U.S. Cemetery Records Research Guide
Any time there are no formally documented birth, marriage and death records, cemetery records might function as an replacement source. You will discover several types of information and facts which might be extracted from cemeteries.
Gravestones usually consist of the date of birth and death. Additionally, it can comprise of military service, description of relationship in the family, or cause of death.
Whether you are working on a comprehensive genealogy family tree, or are just researching a few generations back out of curiosity, cemetery records can play a huge role in your project.
It can actually prove to be very surprising to learn everything that records from cemeteries can offer you and your research. You may even find that the records that you are able to locate will be able to take your family tree into entirely new directions that you never would have considered.
Information about deaths and births can often be found in cemetery records. Although Christian and Jewish cemeteries and burial spots are usually most interesting to genealogists, the practice of creating cemeteries or other burial areas for groups of people is several thousand years old. The following are types of cemetery records that genealogists need to look for:
- Church Burial Registers
- Sextons’ Records
- Cemetery Deed and Plot Registers
- Burial Permit Records
- Grave Opening Orders
- Monument (Gravestone) Inscriptions
In many cases, the records above can be used to verify the birth and death information in other genealogical resources. However, there are times when one or more of the records above may be the only available reference that lists a certain person’s birth or death.
It can sometimes be difficult to locate cemetery records, but the time and trouble it takes to find those records is often well worth it to the researcher, especially if the person of interest happened to die when they were under the age of 21.
Cemetery records may contain the only information about those who died at a young age, especially those who died in the 1800s. It’s important to remember that child deaths were much more common in those times than they are today.
Women living in the 1800s also may only be listed by name in cemetery records. Censuses from before 1850 only listed “female” and an age range, not a name. So, women who died fairly young or did nothing of note that might get them listed in local papers, may be virtually impossible to trace without cemetery records.
Unfortunately, many colonial gravestones are now missing or impossible to read. However, it’s still well worth walking through colonial cemeteries, if possible. Any information that is still legible on the gravestones may be vitally important.
For example, if a family changed the spelling of their last name when they moved to America, the gravestones may be the only place where the name is listed with its original spelling.
Luckily, many of the gravestones from 1820 to 1920, which is when a lot of immigration occurred, still exist today. By comparing names and dates on those gravestones, many family connections can be tracked.
What Is The Difference Between ‘Graveyard’ And ‘Cemetery’
Simply said, a graveyard adjoins a church, whereas a cemetery does not but keep reading for a more detailed explanation.
From around the 6th century C.E., the burial process was in the hands of the Church. To do so, the Church was burying the dead on the lands near the church building, what we call, the churchyard. Graveyard is the part of the churchyard that was used for burial.
But as the population of Europe started to grow, it was impossible to fit all the people in the graveyards. Therefore, new burial sites have been created that weren’t attached to a church. These new burial sites that are not adjoined to a building are called cemeteries.
Cemetery Records Tips & Hints
Here are just a few of the very useful pieces of information that cemetery records can provide you with.
Names, Names, Names
When it comes to any family tree, you will find that learning the names of your ancestors is not only very interesting but it can be a bit insightful also. If there is a first name that has been known as a family name for many generations, you could just learn where it originated from.
Cemetery records will also give you access to complete names that include the first, middle, last, and even maiden names of those who you are researching. Knowing their full names can also help you to distinguish between your relatives and others when you come across a list of people with similar names.
A very vital part of any family history project is the dates that you can add to it. Knowing the birth date and date of death of your ancestors can help to better organize your family tree.
If the records are kept at a church, or are associated with a church then you might also be able to find out dates of marriages and dates that children were christened, which can all provide you with additional clues about your family history.
Clues To The Family’s Origin
A lot of cemetery records will include details that relate to the place of birth of the individual. This information can prove to be especially helpful to you if your research has thus far left you stumped as to where your family originated from.
By uncovering places of birth, you could just learn that your family crossed oceans from Europe, Asia, or even Africa.
This information can help you to expand your project to new shores and new information that has been lost for generations.
Other Great Details
Some records from cemeteries can often contain information pertaining to the surviving family members of the person you are researching. This could let you know if your ancestor was married, or whether they had other children that you weren’t previously aware of.
You could also come across a lot of information that relates to their parents, which will give you additional names and leads to follow to help your project expand further back into your family’s history.
Cemetery records can offer a wide variety of information that would have otherwise been somewhat difficult to locate. To find it all in one place can save you a lot of time with your project research, and also help you to ensure that your project doesn’t stall out over a lack of information.
Remember to make copies of everything that you learn so that you will have a copy to refer back to at a later point if you should have the need to do so.
How to Find Cemeteries
When you are ready to start researching cemeteries for family history purposes, you should start by obtaining copies of local maps. County maps tend to be the most detailed, but they may not list cemeteries where new burials are not occurring in the present day.
For that, you should get a copy of a U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle map of the area. Once you have the maps, you can compare and mark cemeteries of interest that are located near known places where your ancestors lived. Then you can contact or visit those cemeteries.
You might think that you can just go to a county and randomly visit each of its cemeteries, but that depends on the size of the county.
Some counties consist of more than 600 square miles of land. Searching that amount of space without narrowing down the search window first would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Once you locate a cemetery of interest, you should search the cemetery itself. However, it can also be useful to talk to local residents that live within a mile or so of the cemetery.
They may know a lot about the local history. They may even have more cemetery plots located on their land. After all, many cemetery plots have become abandoned and overgrown with the passage of time.
It’s not uncommon for landowners to stumble upon old graves half concealed by brush and debris on their properties. Older residents may know about the existence of such graves.
You may also want to question local families with young children, since they may have found graves while playing in local fields and woods.
Before you go to a cemetery to do research, you should arm yourself with as much information as possible. That way you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for.
Try to figure out the first and last names of as many family members as possible, as well as married names, maiden names, and alternate spellings. It’s also helpful to know the approximate dates that your ancestors lived near the cemetery in question.
While you are doing research in the area, you should also check with town and county clerks and historical societies for land records and other related information.
That can help you to pinpoint when your family came to the area, what property they owned, and which graveyards and cemeteries are closest to that property.
Keep in mind that some graves may have been moved from their original location. So, the more records you can locate, the easier your cemetery search is likely to be.
One way to pinpoint cemeteries of interest is to check family death certificates. Typically, family members were buried near each other in the same cemetery.
So, if you find a grave belonging to someone in your family, pay attention to and make note of the names on the surrounding graves. They may also be your relatives, even if they have different last names.
Cemetery Inscription Compilations
In recent years, many cemetery inscriptions have been transcribed and compiled in various collections.
There has been a massive effort by organizations including the U.S. Department of Energy, the Boy Scouts, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to preserve the information on headstones and cemetery monuments.
Most of the compilations also come with every-name indexes. They also include maps of modern roads and their relationships to the cemeteries and graves listed in the compilations.
Such compilations are widely available online and in most genealogical and historical societies, as well as libraries.
Many times cemeteries have to be located. That happens whenever an area turns from agricultural land to industrial or urban land. It can also happen when dams are built, or when other changes need to be made to a certain section of land, such as the building of a new highway.
Anytime building projects cause cemeteries to be moved, surveys are taken and records are kept of where the graves are moved to, as well as the inscriptions on them.
Even when graves are unmarked, often local residents and family records can help to identify the deceased.
When deceased people need to be moved, generally file cards are created with information about the interment process. They are then kept and organized alphabetically by a local organization.
The public can request that information from the organization for a small fee, or sometimes no fee at all.
For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority holds a lot of records for that area, including cemetery inscriptions and maps. They can be contacted at TVA Mapping Services, (HB 2A) 1101 Market Street, Chattanooga, TN 37402-2801.
Some military graves have been relocated over the years as well. One large example is the Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell, Nebraska. It opened in 1873 and was completed by 1947.
Service member graves from Nebraska, South Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado were consolidated and moved to that cemetery throughout those years. Meticulous records were kept and indexed.
They can be found at the cemetery itself, as well as at the national archives. However, the cemetery does include 584 graves belonging to unknown people as well.
In cases where churches were relocated, they may have created a second cemetery at the new location, splitting up family members.
For instance, the grave of Thornton Berry, buried in 1882 at the Augusta Stone Church in Fort Defiance, Augusta County, Virginia lies in the newer Augusta Stone Church cemetery.
Other members of his family, including his second wife, are buried there. Across the highway and a block away on a hill is the grave of his first wife, Rachel Crawford Berry.
Her son’s grave lies 100 yards away from her, in the Crawford family plot. Luckily, the graves were discovered and well-preserved. Had they become overgrown, that branch of the Berry family tree may have been lost.
Congregational splits can also cause variances in where family members are buried. Dissension in the congregation could cause some members to split off and create their own place of worship, as well as a new cemetery to go with it.
For example, New Providence congregation in Virginia broke away from Old Providence congregation. The two churches and the two cemeteries are in the same town. In fact, only two miles separates them.
However, if a genealogist interested in information about someone that was part of the Old Providence congregation didn’t know that, they might completely overlook the second cemetery.
That’s why it’s important to search all cemeteries in any area where your family members are known to have lived.
Regardless of how large the cemetery is, you should check the sexton’s records before you check anything else, if those records are available.
They may list names of your female relatives and where they are buried within the cemetery under their married surnames. That can help you to identify more relatives, even if their last names are unfamiliar.
Of course, sexton’s records may not be available for small family cemeteries. So, you will have to walk through and read all of the headstones and markers. You should make note of any information that may be relevant to your family.
Large public cemeteries, on the other hand, should have sexton’s records available. Not only that, but you should be able to compare the cemetery plats to those records and find graves from the era of interest within the cemetery.
You may even be able to obtain a small copy of a map, which you can make notes on, as needed.
Searching in Cemeteries
The best way to search a cemetery is with one or more other people. Not only will having a companion offer you a bit more safety, but your companion or companions may notice important gravestone information that you might miss.
It’s also a good idea to walk or ride around the cemetery as a whole and get an idea of the general feel of the place. Notice which sections of the cemetery look particularly old or contain mausoleums.
You should also look for large monuments, which may indicate prominent citizens that were buried in that location.
The cemetery as a whole can say a lot about ethnic groups that were in the area, lifestyles, historical events that occurred in the area, and how poor or affluent the residents were.
Once you have a good understanding of the cemetery itself, you can begin looking for specific graves. Try to look for names that seem familiar.
Next, look at how the date of death is indicated on the gravestones. If several gravestones have similar dates, it could mean that something major caused multiple deaths in the area.
For instance, the area may have experienced, a flood, fire, mining disaster, or contagious disease outbreak.
Also, look for particular patterns, which indicate certain ethnic backgrounds. For example, both Swedish and German people tended to bury families by erecting a large name stone in the middle of a bunch of smaller stones. German stones typically only listed initials or relationships, while Swedish stones may only show given names.
Swedish gravestones tended to be soft colors, such as pink,sand, or gray. Polish gravestones, on the other hand, were typically dark red or black. Also, Polish graves were often laid out in straight rows with exact death dates listed.
The original Polish spellings of the last names were also often listed, even if the family had changed the spelling when they moved to America.
Many of the early residents of Virginia and New England, as well as their relatives that later moved to other parts of the United States, had ornate carved monuments and gravestones erected with all-seeing eyes, weeping willows, and other unique symbolism on them.
Many of them also included verses of scripture and full biographies about how family members were related to each other.
Gravestones belonging to Quakers were also quite unique until the late 1800s. They were each required to be exactly a foot high. Many of them contained inscriptions, but some may have been cut off when Quaker leaders determined that the monuments had to be cut down to meet the size requirement.
Several U.S. cemeteries were divided into sections for certain types of people. For example, there were sections for paupers, African American people, and Asian people.
Native American people were sometimes buried in the African American (“colored”) areas. Muslims, Catholics, and Jews were often buried together in areas designated as religious parts of the cemeteries.
There are also Masonic sections in some cemeteries, which often feature vaults and crypts.
If you plan to do research in cemeteries, you should do so in the early spring. It can be difficult to find graves ones the weeds start to grow, or once the snow starts to fall.
However, just as spring is starting the gravestones will be clearly visible. Not only that, but you won’t be as likely to run into snakes or other undesirable animals.
Speaking of snakes, you should always keep your eyes open for certain hazards in cemeteries. Those hazards could include snakes and other animals, poison ivy, thorn bushes, uneven ground, overgrown roots and other obstacles.
That is another reason to always bring another person, a working cellular phone, and possibly a can of mace with you when you do cemetery research.
Recording Cemetery Data
It’s important to be able to record any cemetery transcriptions that you find accurately. So, you should always take notepaper, family group worksheets, or at least a reliable camera with you.
That way you can accurately document any information that you find.
You should also keep in mind that even the smallest bit of information could come in handy during your family history research later on.
So, rather than just recording names and dates of birth and death, you may want to record or take pictures of all information on a particular grave marker.
You never know when information about cause of death, citizenship, physical description and even epitaph selection might be able to lead your research in a new and interesting direction.
Another thing to consider is that you may never get to see the gravestone that you are recording again. Maybe you will be lucky and it will be a local public gravestone.
However, it may be a gravestone that you have to get special permission in order to view, or it may simply be so far away from your home that you can’t visit it again.
Also, gravestones are subject to changing weather, vandals, destruction from animals, and other problems that could cause some or all of the information to be illegible at a later date.
So, record everything that you see, and be sure to double check to make sure that you haven’t accidentally mixed up or missed any information on the stones.
If you want to be extra accurate, you can also try drawing a plot of the gravestones in the area. Many families were buried together.
So, if you plot the grave locations and sizes, it may help you to identify how certain people were related to each other. Number each plot on the diagram and write a description of it on your worksheet or notepaper.
If family relationships are unclear, write separate sheets for each plot and compare them to each other later.
Compiled records of cemetery transcriptions can be helpful in some ways, but they aren’t always useful on their own. Many of them may be missing information, contain typographical errors, or be organized in a strange way.
So, it’s a good idea to draw or obtain your own map of the cemetery, record the inscriptions that you personally find, and then cross-reference that information with records compiled from other sources.
That way you can get a more complete picture of how family members were related. That step is especially important if some graves have been defaced or destroyed between the time that the compilation was made and the time that you visited the cemetery yourself.
It’s also important to keep in mind that compiled records may not include epitaphs or extra information that is on the gravestones.
Typically, those compilations only include names and dates. The missing extra information may be meaningful to your research, which is why you should go and view the graves with your own eyes whenever possible.
Reading and Photographing Gravestones
Before you visit any cemetery, you should contact whatever authority is responsible for that cemetery. If you aren’t sure who to contact, check with the local police or town hall.
If they can’t give you permission to do your research themselves, they should be able to tell you who can. Be sure to explain why you want to visit the cemetery and what you plan to do there, such as transcribe or photograph gravestones.
Most towns will grant you access to most graveyards, but they may require you to pay a small fee, and they may or may not require a town representative to escort you.
The biggest reason why towns often require that you get permission to visit old cemeteries is because they want to make sure that anyone entering the cemetery won’t harm the gravestones, either intentionally or accidentally.
Many old gravestones have already been damaged by the weather and the passage of time. Any rough handling, abrasive brushing, or other invasive actions can add to that damage.
So, it’s important to only use clean water and a natural bristle brush to gently clear away any moss or debris. You can pat the gravestone with a soft, dry, towel to remove the water when you’re done.
Although, you should keep in mind that some towns may not let you clean or touch gravestones at all.
Most towns are more likely to allow you to photograph gravestones than to touch them or take etchings of them.
However, photographs may not always capture enough detail. That’s why you should bring worksheets or notebooks so that you can copy data by hand, if necessary.
Some photographs of gravestones are artistically sound. That is, they look good. However, looking good is not necessarily the goal, if you are taking them for genealogical purposes.
The Association for Gravestone Studies has created a leaflet called Daniel and Jessie Lie Farber, Making Photographic Records of Gravestones. That leaflet contains information about how to accurately take genealogical photographs of gravestones.
For example, it describes how to set the lighting at a thirty degree angle for maximum legibility. It also talks about using a mirror as a light source, if necessary.
Another important thing to remember is that you should adjust your camera to the angle of the gravestone, rather than trying to adjust your gravestone for the camera. If you try to straighten a gravestone, aside from potentially getting arrested or fined, you could do major damage to the stone.
Once you have photographed the gravestones, if you have taken them with regular film, be sure to get archive-quality sleeves to store them in. Then, create labels for each photograph, but don’t put the labels on the photographs themselves, since the labels could damage them. If you choose to take digital photographs and store them on your computer instead, be sure that you make backup discs.
Special Problems Encountered When Recording Gravestone Data
Although many people make rubbings of gravestones, the practice is frowned upon by those interested in preserving those gravestones. According to Preservation of Historic Burial Grounds,
“Gravestone rubbing should be strongly curtailed or eliminated due to potential damage to markers".
Irreparable and significant damage has been done by people who thought themselves to be both careful and knowledgeable. In addition to the damage caused by pigment residue, most visitors are not able to accurately distinguish between sound gravestones and unstable ones. Because of the potential damage, rubbing is best avoided altogether.”
Grave markers often wind up partially buried in topsoil or undergrowth. Some even fall down naturally or because of vandalism. That can make them difficult to find.
It helps to carry some sort of probe ad gently poke it into the soil up to 10 inches at intervals to see if there are any buried stones in the area. Hedges and fence lines should be checked especially carefully.
Some grave markers may also have been moved around within the cemetery.
You may not be able to identify where a marker actually goes, but the information listed on it can still be useful. If you find any fallen markers, be sure to tell the proper authorities. They may be able to have the markers restored or replaced by experts.
Another issue you may encounter is two gravestones for the same person. One reason that may occur is if a footstone was made, as well as a headstone.
Another possibility is that the original stone may have been damaged, a new one was created, and it was placed next to the old stone. The old stone may not have been removed for financial or other reasons.
Sometimes a gravestone for a person can be found in a family cemetery, even if their body is not buried there. Another gravestone may be at the cemetery where the person’s body is actually interred.
Finally, what looks like two stones for the same person may not be. They may belong to a father and son or mother and daughter who had the same name. If the name is fairly common, they may even belong to two unrelated people.
For example, two gravestones in two cemeteries in the same town might say “John Smith,” but there might have been two different people by that name living in the area at that time.
Preservation of Cemeteries
Prior to doing any cemetery research, you should familiarize yourself with cemetery preservation efforts.
The Association for Gravestone Studies has co-published Lynette Strangstad, A Graveyard Preservation Primer, which can help you to understand current cemetery conservation efforts in the United States.
Types of Cemeteries & Cemetery Records
Church Burial Yard
Up until World War II began, churches were generally built with adjoining burial yards, even if those churches were built inside city limits.
Some original church burial yards still exist, but many were later moved out into the country due to real estate demands. Buildings were often constructed over the old lots after the bodies were relocated.
In some instances, the bodies were simply left where they were originally buried and buildings were constructed over them.
There are many public cemeteries in almost all towns and cities across the United States. Some of them are run by state or national veteran organizations, while others are owned and operated by the towns or cities where they are located.
Family Burial Plots
Family burial plots are also fairly common in rural parts of the country. However, new private family plots are becoming less common because of the government rules and regulations that control such things in modern times.
Those rules and regulations didn’t exist in the 1800s and before. So, family burial plots, particularly on farms, were common.
Unless the same family has owned and maintained a piece of property since the 1800s and maintains the plots for their family to this day, it’s likely that any family plots that exist still will be in states of disrepair.
Some have disappeared entirely over the years, but others have been maintained by local organizations or the new owners of the property.
If you can locate family burial plots for your ancestors, they can often yield a lot of genealogical information.
Commercial Memorial Parks
As large cities were developed after World War II, Commercial Memorial Parks began to be constructed. Many of them kept chronological burial registers of funerals.
In some cases, a person’s specific burial plot may be listed. By comparing that information, you can often locate other members of the deceased person’s family buried in the same plot or section.
Sometimes grave stones may not have been erected. Those that were may no longer exist. So, those burial registers may be the only records that can provide that information.
Records for children from that time are especially scarce, but they should be listed in burial registers.
Church Burial Registers
Church burial records function much the same as burial registers for commercial or privately owned cemeteries. They may list family members of the deceased and other important information.
However, they aren’t always easy to locate. Some of them have been transferred to university libraries or genealogical societies.
Others have been placed in church archives. Some have become part of private collections owned by the heirs of clerks or ministers who originally documented the records.
So, you may have to search for quite a while to find specific church records.
Most community, church, or municipal cemeteries have caretakers or offices. Those offices hold burial registries for the cemeteries.
Those collections of records are known as sexton’s records. Sexton’s records often include details about which plots are owned, occupied, and available for sale. So, those record books are essentially plat and deed books for the land.
Whenever anyone purchased cemetery land, they were given a deed to that land. Each plat owner kept a copy of their deed, but so did the cemetery sextons.
Whenever land was transferred, sold, or inherited, those changes to the deeds were recorded. All of those original records and changes were noted in deed books for the cemeteries.
Prior to local governments being established in certain areas, there were no such things as cemeteries or cemetery plots. Graves were simply dug in certain areas as needed.
Once cemeteries were established and cemetery deeds began to be recorded, earlier burial records may have been recorded after the fact.
However, the locations of certain graves may have been forgotten by that time. Nevertheless, names and dates may be available.
Burial Permit Records
Burials have been overseen by state health departments since approximately 1920.
Burial permit records must generally be obtained from the state health departments by licensed morticians. Those records can be quite helpful to genealogists.
Grave Opening Orders
There are typically three reasons for opening a grave.
- To bury a person.
- To move the body to a new grave site for construction or other reasons.
- To perform postmortem examinations of bodies, mainly during murder investigations.
In any case, most cemeteries keep records called grave opening orders detailing each time a grave is opened in that cemetery. Typically those records show how far down a grave was dug and may list names of the deceased.
So, if a grave was shallow, it may have been a child. Also, if more than one person was buried in a plot, they were probably closely related to each other. That’s why those records can be quite helpful to genealogists.
In cases where private burials were held, records can be hard, if not impossible, to find. However, many times records of private burials were listed in family Bibles. Those Bibles were then passed down through the family.
If your family still has one or more family Bibles from different branches of the family, the information contained in them may be priceless in terms of research.
In some cases, family Bibles have been transferred to the Library of Congress, the National Archives, or other historical and genealogical agencies as part of collections of documents from early settlers.
Some family Bible pages may also have been used as evidence in cases of legal claims against the federal government. Many of those pages can now be found in an alphabetically organized collection of case files held at the Library of Congress or the National Archives.
Monuments and Memorials
Searching for monuments and memorials can be a rewarding experience for those interested in genealogy. Many monuments are mysterious, or at least interesting. The information gained from some of them may not be found in written records.
Many affluent or prominent families provided special gifts to honor loved ones when they passed away. Those gifts often included inscriptions with name, date, and relationship information. Examples of such gifts include:
- Altar Pieces
- Stained Glass Windows
- Sacramental Services
Occasionally, families made donations to projects, organizations, or trust funds when a loved one passed away. Records were usually kept by those trusts and organizations.
Listings of such donations can be found at the organization itself, in family records, or in old copies of local newspapers. Depending on the circumstances, court records may also contain some of that information.
Some ethnic groups and families chose to have their loved ones buried in raised vaults or tombs. Usually, they were in a specific mausoleum or section of the cemetery.
The tombs each typically had inscriptions on them. Burial registers were also sometimes put inside the tombs in special cupboards to keep the records safe and preserved.
In cases where people were cremated, the ashes could be stored in an urn in a family member’s home, at the cemetery, or at the crematory. Typically, each urn is labeled or inscribed.
Monuments vary quite a bit. Some were made of wood, such as crosses. They may be faded or destroyed over time. Others may be marble slabs with detailed biographies of the dead. Some of the information on those monuments may include:
- Date of Birth
- Date of Death
- Place of Birth
- Place of Death
- Parent Names
- Sibling Names
- Spouse Names
Some monuments may also list notable achievements or occupations of the deceased people.
Decorations on monuments may also give genealogists useful information about the deceased person for which the monument was erected. Religious symbols may be present on the monument, indicating a specific church or faith. Other symbols might indicate some or all of the following:
- Cause of Death
- Life Philosophies
- Membership in Specific Organizations
If you are lucky enough to come across a family monument that contains some or all of that information, it’s best to take photographs of it, sketch it, or make a rubbing of it.
That way you can have a permanent record of it, in case the monument itself is ever damaged or destroyed.
It’s important to note that monuments or headstones were not always placed on graves right after the burial. In fact, some monuments may not have been erected until decades after a person’s death.
Records may exist indicating when a particular monument was erected. If not, sometimes you can determine a rough time based on the materials used to construct the monument.
If the date is old, but the stone itself looks newer, that could mean that the monument was a replacement for an original headstone that was destroyed. It could also mean that the family simply didn’t erect a headstone or monument until years after the person’s death.
Headstones and monuments constructed long after the death may not be entirely accurate.
Another way to tell the age of a headstone or monument is by looking at the ground around it. Most old graves sink into the ground a bit over the years. Those indentations can help you to determine the age of the grave, as well as the age of the person at the time of their death. Graves for children or infants were 5 feet long or less.
Cemetery Search Strategies
“Cemetery record” is a broad term that describes a variety of possible records created to show who is buried in a cemetery and, possibly, who purchased the lot, listing a next of kin. These documents are found in a variety of places.
- Records of church cemeteries are often found in the church records either at a local or regional level.
- Public cemeteries have records maintained by a sexton, caretaker or town clerk.
- Records of family cemeteries are not always maintained and the lots are generally located on private property with no records to show who is buried there. Check family manuscript collections.
- Consider that cemeteries have been moved, stones have been vandalized and records have been lost. Check with local libraries or historical societies to find out about relocated cemeteries.
First do a history of the town and years in question. Create a list of names and locations of cemeteries that existed at that time and place. Consider private and public cemeteries along with church cemeteries. Use the following resources:
- Published county histories
- City directories
Some surveys have been done to index or extract names that are found on gravestones or records. Various groups and individuals create these lists for a variety of reasons. Some have been published in genealogical periodicals and are indexed in PERSI (Periodical Source Index).
Published Cemetery Record Links
- Nationwide Veteran Gravesite Locator (gravelocator.cem.va.gov) Search for burial locations of veterans and their family members in VA National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, various other military and Department of Interior cemeteries, and for veterans buried in private cemeteries when the grave is marked with a government grave marker.
- Gravestone Photo Project
- Association for Gravestone Studies
- Tombstone Inscription Project
- Obituary Project
- United States Cemeteries at Internment.net
- The Political Graveyard
- Terminology & Meanings of Tombstone Symbols
- Cemetery and Graveyard Associations by State