4 Ways to Research in a Cemetery
July 11, 2015
Genealogists love cemeteries! Cemeteries can be critical for finding information related to the births and deaths of our ancestors. When there is a lack of records sometimes the only information we have will be on a gravestone. In this article we'll discuss four ways you can expand your cemetery research.
1. Ancestor Research
If you are researching from afar you will likely use the Findagrave.com or billiongraves.com websites to help search for your ancestors' graves. The challenge with using a website rather than visiting in person is that it causes you to focus too tightly on a single ancestor. One of the greatest benefits of researching in a cemetery is discovering other ancestors in nearby plots. While you can't do this virtually you can sort of recreate the effect on Findagrave.com
Search for an ancestor that you know is listed in Findagrave.com. Next use the "Find all [surname] in:" feature which appears in the sidebar to the left. This will show you all the other people in that cemetery with the same surname. There are also options for searching the surname more broadly in the same town, county, and state. If you are searching for a common name that might not be practical but searching the same cemetery is always a good idea.
2. House Research
One of the best ways to use cemetery research is to research the history of your own house. Maybe you've never considered doing that before! It can be as fun as researching your own family and you'll discover that the former residents of your house become almost like family after researching them.
If you live in a house that was built before 1900 then chances are good that the former residents are buried in one of the local cemeteries. You'll have to do deed research first to find out their names, followed up with census and vital record research but it shouldn't be too hard to track them down. Once you've discovered the former residents of your house visit the cemetery to learn more about them.
3. Local History Research
Genealogists typically have ancestors spread across a wide region or even multiple countries. Our ancestors just didn't stay put! The flip side of genealogical research is doing local history - research in your own back yard. Researching the local history of your town or village can give you a deep appreciation of the people who lived there before you.
Start your local history research with a tour of the oldest local cemetery. There you will likely discover the founders of your town. Walk through the cemetery and notice the surnames that are most prevalent. These will be the earliest families that stayed to help build the town into what it is today.
Also notice memorials or veterans markers. Get to know the people from your town who served in the American Revolution, the Civil War and other conflicts. You might even see gravestones for certain professions such as ship captains or fraternal organizations such as the Masons.
Next think about what interests you. Is it a certain time period like colonial America or a conflict like the Civil War? Choose some folks from the cemetery who intrigue you and put your genealogical skills to work. Learn about their lives through census and vital records and local history books. You may even consider blogging about them or sharing what you find with the local historical society. The one thing that is guaranteed to happen is that you will gain a richer appreciation of your town!
4. Carver / Art Research
There is so much more to cemetery research than just the names and dates on the gravestones. Have you ever noticed that gravestones are different shapes and sizes in different time periods? If you look closely you will see patterns that will help you identify the age of a stone quickly.
The art and letter carving on a gravestone also changes with time. The history of the development of stone carvers in America is quite fascinating. The earliest carvers came from Boston and were collectively known as the "Boston carvers." As the colonies grew, local carvers started to take over. There is often a relationship or association between the local carver and the people he memorialized in stone. It can be a fascinating journey to learn about the individual carvers represented in your local cemetery.
The art on the gravestones contains symbols that held greater meaning in a time when many people didn't know how to read. For instance, grapes represented Christianity and an hour glass reminds us that time flies and life is fleeting.
To learn more about the carvers and the art they created visit the Association for Gravestone Studies. For more in-depth information about carvers in early New England see Graven Images by Allan Ludwig or Gravestones of Early New England and the Men who Made Them 1653-1800 by Harriette Merrifield Forbes. For gravestone symbolism see Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister.
Have you done other kinds of cemetery research? Let me know!
Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.
I was in a local cemetery, doing some findagrave volunteer photos, when I saw a marker for a Civil War veteran. I wondered if it was listed on findagrave, and took a quick photo. Beside his marker I found another marker flat on the ground, and found it was his wife. So I took a photo of that one too. Neither was on findagrave, so I added both of them.
We need to document these old markers while we can still read them!
And I could not resist doing some research on John Cherry and his wife Elizabeth!
Posted by: Linda J. Walker | July 12, 2015 at 07:33 PM
Linda, I couldn't agree with you more! That should probably be #5 on the list - Photograph gravestones to preserve them. It's so important. In my area we have some gravestones back to the 1600s but it's actually the 19th marble stone that are in greatest danger of being lost to time. The writing it disappearing very quickly. I wish every graveyard and cemetery had a volunteer to photograph it.
Posted by: Marian Pierre-Louis | July 13, 2015 at 05:28 AM
Accessing the written records of plot ownership and burials in a cemetery is helpful. These can name the owner of a burial plot. This could lead the researcher to a previously unknown family surname. And it could name a burial in a plot that either never had a gravestone or the stone has disappeared. Sometimes these books, however, have been lost through the years. This is especially true for small local cemeteries or cemeteries which have had no recent burials.
In this day and age of quick and easy access via Internet files some cemetery research still must be done with foot power or contact with a local individual.
Then, if one REALLY wants to know how many burials were in a plot, you could do as I did several years ago in a small country church cemetery which was missing its original record of burials. Two sources had noted my husband's great-grandmother had given birth to 13 children, but the family knew of only 11 of them. No Bible record had been located, and even the church record books indicated only 11 children. So I used divining rods made from wire coat hangers and I walked the family plot and nearby area, marking on the ground where the rods crossed. By the time I was finished I could see the outline of three small burial plots. There were obviously three small bodies buried in the plot for which there was not a record. Knowing that the great-grandmother's eldest daughter had a child which did not survive and for which a record of burial had not been located, I deduced that one of the small burial spots was that of the daughter's child and the other two were for the lost children of the great-grandmother. This is the only physical evidence of their existence. Perhaps they were stillborn babies.
Posted by: Judy Weber | July 13, 2015 at 06:30 AM
I discovered some long lost relatives that I never even knew they'd lived in the area I'd also moved to in a local - to me, now - cemetery
Posted by: Donna B. Parsons | July 13, 2015 at 06:35 AM
Hi - Thanks for all the great tips. Further to using FindAGrave - a few of us have pooled efforts and added over a 1000 names and many headstone images to the findagrave database for isolated rural cemeteries, some of them slowly being overtaken by trees and shrubs. These cemeteries are located in the areas in which we were raised so we where we can we add family links and relevant info. A challenge to all of the great Legacy users - Do you know of a cemetery that is slowly 'fading away'? Adding even a few headstones to findagrave, multiplied by thousands of Legacy fans, will make a lasting contribution to the community. So far findagrave is free for use, but even if Ancestry does in the future change their policy it is still a database which is likely to exist for many years.
Posted by: Ric Gat | July 13, 2015 at 07:42 AM
Great ideas! Paper records are always important to check if you can get them. I'm not familiar with using diving rods but it's an interesting idea!
Posted by: Marian Pierre-Louis | July 13, 2015 at 07:46 AM
Yes! I love the way cemeteries can break down brick walls and even reveal, as you say, people you didn't even know about! I think getting to a cemetery in person is the best option but I know that's not always an easy thing to do. I have lots of ancestors that I don't have access to. Hoping I can make some research trips some day.
Posted by: Marian Pierre-Louis | July 13, 2015 at 07:49 AM
FindaGrave inadvertently provided a wealth of information few knew existed! I received a request to photograph a grave in a nearby town. I didn't get to it for a couple of weeks; but the day I got them and sent them to the relative, she received word that photographs of the graves had been posted on the Internet three years earlier. So now she had fresher pictures of the cemetery. She and I exchanged phone numbers, and she mentioned another relative that she couldn't find. In the emails with FindaGrave, somehow a local woman's email address appeared, and I found that she had transcribed EVERY cemetery in this county! I put the two women in touch with each other so that the relative could purchase a copy.
Posted by: Gail Bullock | July 13, 2015 at 08:20 AM
There are two sets of Smiths in my family. Good luck finding the correct relative!
There is a link for success stories on FindaGrave, and the author of one such story said that he had entered the name of a relative who had served in the war. My uncle served in WWII. I thought, "The worst would be that no record is found." I entered his full name and the state. There was a picture of his newspaper obituary, a picture of the name of the cemetery, and a list of his immediate family! I learned things about him that I did not know, and now I have his information for my tree!
Posted by: Gail Bullock | July 13, 2015 at 08:29 AM
I agree that cemeteries are a great source of information and also can be a way to meet people that have information that you don't have. A few years ago my brother and I visited the cemetery where our parents are buried. We were looking for the graves of other relatives. A man who was driving by stopped and asked us what family we were looking for. When we told him he asked if we could wait for a while and he would go home to get some information. Wow, can you believe that? He was back in a few minutes with a binder of family group sheets and backup information for each family. He did not have anything that I did not have. He said that he had researched most of the people buried in the cemeteries in that township. I asked him if he had come across a specific Campbell couple. The Ontario GenWeb has photos of most of the gravestones in Ontario cemeteries but I had been unable to find their gravestones.
About a week later I received an email from him saying that he had found their gravestone in a cemetery close to my brother's home. He said that it was in an obscure part of the cemetery and that he had to take clippers to cut off some of the pine branches so that he could read the inscriptions. My brother is frequently in that cemetery for funerals of relatives and friends and he had never noticed that tombstone.
The next time that I visited the area I stopped at the cemetery. I could see why the tombstone had not been photographed and my brother had not noticed it. Years ago someone had planted a pine shrub on 2 sides of the tombstone. Likely the person thought that they would not grow very big. By this time they were about 10 feet tall and completely enclosed the tombstone. I had to get inside them to take photos and for some shots I just held my camera out and hoped for the best. I was able to get good photos of all the information. There were inscriptions on all 4 sides of the stone.
Posted by: Shirley Crampton | July 13, 2015 at 09:27 AM
I love your Legacy users challenge! What a great idea. Yes, everyone, get out and photograph a few gravestones this summer and document them on Findagrave.com (or even billiongraves.com if that is you preference)!
Let's preserve those stones and their inscriptions!
Posted by: Marian Pierre-Louis | July 13, 2015 at 09:34 AM
What great stories! A perfect reminder that we need to keep checking sites like FindaGrave.com and what wonderful serendipity being able to connect with that other researcher!
Posted by: Marian Pierre-Louis | July 13, 2015 at 09:36 AM
What an incredible story. If only we could find a person that knowledgeable and with such perseverance at every cemetery we visit. Wonderful that you found the Campbells but a shame that they were further entombed in the shrub. Cemetery research is worth the effort!
Posted by: Marian Pierre-Louis | July 13, 2015 at 09:41 AM
My great grandparents were originally buried in Helvetia Cemetery in Sacramento, CA. However, over the years it was first turned into a park; then the city decided to have a Junior High School built on the grounds. Those who were interred there were then transferred to East Lawn Cemetery in a large grave as they were not identified. Others who could be identified were transferred to the "Old" Sacramento City Cemetery...home of many who are well known in CA history...My nephew and I wanted to find where they were. Which we did. However on that journey, we were fortunate to come across a historian who told us the story of the old Helvetia Cemetery. This prompted me to look it up. Seems this cemetery was built when John Sutter built his fort (which still stands in Sacramento) It had many buried there. Including several Chinese whose remains were shipped to China...so the story goes. Anyway, researching this cemetery was interesting to me. One can find some of this information online. (Especially as a youngster in the summer we would walk past it when it was a park.) I was told I had relatives there, but didn't know who they were until I started doing my research. Yes, it is interesting to research the origin of old cemeteries.
I also have a great grandmother who is buried In a cemetery on private land in Sacramento County. Unfortunately, the owner doesn't permit visitors as it is very dangerous and is in an area where rattlers now preside) I wouldn't have known that if a local historical writer hadn't put that information in one of her books and before the gravestone was damaged our Historical Society folks got permission to go on the land and take a photo which was in Ms. Pnkerton's book on Elk Grove, CA.
Even more, I am researching my husbands family and found a family member's gravestone on FAG, which led me to two people in Canada who have all the information on one side of his family. You can find live ones in FAG if you contact those who take the photos. Yes, digging around in cemeteries can be profitable.
Posted by: Pauline Arndt | July 13, 2015 at 10:50 AM
I have found that what is written on a gravestone may be written in stone, but is usually information supplied by descendents as they understood what they were told by the deceased. The only information that is absolutely correct is the date of death,
Even the name of the person can what the person went by and not the official name or the name he was known by in a different area. My uncle was known as Paul and Pincus, depending on where in Tel Aviv we were. His parents called him Pincus, but his wife called him Paul, and Paul is on the tombstone.
I have taken over a thousand photos both for Find-a-Grave and for requests from mailling lists I am active on. I have found that Find-A-Grave is missing important information for searching out a grave in Israel. There are also many mistakes both of names and wrong places entered on memorials. I would appreciate FAG requiring and publishing a "source" when information is supplied via spreadsheets.
Posted by: Dahn Cukier | July 13, 2015 at 11:55 AM
Here in Mobile County, Alabama we have a very dedicated woman who has photographed and documented every cemetery - public and private. I'm not sure if she posted them to a grave location site or if she's compiling information for a book.
Posted by: Cheryl Johnson | July 13, 2015 at 12:37 PM
When researching cemeteries if it is possible, you should also check with the cemetery (mortuary, etc) and see if there is additional information. One day, I was calling the cemetery to find out what their "rules" of taking care of the graves were in the indigent area of their property. I had them check one of my Aunt's burial record, and lo and behold, I found that my own father had paid for the plot for his sister who was a single mother and indigent at the time . I never knew that, and wouldn't have known had I not called them and asked. Never know what the records might show or who might be able to help.
Posted by: Nancy Hough | July 13, 2015 at 06:43 PM
Who is she? I live in Mobile. I have created and documented an entire cemetery, myself. It is a very satisfying experience. Really feels like you are speaking for those who have passed before.
Posted by: Roy Millsap | July 13, 2015 at 08:55 PM
I have photographed all the tombstones in one of our cemeteries. My computer went down and in the transfer of everything to another computer I lost the Kodak program that allows me to fix and title each picture. I had them about 1/2 done when all this happened. To top it all off I got cancer and have been battling that. Finally getting well enough to go back and start redoing the pictures hoping that I didn't lose any) Bought a program to title the pictures but can't figure it out. Kodak won't give me another download because they are out of business now. I was hoping to print them all out and donate them to our local Genealogical society/library. I also want to do more cemeteries. [email protected]
Posted by: Bonne C Watts | July 13, 2015 at 11:48 PM
When visiting family graves in Rookwood (Sydney, Australia) I found a carving of a bugle on a great uncle's stone - Jabez Pearson. This changed my research direction. I then connected this with a medal I had photograghed 30 years ago (for a band competition) and found he was later a bandsman in the First Australian Lighthorse. This mounted band all rode white horses and led the parade for Australian Federation in 1901 in Centennial Park, Randwick, next to where I now live.
I then found a lovely obituary describing a well respected band leader.
Posted by: Helen Pearson | July 21, 2015 at 05:37 PM
That is so awesome! It is worth paying attention to the details!
Posted by: Marian Pierre-Louis | July 22, 2015 at 04:24 AM
I live in a village of about 150 people on the Tohono O'odham Reservation about 90 miles southwest of Tucson. Several of the elders in our village love to tell stories about the past and I listened closely to the stories to get some information about my husband's family. Our village has 3 small cemeteries with graves dating from the mid1800s. Each family in the village takes care of their graves but when the immediate family dies out, the knowledge of who is buried where died with them. About 5 years ago, seven of us decided to try to find out for sure who was buried where and who is descended from them. We talked to families and asked them to show us their relatives graves and we asked them to fill our family group sheets on anyone they knew. We started with about 130 graves that had no names on the graves but with the seven of us and the ones who came to help, we are down to only 4 graves that do not have names.
We put all the family information into a booklet that includes an excel document with the graves marked. Each person in the cemeteries has an entry in the booklet with any info we have found. Most have dates, parents names, spouse and children and siblings attached. The most exciting thing that we discovered is that all the people who now live in the village are related directly or by marriage to one lady who had 3 relationships and five children. What a great family we now have.
Posted by: Joyce Juan | July 27, 2015 at 11:24 PM
If your family member is not on Find A Grave, that does not mean they are not buried in the cemetery. I have been explaining this to many new comers to family history. The only way a picture of a headstone will be added to Find A Grave is if some one goes to the cemetery physically, takes the pictures, and adds it to the Find A Grave site. Some people think the cemetery association is adding the pictures, assuming that what is posted on the site is every one that is buried in the cemetery. You can all so call your local library, or ask the cemetery association if there is an index on the internet of the people interred at the cemetery.
Posted by: Joneta Burke | August 01, 2015 at 11:31 AM
I recently discovered eight Civil War soldier's photos in my G-G Grandfather's photo album. They were identified by rank, initials and last name. I checked the roster for the soldiers' full names. Once I had that info, I checked Find A Grave, they did have their Civil War service on the posting. So, I added the photos. Now anyone searching for them will see a young man in his Union Army uniform.
Posted by: D J Walmsley | September 06, 2015 at 08:21 AM
Judy, I too have had an experience using divining rods to find a person's grave. My great grandmother was buried in a cemetery in my local town. She was in a family plot of twelve graves, but was the only one in any of the graves. We didn't know which one so the caretaker took divining rods and was able to determine in which of the 12 places she was. She died in 1906 and never had a gravestone. NOW she does :)
Posted by: Jane Imparl | September 07, 2015 at 10:44 AM