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. The first is to bury a person. The second is to move the body to a new grave site for construction or other reasons. The third is 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.