Genealogy Research: How Visiting Old Cemeteries Can Expand Your Family Tree
Written in Stone
Old cemeteries are a treasure-trove of information for a genealogist. Hidden amongst the often overgrown grass and cracked marble of such locales are clues to a person's family history that may not be recorded anywhere else. Visiting cemeteries, or utilizing the information someone else has gleaned from a cemetery, is an essential part of the work involved in uncovering your roots. With some simple strategies and equipment, you can find and record the information concerning your ancestors that was left at their final resting place.
Where to Start
As with any aspect of ancestry research, keeping a concise record of what facts you do know about each person in your family tree is immensely helpful when setting out on a cemetery search. Knowing who lived where and during what time (approximately, at least) makes narrowing down the location of a person's gravesite much easier. I would also do an online search first to make sure someone hasn't already gone to your ancestor's gravesite and posted photos and/or the inscription.1 If they have, that will make your life easier, as you will not have to make an unnecessary trip. It is interesting to go yourself, though, and I would recommend it if you can drive there within one day.
If an online search does not yield you any results, the next thing you can do is look for genealogical records at a local library in the area where you think your ancestor might be buried. Not all libraries will keep such records, so it is best to call ahead and find out for sure in order to avoid making a wasted trip.2 If they do have genealogical records, you should also inquire as to whether they have copies of any surveys that may have been done on local cemeteries. If the answer to this second question is "yes", then you should be able to find your ancestors' gravesites somewhere in those surveys. Of course, there are exceptions, with the main ones being that some cemeteries in the area were never surveyed, there are "lost" cemeteries on private property that are unknown to most researchers, or your ancestor lies in an unmarked grave (which I will discuss in further detail below).
Most cemetery surveys will list the location of the cemetery. If the survey is old, you may have to ask someone local about how to find the location listed, especially in rural areas, since road names and such can change over the years. Once you do know where to go, it will be time to head off on the hunt! Please note, however, that while most cemeteries are accessible to the public, some are on private land, so please, always make sure you get permission from the property owner before you visit such gravesites! Make sure to bring along a camera, and a pen and notepad as well. When you arrive at the cemetery, start by finding the particular headstones you came to see. Take photos of those headstones, and then also write down what the headstones say. The reason I suggest also writing the information down is that sometimes what is legible in person becomes illegible in a photograph. You can easily record a wrong birth or death date if you wait to write it down at home. A case in point is the last photo in this article. The only reason I can say I know the date of the person's birth with certainty is due to the fact that I also have it written down. The second digit in the day of the month was much clearer in person.
After you have recorded the information on the headstones of the people for whom you were specifically searching, I would suggest branching out into the rest of the cemetery. Pay the closest attention to those laid to rest nearest to your ancestors; take photos and write down their info as well. You may be staring at the headstone of someone of some relation to you, and you just do not know it yet. If the cemetery is small, I would say go ahead and just record everything there. If it is a large graveyard, then just stick to those buried near your ancestors. You may find little surprises at the cemetery, too, such as a younger sibling of your great-grandmother's that died as a baby or small child. Always look past your known ancestors while at the graveyard!
After you return home, use the information you gathered to fill in any holes you may have had in the records of the people you found in the cemetery. Also, start taking a look at anyone you found there whom you may think to be an unidentified relative.
An Example from My Own Experience
To illustrate how helpful visiting a cemetery can be while conducting ancestry research, I will share an example from my own experience. I have an ancestor whose mini-biography appears in the Goodspeed history for his home county. In this biography, the author mentions my ancestor's parents, and that they died "at a ripe old age, beloved and respected by all". The problem with this is the fact that other records I had found did not agree with that account of my ancestor's parents' lives. The Goodspeed history appeared in 1888; the last record that I had pertaining to these parents was the 1860 census. After that, they just seemed to drop off of the planet, along with their youngest children.
I began to wonder if something had happened to them other than what the biography stated. The only way I could find out for certain was by trying to locate their graves. I already knew they were not buried in the same graveyard where some of their older children had been laid to rest. At the time, an online search for other graveyards in the county where they were last known to have resided did not give me any results. So, I decided to visit the local library in the county seat and see if I could not find some information. I was blessed to find a book in the library's genealogy section that had been compiled by local researchers a couple of decades ago. The book was a collection of surveys done on most of the known burial grounds in the county. I started searching the book for the names of my ancestor's parents, and, sure enough, found them listed as having been buried in a local cemetery. Buried along with them were the younger children I also had been unable to find as adults.
The book listed the location of the graveyard, so I decided to go there. Since it was still an active graveyard, I found it without too much trouble. My search ended with the answer for which I had been looking: the parents and younger siblings of my ancestor had, tragically, all died within a few months of each other in 1866. (I also happened to find the headstone of someone who turned out to be the uncle of my ancestor; he was a person I probably would not have been able to connect with my family as easily otherwise since they had a very common surname.)
Unfortunately, sometimes records of someone's gravesite do not exist for the simple reason that they were buried without any sort of marker. Also, some gravesites have only unmarked fieldstones laid at the spot where someone was buried. Another reason for missing records is that the gravesite was marked with the person's identity at some point, but the marker was made of something that decayed over time (such as wood) or was destroyed somehow. Even ill-kept stone markers can weather so severely over the years so as to be rendered undecipherable. In these cases, there is not much one can do to make up for the information lost or not present to begin with.
There are cases in which an older survey (done, say, fifty to sixty years ago) can tell you what now worn-away lettering on a marker once said. Other times, historians have been able to make an educated guess as to who is buried beneath a fieldstone based on other records and the identity of those who are in marked graves. In that case, making contact with local researchers can be very helpful. Local people (especially older local people) can usually be your greatest ally in finding graves that are ill-marked, or for finding obscure family plots located in a back pasture. Always try to make connection with such folks whenever possible, particularly if you are having trouble finding what you are looking for. Be courteous, by the way, and thank them for their valuable time and insights.
Visiting old cemeteries really can help you research your family history, and the effort it sometimes takes to find and visit a cemetery is usually rewarded with valuable information. To help you get started in your search, I have included some links below to websites that offer free resources to those who are looking for family gravesites. Happy researching!
1 A note of caution concerning online cemetery records: a record with an actual photo of the headstone is the best. Of course, I know some older surveys will not have photos with them, yet they are typically believable, especially when they were done by someone working with a local historical society or a worker at the cemetery itself. The only reason I give caution is that I had an ancestor that, according to one website, was buried in a graveyard a long way from her home in a neighboring state (yes, it was referring to the exact same person). I thought that was strange, though not impossible. There was no picture with the record except one of the entire graveyard. I later found out from a cousin that this ancestor was buried in the city where she had died, and the cousin had proof of it. I contacted the person who had posted the record on the cemetery website, and found that the person had gotten her information from someone else, and that was just what they had told her. So, in summary, the record online was wrong -- which is just proof once again that it is always best to thoroughly vet the information you find while researching your ancestry to make sure it is correct.
2 A good alternative to a library is a local historical society -- if a library does not have the records for which you are looking, they may be able to direct you to family researchers and historians that live in that particular area.
- Interment.net: Cemetery Records Online
An archive of cemetery records from tens of thousands of cemeteries across the world. Search for cemetery records, browse cemeteries, and contribute your own cemetery transcriptions to our growing archive.
- Find A Grave - Millions of Cemetery Records
Find A Grave is a free resource for finding the final resting places of famous folks, friends and family members. With millions of names, it's an invaluable tool for genealogist and history buffs.
- Free Genealogy and Family History Online - The USGenWeb Project
Free genealogy and family history online made possible by the USGenWeb Project volunteers. Search free genealogy websites for your ancestors.
- Genealogy.com: Search the Virtual Cemetery
Free user-submitted cemetery records at Genealogy.com
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.