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4 Steps to Analyzing Your Ancestor's Grave Site

Finding where an ancestor is buried is high on most genealogy researchers' wish list. We not only want to know where an ancestor is buried, but what information can be discovered on the gravestone.

But I have to ask.....

Are you finding all of the possible clues your ancestor's final resting place is telling you?

Let's take a closer look at how to analyze an ancestor's grave site. 

Gravestone of Harriett Thomas
photo credit: Lisa Lisson

Step 1 - Engraved Information

Get the basics out of the way first. Look for the full name,  birth and death dates and any information on a potential spouse. For example, is your ancestor the "beloved husband of Sarah Smith?" Be sure to check the backside of the tombstone, too! 

Step 2 - Tombstone Symbols

The symbols on a tombstone can provide information and clues about your ancestor's life. For example, a cross can represent that the deceased is of the Christian faith.  The type of cross can be indicative of a specific denomination. 

A sampling of other tombstone symbols includes:

  • Clasped hands - represents God's welcome to heaven or a goodbye to an earthly existence
  • A lamb - indicates a child's grave
  • An olive branch - represents peace
  • A tree trunk - represents a life cut short
  • The square and the compass - represents membership in a Masonic Lodge
  • A tree stump or  a log - represents membership in the Woodmen of the World fraternal organization
  • Military symbols and gravestones- military gravestones will usually have a symbol of belief indicating the deceased's faith. Also the shape or design of a military tombstone can indicate  which war the deceased participated in.

This is just a small sampling of the types of symbols or design and what they represent. If you are unsure what a symbol on your ancestor's gravestone represents, a quick Google search of "cemetery symbolism" will yield many helpful sites. A great reference book on cemetery symbols is Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister.

Step 3 - Take a close look around 

Who is buried close to your ancestor? Is this a family plot? Could those buried beside or close by your ancestor be parents, children or siblings? Just as you research all individuals appearing in your ancestors records, research those individuals buried near by and determine if they are potential ancestors.

Cromwell White Gravestone Marker
photo credit: Lisa Lisson

Step 4 - Burial Location

Is your ancestor buried in a church cemetery? They may have been church members. Check that church for records! Is your ancestor buried in a  city or town cemetery? Then check for cemetery records possibly naming other family members or for a potential deed to the family plot. Is your ancestor buried "out in the middle of the woods"? This could potentially be the site of the family home place or family land. Check the deeds for the area.

Tip:  Always ask yourself "Why?" Why this location? Why this symbol(s)? Why in close proximity to these individuals?

For more information check out our Legacy Family Tree Webinars on cemetery research.

Still trying to find out where your ancestors are buried? Find 8 resources to check in How to Find Where Your Ancestors Are Buried.


Lisa Lisson is the writer, educator and genealogy researcher behind Are You My Cousin? and believes researching your genealogy does not have to be overwhelming. All you need is a solid plan, a genealogy toolbox and the knowledge to use those tools. Lisa can be found online at LisaLisson.com , Facebook and Pinterest


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