By Kathy Jones-Kristof | August 15, 2008
#2 in a Series of 3 About Tombstones and Cemeteries
Cemeteries are wonderful places to research Family History, as I discussed in Tombstones, Our Ancestors’ Monuments to Genealogy Research, my first post in this series where I gave examples of the many things that can be learned from tombstones. Even if you’re lucky enough to know the name of your ancestor’s Cemetery, finding it can be an archaeological task worthy of Indiana Jones, especially with lost family cemeteries or towns that have changed names or disappeared completely. However, as always with Genealogy, the rewards can be well worth the effort, so cue the theme music and our search is on!
The first thing you need to know to find your ancestor’s Cemetery is where your ancestor died. This comes from your Family File. Your research will have revealed either exactly when and where your ancestor died from a county death record or you should’ve been able to ascertain the location of your ancestor’s last known residence from tax lists and land deeds. In the latter case, you may be hoping that your ancestor’s tombstone will give you her/his date of death.
The next step is to discover the name and location of your ancestor’s Cemetery. Death Certificates are the best places to find Cemetery locations—see my post In the Beginning on how to find death certificates. Next best source, family interviews and your family’s papers, which may include Cemetery deeds or funeral papers. Something I’ve found extremely useful is funeral home Memorial Folders, which are given out at wakes and usually kept by families in memory of loved ones. These list place of interment or burial, along with other valuable family information.
Another valuable source of Cemetery names and locations is funeral homes themselves. Obituaries include the name of the funeral home handling the “arrangements,” which includes the burial. Call them and see ask where the burial was, along with any other information they have on file, no matter how old the obituary may be. If they’ve gone out of business, call the county or other local mortuaries and ask where the defunct funeral home’s records were transferred.
Check with the church where your ancestor’s funeral was held. Not only do a lot of them have their own Cemeteries, but they may have a record of where your ancestor was buried after the service.
If you know the name of your ancestor’s Cemetery but not its exact location, only the state or county, you have a lot of options. Call information. The Cemetery may be one of those nicely manicured places with an office and full-time staff. If so, the tombstone isn’t your only option for information. The office has a file on who paid for the grave, the burial and the headstone. That’s valuable information you should collect, too.
No phone number? Get online with the US Board on Geographic Names (USGS) which has the exact location of many Cemeteries, both big and small. Input Cemetery for Feature. Search Google for your Cemetery’s name. Call city and county clerk or tax offices. Contact area funeral homes and churches. Ask not only if your ancestor’s Cemetery is located in their community, but also if they have interment lists and can confirm that she/he is indeed buried there.
If you can’t find any trace of the Cemetery, it may have changed names. If it’s a small cemetery, it may be known locally by a different name than what you have listed in your files. The name of the town may have changed, too. Check place name books and the USGS, this time inputting the name of the town for Feature. A church may have changed denominations, causing its attached Cemetery to be more difficult to find. Roads and buildings frequently create the need—which I deplore—for graves to be moved. There have been cases where small, abandoned Cemeteries were simply bulldozed over before a community could have a construction project stopped long enough to have the graves moved. Consider all these possibilities in your search, whether you know the name of your Cemetery or not.
Next, finding your ancestor’s Cemetery when you don’t know its name.
Your research should have revealed if your ancestor lived in a town or on a farm. This will make a difference in where you look for their Cemetery. Farm ownership will mean they were most likely buried on their own land. Town dwellers would have been buried in a group cemetery in or near the town. Alternatives to both of these would be church cemeteries.
The first place to look for information is, as always, the Internet. Search Google for the community and county where your ancestor last lived to see if any Cemeteries or burials are listed. Remember that the majority of this information is transcribed data. Very few websites contain photos of actual tombstones. I’m hesitant to use transcribed data because it may contain errors, plus the original viewer of the gravestone may have missed clues about your ancestor (see my first post in this series) that won’t be included in the transcription. Use this type of transcribed information only as a clue to help you find valid, verifiable data—not as actual Fact.
If you’re unable to visit your ancestor’s Cemetery in person and must rely on Internet resources, look for websites where a transcription includes the researcher’s name, the date of the Cemetery visit and its exact location. This indicates that the researcher has done more than just the minimum amount of work and has strived to provide accurate information.
In reference to the websites with photos of tombstones, this eliminates the transcription problem, but does create the problem of possibly missing valuable Cemetery information if there are family stones nearby. However, once again, if you are unable to visit the Cemetery in person, these websites are an excellent resource.
Your next step in finding your ancestor’s Cemetery is contacting the same places you should’ve written while originally researching your ancestor; genealogical societies, local historians, libraries, etc. This time, add churches and funeral homes to the list. Tell them you’re searching for where your ancestor’s buried and need a list of local Cemeteries, including those on old farms or private Cemeteries. If they have interment lists, ask them to check for your ancestor.
Contact the current owner of your ancestor’s land to see if there’s a graveyard. Check with neighboring landowners. Several homesteads may have shared a burial site.
Other ways to locate abandoned Cemeteries is via topographic maps, tax maps, utility company survey maps, town plans, plat maps, and burial registers in county and city offices. Most public libraries, college and university libraries, as well as state, county and federal offices have map collections you can access, and you can buy topographic maps of the area you’re researching. I’ve even found old country Cemeteries on MapQuest by looking along roads in a community.
Once you’ve arrived at the area where your ancestor lived, if you still aren’t sure where the Cemetery is or if there is one, you still have options. Ask old people in the community. Go to a sporting goods store that sells hunting supplies and find out who the hunters are in the area. They’ve been tramping around the woods in that region for years and probably know where every Cemetery is for fifty miles.
And finally, the way that’s worked best for my cousin and me, drive around the area close to where your ancestor lived and ask people if there’s an old Cemetery nearby. I’ve had total strangers leave their yard sale and lead me several miles to a turnoff to a Cemetery. I’ve walked into a church building project and been invited to share their potluck lunch while the congregation finished eating before someone could lead me to the road I needed. Once, my cousin and I were taken into a woman’s home, offered iced tea and told to wait while she called someone who not only gave us directions to our ancestor’s Cemetery, but also the nearby address of a member of our family we’d never known about, who I immediately interrogated—I mean questioned—about anything he could add to our family’s history.
Unfortunately, he was unable to provide us with any meaningful information. He’d spent most of the day cutting hay and was now relaxing in a way that made his concentration illegally unfocused. He tried to be helpful, but the only thing we learned was that he kept the Cemetery where our mutual ancestors were buried neatly mowed and he didn’t have any photos of the people buried there—probably.
Okay, now you know how to find your ancestor’s Cemetery and, from the first post of this series, all the wonderful things you can learn from a Tombstone. Next time I’ll tell you what to take with you to the Cemetery and how to take the best possible photos of those weathered, almost unreadable stones. Check back soon!