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.
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
- Cemetery indices and surveys
- Online sites such as CemeteryCensus.com 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.
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?
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.
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.
Imagine my surprise when I walked around it and found this on the backside:
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!
(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 Posts of Interest:
- 7 Places To Start Finding An Ancestor’s Death Date
- What is that Family Cemetery Really Telling You?
- 5 Types of Genealogical Info Found on a Death Certificate