Are you missing out on important genealogical clues? Use this guide to cemetery research the next time you visit the family cemetery.
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

Your Guide To Cemetery Research – Are You Missing Important Genealogical Clues?

Your guide to cemetery research the next time you research your ancestor’s place of burial. Don’t miss out on important genealogical clues!

As a genealogy researcher, I spend a lot of time in cemeteries.  I expect you do, too. 

Now it’s confession time…..

Early in my genealogy research days, I would aimlessly wander about a cemetery looking for my ancestor.  Once I found the gravestone, I took a photograph of the front and then I  left.  

Doing cemetery research this way, I missed so much important genealogical information!

[Maybe the title of this post should be “Don’t Research Like I Did!”]

Fast forward to present day, and I come away from cemetery research with a lot of information on my ancestors. I created this guide to cemetery research to show you how I analyze an ancestor’s burial place.

Photo of old cemetery with leaning tombstones and small iron fencing. Tan box with white  text reading Guide to Cemetery Research

Step by Step Guide to Cemetery Research

STEP 1: Determine where your ancestor is buried. 

Finding where your ancestor is buried can be a challenge in itself.  Sources on burial locations include:

  • Family – Ask them!
  • Death Certificates
  • Obituaries
  • Cemetery indices and surveys
  • Online sites such as and FindAGrave
  • Local historical and genealogical societies – Members usually have a good knowledge of the location for smaller, lesser known family cemeteries.

STEP 2: Study the location of the cemetery or burial site of your ancestor.

This step can be done before you leave home for an actual visit or once you get to the cemetery. 

Ask yourself, “WHY is the cemetery here in this location?” 

  • Seek out a history of the cemetery, if possible.
  • Is the cemetery a church cemetery? If so, you have a clue to your ancestor’s religious beliefs.
  • Is the cemetery/burial site in the middle of a farm or corn field?  If so, the land may have been part of the family farm in an earlier time.
  • Is the cemetery a town or city cemetery?  
  • Lastly, if possible, determine where the cemetery records are kept. Tip: Check with county or city offices if you have difficulty determining this.  You can also check with local funeral homes who can point you in the right direction.

STEP 3: Take a photograph of  any signage.

I like to pause when I get to a cemetery to gather my first impressions. Then I take a photograph of any signage and the main gate. In particular, I check for any signage that indicates where the cemterey office might be and/or who to contact.

Salem Fork Baptist Church sign in parking lot of church in Surry County, NC
Salem Fork Baptist Church, Dobson, NC

STEP 4: Proceed to finding your ancestors’ grave site.

You may be able to find ahead of time the location of your ancestor’s grave site by using one of the online databases such as FindAGrave or Cemetery Census. If a cemetery has an office or is associated with a church, they can assist you. If you are lucky, a cemetery plot map may be available online or on-site. 

More often than not, you just have to start looking.

If you know your ancestor’s approximate death date is early, you can narrow down your search to the older gravestones for instance. 

STEP 5:  Analyze your ancestor’s grave site.

You Found It! Now get to work!

Note the name(s), spelling variations and any dates on the tombstone. What other writing is on the tombstone? Is there a family relationship mentioned? 

White tombstone reading In memory of Mary E Kilborne, wife of O. W. Kilborne and daughter of John & Phoebe Tyson
Source: Beth Ullman

Also, note any markings or symbols on the tombstone. Symbols can provide information on an ancestor’s life.  A good book on cemetery symbolism is a must for your genealogy toolbox. The symbols on the tombstone below indicates the deceased was a Mason.

Old gray tombstone in St. John's Canada for Alexander Crookshank. Interesting masonic symbols
St. John’s, NB, Canada

How much information is provided on the tombstone? Larger tombstones with more text can indicate a family of means. 

Check the back of the tombstone. Additional information can be found here. Below is the gravestone for Sarah and Grisham Thomas. 

Thomas family tombstone for Sarah and Grisham Thomas. Sarah died 1856 and Grisham on 1858. Other tombstones in cemetery close by
Sarah and Grisham Thomas, Broadway Cemetery, Broadway, NC

Imagine my surprise when I walked around it and found this on the backside:

Back of the Thomas family tombstone with children Anderson, pauline, Yearby, Lorenza, Wesley and William Otis
Back of Thomas Tombstone, Broadway Cemetery, Broadway, NC

Before you leave your ancestor’s gravesite, take a photograph of BOTH SIDES of your ancestor’s gravestone. 

STEP 6: Record who is buried next to your ancestor and close by.

You’ve still got more work to do before you leave that cemetery. Look around.  Who is buried next to your ancestor? Who is buried in front or behind your ancestor? Do you recognize other family members? Regardless, repeat step #5 for these graves as well.

Continue your look around the cemetery.  Record graves for the surnames you have seen associated with your ancestors in the records. Record other common surnames in the cemetery.  You may not know who these individuals are currently, but they could potentially be your ancestor’s collateral family, neighbors, or associates. They may be important in your future research.

STEP 7: Record your information in your family tree.

Adding the information to your family tree is the fun part! Include the information you gathered and the photographs you took of the gravestones.

(Optional) STEP 8: Edit photos for easier reading of the tombstones.

Often older tombstones are difficult to read. Once back home from your research trip edit those tombstone photographs before adding them to your family tree. I use Vivid-Pix Restore for editing my photographs. Learn more in this post.

The next time you are exploring a cemetery for your ancestor, give these 8 steps a try. Don’t leave any genealogical clue unfound!

Other Cemetery Related Posts of Interest:

***Please note that this post contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission if you decide to purchase a product/service. This does not cost you extra. Be assured I only recommend products/services that I use and think you would like too. Read my disclosure policy and privacy policy.

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  • Susan E Mersereau

    I found a family cemetery in the middle of a farmer’s land. Luckily the city had provided a drive way to it. Some stones were there but I know there are more from the town’s library that has burial indexes of each cemetery. My next effort may be to have someone come search for any other headstones that have become so overgrown or sunken that I can’t see them.

    • LisaL

      Susan, that was a nice find. You might check with the town or county offices to see if a survey has been done in the past for that cemetery. Good luck on restoring and reclaiming it from the weeds! (If you live in the South, watch out for fire ants!)

  • Kerri

    Thank you for the valuable article on searching for more information while at the cemetery. I only know where my 3rd GreatGrandfather’s grave is beyond my own paternal grandpatents graves so now I must return and follow your guiding steps at his burial site.
    Again, thank you.

      • Michele

        Thank you so much for the helpful information. I hope to put it to use soon. I have not been to cemeteries yet to get info on family members, but do look forward to it.
        And I would love to visit the Salem Fork Church to hear Rev. Tim Burton. I’m sure it would be interesting!

  • Susan W.

    The most unusual cemetery spot I have come across is for my third great grandparents and some of their family in a small town outside of Atlanta, GA. I assume that this was the family farm property. I couldn’t believe it when I found it on Find A Grave. It is surrounded by a strip mall from about the 1960’s from the look of it. It is cared for by a Boy Scout troop, thank goodness. The ground is all gravel or dirt and the graves are both above ground vaults and below ground. I have a aerial view of it that shows how it sits on the back side of the one story outdoor mall between two businesses, fenced in, and by the store loading docks. I am glad it was saved but a little saddened that the graves were not moved to the town cemetery nearby. I hope it continues to be cared for. Thank you for this article and also from one of your examples I see a name that is in my cousin’s family. Coincidence!!

    • LisaL

      Susan, that is a great find and thank goodness the cemetery is being cared for. Often when developers build new shopping centers, neighborhoods, etc, they must do a survey of any cemeteries on the property. You can check with the county/state to see if you can find the survey. I’ve seen all kinds of useful information on those including living relatives (aka collateral relatives).

  • Eugene Montgomery

    Lisa, I enjoy your website very much. I have one comment regarding today’s email “guide to cemetery research”. I think it is wise of those who take pictures of grave markers to add one more facet to the base of knowledge about a particular grave, and that is the geolocation. As a contributor to, I find the geographic location of a grave to be invaluable. Using that information, I am able to use GoogleEarth Pro to mark the location to within a few feet of the actual location on my computer for future reference. Having the plot identification, either from the cemetery office or family members is useful as well, but for those graves that don’t have good location records, if a person does locate the marker, if they turn on the geographic location capability of their smart phone before taking the picture, the geographic location will usually be stored in the image file’s metadata. It is as simple as that. Some higher end cameras also have geotagging capability. ( See ).

    • LisaL

      That is an excellent recommendation,, Eugene! That will also be very important in the future as the weather elements take its toll on the older gravestones.

  • Kim

    I was interested in the book on cemetery symbolism, but the link is broken. Can you give the name of the book and a new link?

  • Toni

    Back in the day, findagrave rules were cropped stone, no surrounding scenery. So that’s the picture I took. How many did I do like that? Lots.

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