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. Genealogical 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.