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A Grave Mistake - Even if it's Written in Stone it Could be Wrong

A Grave Mistake - Even if it's Written in Stone it Could be Wrong

This is my great-grandfather Alexander McGinnis' tombstone in Crown Cemetery, near Morriston, Ontario. You can see that his date of birth is 1844. My uncle took me to this cemetery when I was starting my research into my father's family tree. After seeing the tombstone, I copied the information inscribed and dutifully entered 1844 into my genealogy program as Alex's date of birth.

McGinnis Alex Cemetery Tombstone
Photo by Lorine McGinnis Schulze

Then I searched census records for Alex, and the more I found, the more discrepancies were revealed. Each census recorded him with a variety of ages that of course resulted in an equal variety of estimated years of birth.

* In 1861 his age was recorded as 12, giving him a year of birth of circa 1849
* In 1871 his age was recorded as 23, giving him a year of birth of circa 1848
* In 1881 his age was recorded as 30, giving him a year of birth of circa 1851
* In 1891 his age was recorded as 41, giving him a year of birth of circa 1850
* In 1901 his age was recorded as 43, giving him a year of birth of circa 1857
* In 1911 his age was recorded as 62, and the record year of birth was 1848

I knew the questions asked about an individual’s age varied on different census years. That meant that different questions, such as what was the individual's age at last birthday, at next birthday, or right now, would result in an age range of a few years.

Alex's years of birth, except for 1901 census, were fairly consistently showing his date of birth to be between 1848 and 1851. But that was quite different from the 1844 date of birth shown on his tombstone!

I decided to find his marriage record. But that was no help either. At his marriage in September 1876 he gave his age as 22. That put his year of birth at circa 1854. Surely he knew how old he was, or so I reasoned at the time. So perhaps the 1854-year was most accurate. But what about that tombstone?

I eventually discovered that his eldest daughter Mary had paid for his stone and had it engraved. My uncle had also questioned the year of birth on Alex's tombstone but apparently Aunt Mary had always insisted that she celebrated her father's birthday every year and thus she certainly knew how old he was, therefore she knew when he was born.

Alex and his family were Roman Catholic. I knew what church the family attended but the records of that church were not available to the public nor were they microfilmed. Then came a bit of luck. A few years ago the church began offering a research service. For a reasonable fee the church secretary would look through the original church books for a record.

I sent a request for the baptism of Alex, and soon received a copy in the mail. He was baptised on 3 February 1850 but born on 3 November 1849. His tombstone, erected by his daughter, was out by five years.

McGINNIS Baptism Alex 1850
Baptism of Alexander from Church of our Lady, Guelph, Ontario

So why the discrepancies? Why did Alex not give his correct age when he married in 1876? He was actually 27 years old that year, so why did he say he was 22? The census years were fairly close to his correct year of birth so obviously he knew his age. It is not uncommon to find that an ancestor might not his or her exact age but Alex appeared to know his (except for the 1901 census)

Then I realized that the marriage registrations are copies of what was sent in by the minister. So the original entry may indeed have read "27" but the "7" could have been misread as a "2" resulting in the incorrect age of 22 for Alex.

So everything can be explained except for the 1901 census record and the tombstone inscription. But can we explain the census record? Yes. We do not know who gave the information to the census taker. In 1901 Alex lived with his sister, her husband and daughter, and his mother who was in her late 70s. Depending who the census taker spoke to, the age given for Alex could be quite incorrect.

That brings us back to the original culprit - that darned tombstone. Aunt Mary was 60 when her father Alex died. She thought he was 91. In reality he was 87. Was she confused? Had she never known her father's real age? Or did Alex tell his family his wrong age as he reached his 80s?

My mother did that. She turned 92 in 2006, but for two years prior to that birthday she had been adding a year or two on to her real age. In July 2006 she told everyone at a family reunion that she was 93 and would be 94 on her birthday in September. So she added two years to her real age. She was as sharp as a tack so I still have no idea why she fibbed to make herself older. I'm the only one of my siblings who seems to know her actual age, my brothers and sister believe whatever she tells them. If they were to have a tombstone inscribed for her, it's almost guaranteed it would have the wrong year of birth.

And thus we have the moral of my story of a Grave Mistake - that even if it's written in stone it could be wrong.

If you'd like to learn more about cemetery records, watch any of the four classes on the topic in the Legacy library.


Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.





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My mother had dementia the last few years of her life. She was 90 when she passed, but she was telling people that she was over 100. Thankfully, my sister and I knew the correct dates for her birth.

Hi I have found a headstone in country Victoria (Aust) that appears to have the wrong year of death, that is a year later than it would appear to have been. I only found it by attempting to look for a death notice for the later date and then I found a memorial notice, stating the person had died the year before, I then found the death notice for the person, for the year before. The Victorian BDM indexes record the death as the earlier year and it is in the early part of the year so it would have been registered in the appropriate year.
My question is if the monumental mason got the year wrong, why didn't someone fix it up?
Jennifer Bruce

Jennifer - when I wanted to have my father's name added to a stone for his mother, I had to get permission from the rights holder of the grave. That wasn't possible as he was long deceased, so I had to get permission from ALL the heirs/descendants of the rights holder.

So in answer to your question - It is probably that whoever paid for the grave and had the stone engraved would be the only person who could make changes.

When I found my Great Grandmother's grave (Sydney, Australia) for the first time in 2009, I discovered that her death year was wrong. It said 1962, when she died in 1952. My Grandfather had the headstone done, but I'm not sure why he didn't fix it. It was still in really good condition - looked almost brand new. My Grandfather passed in 2003, which means that my Aunt is now the owner of the grave. We managed to get it temporarily fixed two years ago, but it will probably need re-doing in another 5 years.

When I visited my father's grave, his middle name was wrong! His name was Andrew Anthony, but somehow his name was inscribed as Andrew Arthur! I placed the order and they had a copy of the death certificate. I'm not sure how that happened, but they replaced it with a corrected one.

A few extended family members and myself chipped in several years ago to buy a tombstone for an ancestor who never had one. The woman who made all the arrangement, knew the monument company locally, etc, lives in another state. She was able to get a good price and handled all the details. When we got together at the cemetery with the stone, I realized she had put the wrong death date on the stone! I didn't see the information she gave to the monument man and she never asked me for dates. Our ancestor died in 1914 but the stone says 1920. I almost died. (No pun intended!)However, I have a memorial for her on Findagrave and I mentioned the discrepancy. Also, it's obvious the stone is new so hopefully anyone else looking for her will realize they need to do more research!

A great example of exhaustive search. Thank goodness the church opened its records.

I have a problem with the St. Joseph Catholic cemetery in Stratford Ontario. They moved all the standing grave stones to a concrete pad in the center of the graveyard but my problem is they took all the fallen stones which are still in good to excellent condition and threw them in a wooded area at the back of the cemetery. Is this a common practice or just total disregard for the dead.

Jeff, I wrote about a similar horrific event in 2009 in Farnham Cemetery near Guelph Ontario.

This cemetery needs a good cleanup. It needs a volunteer group who will unearth and right the toppled stones, or cement them into a base (as has been done in the Pioneer Cemetery) before it is too late. I wish I lived nearer so I could organize a cleanup group! I find it disrespectful to the memories of those buried there, and a historical oversight that our pioneers who settled there in 1831 should be so forgotten.

I know of a few gravestones that give some detail of an ancestors life incorrectly, but one instance was especially puzzling for a time. There were two cousins on Cape Cod with the same given and surnames and of about the same age. They lived quite close to one another and died within a few years of one another. When some years after the two women died family members had gravestones erected the stones were placed over the wrong graves so that each woman is buried under the other's stone.

I find it odd that often people are terribly reluctant to believe that gravestone information can be wrong even when offered much solid evidence that it is. Thanks for a very useful reminder.

The gravestone erected by my mother on the family plot of several family members had the birth year of my paternal grandmother as 1852 when our family believed it to be 1862. I had the date corrected after my mother's death only to discover that the year is more likely 1861 as believed by my grandmother's brother's relatives and based on federal and local censuses. New York City did not start records until the mid 1860's so that has been a dead end. So far I have not been able to confirm the church of her family.

Washington Cemetery in Houston, Texas has two headstones that are seriously in error on the date of death -- by 100 years! The death dates are engraved as 1820 and 1847, but cemetery records and death certificates clearly state that those individuals died on those dates in 1920 and 1947. Both headstones state the age, but neither gives the date of birth.

Our guess as to why such obvious errors were not corrected at the time is that the monument maker offered the family a choice: he could either make a new one at the agreed price, or they could accept the wrong one at no charge.

Changing incorrect engraving is difficult and not the results are not always satisfactory. We have a marble headstone with OCT engraved over NOV, but it could just as easily be read as NOV engraved over OCT.

My grandmother consistently provided later and later birth years to US Census takers, US Customs, US Passenger lists (Immigration and Naturalization now), newspapers, authors, and anyone who wanted to know. She was born in 1880, but official documents and published materials successively list her year of birth as 1882, 1886, 1887, 1888, 1890, and 1891, because as the years passed, she did not want to admit how old she was.

There's an instance in my family tree that has me wondering about an error in the death date on a marker. This would be the marker of the man I believe to be my aunt's father and my grandmother's first husband.

My aunt Vivian Anglin was born in Hardy, Arkansas on March 2, 1902. In the cemetery in which other family members are buried (in a nearby town across the state line in Thayer, Missouri) is a grave for a Jack Anglin, which is the correct name of my aunt's father. But the date of death inscribed on his marker is March 22, 1901 - about a year before my aunt was born. His age at death is within 2 years of what it should be, going by census records. So I have wondered if the tombstone could be in error, or if this isn't the person I'm researching. My grandmother moved from this area and married my grandfather in 1905.

The cremated remains of my uncle (by marriage) were supposed to have been added to his mothers grave, with a smaller stone marking the corner where the remains were interred.
However, he was accidentally placed, along with his stone, into the grave of my great-aunt. Same last name, but a distant relative and not his mother. And apparently great aunt had no liking for uncle.

After bringing it to the attention of the cemetery, they assured us the move would take place.
What they actually did, was move only the stone. This was confirmed 2 ways: firstly, there was no freshly dug area under the new stone placement, and secondly, the spot where the stone WAS had also not been disturbed, and by running a thin rod into the ground, we hit the urn.

So once again a stone lies, and good ol' uncle isn't where he's supposed to be - story of his life...

i found one list night. my ggf married in 1895 and the age given for his wife was 29 and his 28. the grave stone says that she was 30 on her death in 1896 thus we have the year of birth for her as 1866. and her baptism was in 1868.

there is however no birth reg in the gro [uk] for her in that year.

had it not been for the fact of
1) she was called fanny Elizabeth,
2) her father was recorded as John
3) and most significantly the grave stone also carries her mothers name of Susannah,
4) and then the census and baptism showing that there was only her born to a John and Susannah

i would not have found her birth was in fact in 1862 and not 1866 as the stone and marriage cert suggests.

this is just one of several discrepancy i have come across on graves both here in the uk and else ware in the world.

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