how to analyze an ancestor's tombstone
Genealogy Research

How To Evaluate Your Ancestor’s Tombstone

Are you missing clues in the cemetery to your ancestors? Learn how to analyze an ancestor’s tombstone and find more genealogy records.

As a genealogy researcher, I love cemetery research. [My children think I’m nuts!] Still, on-the-ground research in the cemetery where your ancestor(s) is buried can provide valuable information for your future genealogy research.

In this post, we will look specifically at the tombstone. As part of your cemetery research, analyzing your ancestor’s tombstone is crucial.

Cemetery Terminology

Is there a difference between a gravestone, tombstone and a headstone?

Yes. And no. Today, we used use the those three terms interchangeably, but that hasn’t always been the case. Originally, subtle differences existed between the terms.


A headstone referred to the upright stone at the head of the grave.


A gravestone referred to a large flat stone covering a grave.


A tombstone originally referred to the lid of a stone coffin.

As you can see, originally subtle differences existed between them, but today we use the terms interchangeably.

Pin with flat gravestone with hand and open book. Title reads How to Analyze Your Ancestor's Tombstone

Analyze An Ancestor’s Tombstone

You have found your ancestor’s gravestone. Yippee! Go ahead and do a little genealogy happy dance, then roll up your sleeves and get to work. It is time to see what that gravestone is telling you.

1. Translate the Tombstone

First up, read and document the words on the tombstone. Gather the deceased’s name and any dates listed. Is there a quote or Bible verse? If the stone is difficult to read, take multiple photographs from different angles. Photo editing software like Vivid-Pix can be used to make the words more readable.

Be sure to look at ALL SIDES of the gravestone. When possible walk around the tombstone. Examine all sides for writing and symbols. Husbands and wives can be on the opposite side of the same tombstone!

Here is an example of the benefit of check the front and the back of a stone. This is the front of the gravestone for Sarah and Grissom Thomas of Chatham County, NC.

Gravestone of Sarah and Grisham Thomas

Walking around to the back of the stone and we discover:

Back of Grisham and Sarah Oliver Thomas

On the back of the stone we find all of their children listed along with their birth dates!

You will note this stone is a fairly modern gravestone given the early dates. Grisham died in 1858 and his wife Sarah pre-deceased him in 1856. The age of the gravestone itself is a clue. This stone would have been placed well after their deaths. Confirming the information of their death dates and their children is an important next step.

The longer the time between an ancestor’s death and the placement of the stone, allows for more of a possibility of spelling errors and wrong dates. Mistakes did happen. After all, memories do falter.

Your Take Away? Verify the information you find on the tombstone.

2. Decipher the Symbols on the Tombstone

When we wander through old cemeteries looking for our ancestors’ gravestones, we notice the artistry and the symbols on the stones. Often the symbols reflect a thought of everlasting life or may represent a life cut short. The symbols may be flowers or vines or borders, etc. The symbols I see typically fall into the following categories:

Religious Symbols such as a cross or Star of David indicate the faith of your ancestor. Take the clues to his/her faith and pursue them in the religious records.

Ancestor's Tombstone in shape of a cross
Ancestor's Tombstone with Star of David

Symbols of Occupations may appear on the gravestone. If you learn your ancestor’s occupation on the stone, pursue records or write-ups in newspapers on him/her.

Causes and Organizations that were important to your ancestor can also be found on their gravestone. Were they a member of a fraternal organization such as the Freemasons or the Woodmen of the World? If so, pursue the organization’s records.

Woodmen of the World Symbol on ancestor's tombstone that looks like a tree trunk
Woodmen of the World Symbol

Military tombstones are unique as well. The shape, the variety of crosses and other religious symbols indicate much about the deceased. Sometimes a military stone is not used, but a symbol of a branch of the military may be seen. Obviously, your next step is to seek out your ancestor’s military records if possible.

It is impossible to know all of the symbols you may encounter in your cemetery research. Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister is the resource I take with me when I’m performing cemetery research.

3. Photograph the Tombstone

Take photographs of the gravestone for future reference! Be sure to:

Bonus: Safety in the Cemetery

Let’s talk about safety when it comes to cemetery research! Some of the cemeteries we find ourselves researching in can be unkempt, in out-of-the-way places and isolated. Be smart and stay aware of your surroundings.

  • Do not go alone.
  • Watch out for (and avoid) fire ants, spiders, snakes and other creepy crawlies!
  • Watch out for poison ivy. [Remember: Leaves of three, let it be.]
  • Wear sturdy shoes. The terrain can be quite variable.


*Note: The main tutorial part of the video starts at the 7 minute time mark.

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