Gravestones and cemeteries are extremely interesting areas of research for your family tree. There is much to discover from searching through a cemetery which contains several ancestors’ over time. Sometimes families had all family members interred at one specific cemetery, and deceased individuals from other towns/states were transported to that cemetery for final burial. However, you may find that one individual is buried many miles away from other family members, perhaps in a different state or country. How interesting – I wonder why? Good question, interesting clue. Here are some tips to help you search on burial information of your ancestors.
Online: Many gravestones and burials are online now and available to search, mainly for free: FindAGrave is one example to search. In addition, there are volunteers or members of local genealogy societies or of “Graveyard Rabbits” groups who have taken the time to go through cemeteries methodically, listing every stone and detail, often including a photo as well.
Start off by identifying the town or village your ancestor may have died in, and then identify a likely cemetery. Remember that some families had gravesites on their property, particularly if they lived on a farm, or in a very sparsely populated area. Histories of the area may give you more information on this possibility.
Search on a town website for the names of cemeteries in the area, or search at FindAGrave also. Once you find a likely cemetery,begin searching using the surname, thensearch usingfirst names. Finally, go through the cemetery listings name by name. It won’t take as long as you think it might, and the results are well worth the search. For instance, you may well find married women with their maiden name listed as well – how helpful! Also, the search function online for a cemetery may not pick up all your ancestors if their name is spelled slightly differently, or if only an initial is shown, or any number of reasons. Therefore, search by surname, then search by first name, then go looking name by name by name.
Examine the year(s) in which your misplaced ancestor died. Was there a war or skirmish on? An epidemic? Did a frontier area in the next county or state open up and everyone moved away except this one? How can you find out this information? Local newspapers, perhaps? A lone interment (burial) can give you great clues to follow. Multiple interments by one family could give you different clues. For instance you may find that there were more James Terwilliger or Grover Buell burials than you knew, in one area. Which one is ‘yours’? How can you tell? Think carefully about the kinds of details whichwill help you identify your ancestor.
Here’s another tip: Look for first wives being buried in the same gravesite or area as subsequent wives; it would be misleading to think they are children, but an easy error to make. Search for the details of birth and death, and remember that some women died in childbirth in the 1800s, so a death within 4 months of a birth may be another clue.
After doing some searching and identifying a very likely grave, you can write to the cemetery office to request more information about your ancestor. Remember that the staff may be quite busy and may need proof of your relationship in order to comply with your request. Provide details of why you believe this is in fact your greatgrandfather, and ask if there is a fee for the service. There may be nothing but the dates and names of theancestors. However, for example, my grandfather’s burial gave the cause of his death (massive heart attack), which I hadn’t known previously.
Look at newspapers in the area where your lone ancestor died: there may be an article or mention of his death, such as an accident, illness, or the like. Also look in the newspapers where his other relatives lived: they may have picked up the information and provided it to local papers as well. This is particularly true in the later 1880s and into the 1900s. For example, details of the education as well as death of one of my greatgrandfather’s sons were printed in the Port Townsend WA newspaper as well as in the East Berlin News PA, and noting that he died in New York city, NY. If I had only looked in the New York City newspapers I would have missed the rich details reported in the other papers.
While we would like to think that gravestone carvings are “accurate”, errors can creep into gravestones carvings, as well as irregular spellings. Be prepared to think creatively as you search for gravestones. Also, find an additional source to confirm the details on a stone, before you conclude this grave is definitely of your ancestor. Some sources might be newspaper obituaries, articles, city/county histories, church notices and records, and the like.
While you are online at a cemetery, check the information provided, and see if there is a possibility of a volunteer taking a photograph of the headstone in question. You may find that the volunteer is a long-time resident of the area, and is quite knowledgeable about history, perhaps even has more details about your ancestor at the local museum or archives. Unless you ask, you’ll never know. For example,I requested a photo of the headstones of my greatgreatgrandparents in a CT cemetery where they were listed on FindAGrave. In less than 3 hours, I had 3 wonderful photos, plus information on the house in the background, and details of exactly where in the cemetery these individuals are buried. How exciting!
As more and more clues are found, use every bit of information, and ask yourselfmore questions. Is there a symbol etched onto the gravestone? What does it represent? Find out! Write to the local genealogy society and ask questions. Perhaps someone living in the town has the exact information you are searching about your ancestor – and may actually be a cousin. Enjoy your searches!