Genealogy Research,  Heritage Travel

Craft Your Own Cemetery Tours & Discover More About Your Ancestors

Cemetery tours are a critical part of genealogy research. Take a cemetery walk to learn more about your ancestors.

Cemetery research is one of my favorite ways to learn about my ancestors. Because of this, my kids think I’m a bit weird.  

Okay, they are young adults, but I don’t think they share my love of cemeteries with their friends.

Have you ever taken an actual cemetery tour? Your tour can be on your own in a small cemetery or a more formal tour with a guide.

What You Can Learn From A Cemetery Tour

Invariably, those of us who have gone on a heritage type trip to literally “walk where our ancestors walked” find ourselves in a cemetery.  We could find ourselves standing in the middle of a corn field in a family cemetery. Or we could find ourselves in the middle of London in a large church cemetery.  Let’s make the most of our time while there.

If your genealogy research takes you to a large cemetery, see if they offer tours with a guide.  At the very least, see if a written guide is available. The information you learn can have a impact on your ancestor research.

The History of the Cemetery

What type of cemetery are your ancestors buried in? Is it a town/city cemetery? Is it a faith based cemetery? Is it a military cemetery? A family cemetery?

Before going any futher in your exploration, understand why that cemetery exists and why it is in that location

gates to Central City Cemetery in Colorado
Central City Cemetery in Colorado

In searching for my ancestors, I discovered my great great great grandparents in a church cemetery in Lee County, NC. Success….except I missed the fact that I was standing in what was originally a small family cemetery on family land!

I failed to learn about the history of that cemetery before making the trip and drawing my conclusions. Don’t make the same mistake I did!

[I was lucky in that I only live 45 minutes from that cemetery, so I was able to go back. Imagine if I had done that on an overseas trip to learn about my ancestors!]

For larger cemeteries that offer tours, sign up for one! I realize your ancestors will likely not be included on the tour unless they were prominent in the community, but take the tour anyway. Learn about the cemetery, learn about the different sections, learn about any death or burial customs unique to that cemetery or area. Learn about the symbolism in that cemetery.

In some European countries, family plots in a cemetery are leased for a specific time period that expires so many years after the last family member is buried. Obviously that information could have bearing in your research.

Genealogy Tip: If your take a cemetery tour in the cemetery where your ancestors are buried, let your guide know. He or she may be able to add details helpful to you.

Create Your Own Self Guided Cemetery Tours

Many cemeteries do not offer formal tours, but you do have options.

If your genealogy research trip takes you to a cemetery without tours, contact the office ask if informal tours are available. Additionally, reach out to the local historical society or genealogical society and see if anyone could show you around. Getting that local perspective is invaluable.

old gravestone
Halifax, Nova Scotia

I learned the value of that local perspective early one beautiful spring Saturday morning at a rural southern Virginia church. My dad and I were seeing the “family sights” on a day trip and started at the cemetery where my 3rd great grandfather was buried. As we were looking around and taking photos, an older gentleman pulled up in his pick up truck to see what we were up to.

Once he was assured we were not up to any mischief (really, he was checking us out!), he started sharing stories about the cemetery, the little church AND gave us directions to the the old property where a branch of our family lived. 

He also told us of the story of my GGG grandfather storing cannon balls in the barn/garage!

This impromptu tour enriched my research in ways I had not imaged. 

Genealogy Tip: Turn off your computer and get feet on the ground where your ancestors lived.

What I Do Differently Now & What I Recommend

I try to no longer show up at a cemetery without doing my research first.

First, once I have identified a cemetery to explore, I learn any history I can online. I include the history of the cemetery and the community surrounding it.

For church cemeteries I reach out to the church to learn any additional information and if anyone would be available to show me around. This is also a good way to network genealogy style.

When I’m  on my own I create my own cemetery tour! After researching the history of the cemetery, I use online cemetery databases like FindaGrave and BillionGraves to see who else is buried in the cemetery. Knowing ahead of time all of the ancestors buried saves me from missing one….and I have learned the hard way.

Genealogy Tip: See if there is a map or a cemetery app is available. Download and take it with you.  The Arlington National Cemetery website has an entire “Plan Your Visit” section and a link to download their app.

Arlington National Cemetery Homepage
Arlington National Cemetery

Once at the cemetery, the first thing I always do is take a photograph of any signage. Often signs can contain dates for the cemetery and a phone number of who is in charge.

If the cemetery is connected with a church, I take a photo of that sign, too. Additionally, I look to see if the church has an historic cornerstone. If so, take a photos of that, too.

I then get a sense of the cemetery layout. Is there an older section? Where is the newer section located? Are family plots marked off?

Next, it is off to explore the gravestones and find my ancestors! 

Once I find an ancestor’s tombstone, I start my analysis. 

Then it is rinse and repeat with the next ancestor’s tombstone.

One of the mistakes genealogy researchers make when researching is going too fast. We find what we are looking for and miss other important information that could benefit our understanding of our ancestors. By taking time to seek out a formal cemetery tour or create our own tour, we ensure we are getting everything possible from our search.

gravestones pin for pinterest
Pin for Future Reference!

Cemetery Tours Review

We have a covered a lot here, so let’s review the basics.

  1. Seek out a tour of the cemetery where your ancestors are buried.
    1. Let your guide know of your specific interests.
    2. Be open to the unique history of that cemetery and what bearing that history may have on your genealogy research. (Link to social history)
    3. Collect any written materials available.
  2. When no formal tour is available, create your own!
    1. Research the history of the cemetery online. Print out any maps a or helpful materials you find.
    2. Reach out to the cemetery office/church or local genealogical society and see if someone is available to meet you and show you around. 
    3. Start at the front entrance. Take photos of the entrance and any signage/buildings associated with the cemetery.
    4. Analyze that gravesite.
    5. Watch out for fire ants!
  3. What I take with me on those cemetery tours.
    1. Bug spray – See fire ants above!  (This is my favorite bug repellant and it doesn’t stink.)
    2. Water bottle – Cemetery research is hot work!
    3. Notepad or note taking app on my phone.

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  • Carla

    Thank you. This was very informative and interesting!
    Cemeteries and burial grounds are a big part of my research [and have cleared up a few mysteries for me].
    P.S. I love Central City Cemetery and the adjacent burial grounds up there.
    I’m currently working on cataloging that cem.

  • Louise Finn

    Hi Lisa!
    Thank you for the work that you do! When I saw your Cemetery article posted today, I got excited because in addition to researching my own ancestry, I am the Cemetery Coordinator for my church’s cemetery. I have always wondered about ways to make the cemetery more interesting for the living. You have given me some ideas already and am wondering what else you have seen cemetery managers do to help those interested in the history of those buried there and the cemetery itself…
    Thanks in advance,
    Louise Finn

  • Jim Shirey

    You didn’t mention that you can often find out exactly where in the cemetary your people are located by contacting the sexton or township prior to going. I volunteer for FindAGrave for our local cemetary. I always email my township clerk and she gets back to me with the exact location. I will ask for others of the same surname so I can take picts if needed for other FindAGraves without pictures assigned.

  • Sally Hargrave

    You may have mentioned this in other posts, but as I do research I record in my family tree program as much burial information as I can find. Then before heading out to explore a cemetery, I use the program’s report function to list everyone in my database that I have found to be buried in that cemetery. After converting that info to a spreadsheet, I can sort by name (I put married couples together), by cemetery section/lot if known, etc. This serves as a handy checklist at the cemetery and brings to mind the names of collateral individuals/families that I might otherwise overlook.

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