam
National Park System Civil War Soldiers and Sailors
United States Civil War Center
There is an online listing of Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, CO. at www.rootsweb.com/~bgs/columbia_intro.html and many others are listed at www.Interment.net. Be sure to try and find out if the records are from reading the stones or the cemetery records so that you will know if everyone is included.
Monuments can provide a lot of additional information about a person. The family or a civic group usually erects them long after the death of the person.
During a visit you want to remember to gather information.
Some times you get so excited at finding a stone that you forget the basic rules:
You want to take notes.
Be sure to look at all sides of the stones and note any small stones nearby.
Draw a plot map.
Take photos but do not rely on them for the details, the pictures may not come out.
Be sure to write everything down!
Remember just as printed materials can have typos (typographical errors), tombstones and monuments can have "chiselos."
Large old tombstones that are leaning can be very dangerous. Do not work in the area where you could be harmed if it fell. About ten years ago there was a news story about a young girl that was killed when one fell on her.
You also want to take care of the stones and the site. You should leave it in better shape than you found it.
At the Alexander, NY cemetery I was looking for Newcomb and Ketura Demary, Hiram's parents. I found Newcomb stone standing up and then nearby was ETUR peaking out of a small circle of missing grass. The turf had grown over and almost completely covered the large stone that was lying flat. I pulled the turf away so that it could be read. You don't want to use products such as shaving cream to highlight the words or stiff brushes to clean off moss since they can eat into or scratch the stone thus increasing the deterioration.
Acid rain, tree sap, wind and water erosion are damaging to stones. The change in Jannet Stevenson's stone in Cambridge, NY between 1965 and 1996 was very evident.
If a stone is no longer legible then you want to try and find a publication of stone inscriptions by the DAR or a local genealogical society that was done while it could still be read. Stones that are difficult to read can be rubbed. Colored sand can be used to help highlight them for photos. Photos taken with different exposures and light angles can often improve the legibility.
A student once told me that one of her relatives had gone to the cemetery one weekend to see their grandmother and that "she was gone." The student went back during the week and visited the office and was told that every twenty five years the plots were resold. The stones were removed and two feet of new dirt was added. If the plot was renewed then the stone was replaced otherwise it was ready for another burial. The only way to find out information such as this is to visit the office or sexton.
What's Below Ground?
The records for a church cemetery are kept by the Sexton. The details captured by a sexton or cemetery office will vary greatly. They can vary depending upon the time period or possibly even by the individual recording the information.
Some of the more common cemetery records you may find are:
Index of Deceased
This can be on a computer or card file. It usually includes the name, burial date, plot, grave, and whether or not there is a headstone. It can also include other information such as: Cause of death, funeral home, and even the parents names.
The name of the owner and purchase date, plus the names of everyone who is buried and where they are located.
Shows who is buried in which grave.
There can also be a variety of other records. Just like any other records in genealogical research you will find errors.
The tombstone correctly shows that Donald Stevenson died in 1922 while the Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, IL plat record incorrectly shows for burial #85951 that a Donald M. Rayworth died on 1/22/1922.
(2009: The plat diagram and record show the three other people that are buried with Hiram Demary.)
While the records may not be perfect they can be very helpful, especially when they are used in conjunction with other information. A good example was when I was looking for the parents of a Jacob Faerber:
- 1900 Census - found Jacob living next door to George and Barbara Faerber
- 1880 Census - found Jacob as the son of George with a wife Barbara
- 1910 Census - Barbara was listed as a Widow
- 1920 Census - Barbara was not listed
- Ohio Death Index (1908 - 1937) - listed Barbara in 1915
- I wrote and received a copy of her death certificate
(2009: It is now available at search.labs.familysearch.org/recordsearch)
- Death Certificate - showed she was buried at Monroe St. Cemetery Cleveland, OH.
- Bigbook.com gave me the address of the cemetery and also the telephone number for the Cleveland Public Cemeteries.
- I called to find the best method for obtaining information, and was told to write.
I sent a letter asking for details on Barbara and anyone else buried in the plot.
I received information on the following people including their home address and cause of death:
Albert Faerber (his name was not previously known) a son that died at ten weeks old and was buried on 8 Jan 1891
Jacob's burial date of 19 Jan. 1902 at age 44
George burial date of 10 May 1902 at age 75
Barbara buried on 14 Dec 1915
Federick and Carolina Faerber
Note: The dates given for burial were actually the death dates based upon other information.
The information sent was on new forms that had been filled out by the clerk and therefore subject to error in reading and interpreting the old records.
It is a Business
One thing to remember is that the people working at a cemetery have a business to run. If there is only one person and they are busy cutting grass or making burial arrangements they might not have the time to look up every record you want. Be selective and identify those that you really need right now. You also need to be considerate of any grieving families in the office or at a gravesite.
When they are not busy many caretakers are more than happy to talk with someone that is not grieving and who appreciates what they do. Some cemeteries may have minimal information for certain time periods due to the records being lost, never kept, or not transferred between new owners or custodians. Some cemeteries appreciate some of the information that you have on the people buried there and their relationships to each other.
Search High, Low, Above & Below
Cemetery records and gravestones are a great source to help you expand your family tree. There are numerous Internet and printed sources that can help you to search high and low to find the cemeteries where your ancestors are buried. Some of them tell or even show you what is above ground but you must contact the cemetery office to know what is really below the ground.
Links to all of the internet sites listed in the article and others, including FindAGrave, can be accessed from Genealogy Links and then select from the following topics: Cemetery, Deaths, Gen/Web, Maps, and Telephone.