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!