Last week I mentioned that one way of discovering specific information regarding the place and date of your ancestor’s death is through cemeteries. If you know the area where your ancestor lived at the time of his or her death, it is often (though not always) fairly easy to determine where he or she was buried. And if you can find a headstone, you may be able to determine a precise date of death.
However, if you are indeed able to locate a headstone, you will likely discover much more about your ancestor than a date of death. Cemeteries can be fascinating sources of all kinds of genealogical information.
Accessing Cemetery Records
Once you know which cemetery your ancestor was buried in, access is simply a matter of going there and finding their grave amongst the many others. But to get to that point, you’ll likely have to do a little research.
If you were able to locate a death certificate for your ancestor, it may tell you the cemetery where he or she was buried. Obituaries (which we’ll talk more about next week) may also name the place of burial. Knowing where other members of the family were buried is another way to narrow your search, since family members are often buried near each other. If none of these sources yield any results, then the next place to look is a cemetery index.
Using a Cemetery Index
By “cemetery index” I simply mean any list of persons buried within a particular cemetery. Indices of this nature are compiled by a number of different sources, including genealogists, historical societies, cemetery offices, and interested individuals. They can be found in book format, on microfilm, or online. Two main resources for discovering cemetery indices are the Indiana State Library’s Cemetery Locator File and contributor-based websites.
The ISL’s Cemetery Locator File is a kind of index of indices. It contains information submitted by both individuals and historical societies over a number of years. When you search for a cemetery or location in the Cemetery Locator File your results will be in the form of call numbers for sources that contain information about that cemetery, information that may include a list of people buried at that location. Though the index is available online, to access the sources it lists, you’ll have to go to the library.
Contributor-based websites, like FindAGrave.com and Interment.net, are online indices of user-contributed information about cemeteries and the graves they contain. These sites typically contain information about cemeteries found around the globe. Because of this, they can be a great resource when you’re unable to travel to a cemetery in person. Many entries also contain pictures taken by the contributors, which is one way to double-check that the information they’ve entered is accurate. Even if you are able to find a relative in one of the website databases, you should still consider viewing the gravesite in person if at all possible. There may be more to discover than first meets the eye.
What You’ll Find
A typical headstone will contain the name, date of birth, and date of death of the deceased. Beyond these basics, there could be any number of other clues. Everything from the shape of the stone to its location in the cemetery could have significance to your research. Entire studies have been dedicated to the interpretation of grave symbols, and while much of that information is beyond the scope of this article, there are a few things to keep in mind.
It’s important to record as much information as possible about the grave you’re researching. Information such as the location, size, and condition should be recorded along with the inscription. If possible, take a photo or rubbing so that you get an accurate depiction of any symbols and so that you have something to refer to in the future.
Always look at the graves in the area surrounding your ancestor, both in the same row and in adjacent rows. You may find relatives that were previously unknown to you.
Beyond the Grave
Discovering and interpreting a headstone is only part of the journey for some. Depending on the time period and location, there may be more information about your ancestor than the headstone alone reveals. As with most transactions, purchasing and occupying a cemetery plot meant leaving a paper trail. If the cemetery you’re searching in still has an active office or is associated with a church, be sure to check with the administration or sexton to see if any records are available for research.
For those ancestors with a military background, the county commissioner’s office may have burial records in their archives. Beginning around 1862 they kept records that included information about the individual’s military service as well as their interment.
A Few Tips
- If you are making a trip to a cemetery, be sure to go prepared. The grounds of many older cemeteries are no longer well-kept. Grass may be high, and bugs may be plentiful. It may also be necessary to clear plants from the base of the headstone in order to read it fully, so gloves are usually a good thing to have along. And, of course, make sure you have something (pen, paper, camera) to record what you find.
- If you plan to take pictures while visiting a cemetery, be sure to check with the office first (if one exists). Legally cemeteries have the right to restrict or prohibit photography within their grounds.
- For some, particularly those who died young, cemeteries may contain the only remaining record of their existence. Children whose births and deaths occurred between two census years prior to the time when vital records became mandatory leave little else behind for us to discover. This sad fact is a reminder of the importance of cemetery preservation.
So the next time you have a free afternoon or while visiting your home town over the holidays, consider taking a research trip to the cemetery. You may be surprised by what you find.
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