black and white photo of old cemetery with elaborate tombstones

How to Find Where Your Ancestors Are Buried

As a genealogist, do you find yourself spending a lot of time in cemeteries? I do.

In fact, I might have spent a Sunday afternoon running through eastern NC cemeteries…in my Sunday dress! Don’t judge, I had limited time and a lot of ancestors to find.

What is our fascination with cemeteries and cemetery research?

We want to know where our ancestors are buried. We want those birth and death dates on the tombstone. We want to connect with our ancestors to a physical place.  We want to know what other information their grave sites can tell us about other ancestors.

But….one of the biggest frustrations Are You My Cousin? readers report, is being unable to find an ancestor’s place of burial. Either online or in an actual physical cemetery, genealogy researchers get stymied.

Sometimes you just need to know what records to search, and sometimes you need to know who to ask.

Old broken tombstones in overgrown cemetery in winter
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7 Sources to Look For An Ancestor’s Grave Site

Think of the records you have used in the past to find where your ancestors are buried. How many resources or record types did you come up with?

Three? Four?

Let’s take a look a 7 resources you can use in your search for that place of burial.

The Death Certificate

If death certificates were in use at the time of your ancestor’s death, that is an obvious first place to look. The place of burial will be listed and sometimes the funeral home, too. Unfortunately for researchers, death certificates will not take us back many generations in our research.

Death Certificate for Alex. L. Bowen of Halifax County, Va. Red box outlines the Place of burial section
1913 Death Certificate for Alex L. Bowen (Source: Ancestry.com)

In the example of Alex L Bowen only the town where he is buried is listed – Omega, VA. In some cases, this can be an indication of burial in a family cemetery on the family’s property. This is not always true, of course, but does raise the possibility.

Also note the undertaker Js. Owen of South Boston. Using a city directory can reveal which funeral home he worked for leading to possible records.

Funeral Home Records

As mentioned above, knowing the undertaker or funeral homes in the area can lead the researcher to more records.

Check with local town and/or county funeral records for your ancestor. This can be “hit or miss”, but some funeral homes have their records available.

Do not overlook funeral home records on the genealogy databases such as Ancestry.com. Here are a few examples found at Ancestry.com.

Screen shot of card catalog on Ancestry.com with listings  for funeral home records search
Source: Ancestry.com

Genealogy Tip: Look for transcribed records in state archives or in university library collections.

The Cemetery Office Where Your Ancestors Are Buried

Talk to the cemetery sexton or the person in charge of the cemetery.  Unfortunately, physical evidence of all the graves in a cemetery may not survive time. Some cemeteries may have been abandoned.

Talk to the person in charge of the cemetery and ask if and/or how you could access their records of if they could help you search for a grave.

Pro Genealogy Tip:  Call  the cemetery office and talk with a real person.  The workers are often very helpful over the phone.

The Family

Ask your family including your extended family.  Ask more than one person. Remember, too, no cousin is too far removed in locale or relationship to have information on your family.  

Early in my research I had inquired of my great aunt if a Maddox family cemetery existed.  She did not know of any.  On another visit with her that included her first cousin, I again asked about a Maddox family cemetery. Her cousin stated, “It’s out at the old home place. Don’t you remember?  We used to play hide and seek  in it.”  

[Insert genealogy happy dance.]

Church Cemeteries

Do you know where your ancestors attended church?  Check the church cemeteries. Reach out by phone you are not close enough to go.  

White tombstone of C. M Harward placed in cemetery

Local Genealogy Societies

Ask the genealogists and town historians in the area where your ancestors lived. Frequently these individuals are your best source of  information for finding the smaller family cemeteries.

As a bonus, the local researchers can provide you with directions to the cemeteries.

Cemetery Databases

FindAGrave : An online database of millions of graves contributed by users.

CemeteryCensus : This is a lesser known online grave database, but a great one to check. Check CemeteryCensus.com frequently for updates.  

Tip: If you find your ancestor here, contact the person(s) who contributed the information.  These men and women have an incredible wealth of knowledge on small and large cemeteries and the families in their counties.

BillionGraves: This is another online database and a great option, too.

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One More Thing To Consider About Where An Ancestor Was Buried

Would you recognize your ancestor’s tombstone?

Seems like a silly question, but…. consider what types of tombstones were common in your ancestor’s area and time. Does this look like a tombstone?

Field stone placed near tree in cemetery representing old gravestone

This is a field stone marking a grave. Field stones were commonly used in earlier times to mark a grave. Often families could not afford a fancier stone. Unfortunately in this case, whose grave this is is not known.  No markings are on the stone and no identifying records exist.  This happens and we will not find all of our ancestors’ graves.  Keep your eyes open as you proceed with your research. You never know when another clue may appear.

More Resources on Researching An Ancestor’s Death Records

12 thoughts on “How to Find Where Your Ancestors Are Buried”

  1. Pingback: Friday's Family History Finds | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

  2. Don’t forget to check under OTHER family names for burial plots; I could not ohysically find one that the cemetary caretaker had TOLD me where to look for it; so my daughter and I fanned out and she was calling out the names in her section to me; I suddenly heard her call out the maiden name of the person I had been looking for; when we looked at the LARGE stone (after having been told my whole life that No; we neveer HAd a “family plot”!!) I discovered that there were something like 14 people buried in the plot! Only a few names were ON the stone and there were no smaller ones; but on the bottom of the stone were two names completely foreign to me; later I discovered that these were a third wives brothers. And I found out that one man I was always TOLD was a “blood relative” was actually my Geat Great Grandmothers step son from her second marriage! He was also in the plot along with his father and his step mother; several actual blood relatives; and NOT Great Great Grandmothers first husband and father of my Great Grandmother; he is perhaps now found as far as cemetary name etc but no proof yet. Another nmystery to solve!

    Also-qyestion while you still can–older relatives on WHY some one might have been buried in a certain plot; I am still NOT convinced that a child that died at 9 days old was buried in some “Italian Cemetry” when the childs grand parents had endowed a Church in the next State over; the parents were NOT indigent; they were NOT Italian—the signatures of the parents on the birth certificate do not match known signatures of theirs—and the Funeral Home person told me there was a lot of “sketchy” records (complete but–faked) in the time I was looking at; with a “baby selling ring” connected to a former owner. Hmmmm—-Do not trust; verify!

    1. Talking to older family members is so important! Sometimes, they are the only ones who still know the information that was common knowledge a few generations back. Love your statement – Do not trust, verify!

  3. Use the date of death to find obituaries, cemetery records, civil and church records, probates, Social Security, and where applicable body transit records.

    1. Thanks, Carol! Have you had experience in using body transit records? I would be interested in hearing your research experience with these records.

  4. Be check to check with fraternal organizations: For Southerners like me, The Sons of Confederate Veterans, Daughters of the Confederacy and others know where folks are buried and how to find and access them. They have helped me on several occasions to find where relatives are (or were, since the Rappahannock River has taken part of one my family’s old cemeteries) buried.

  5. KATHLEEN BERGERON

    Sadly, there are no death records for my great grandmother, no newspaper obits, nor any funeral home records that I have been able to find. It seems as though my great grandfather had her buried in an unmarked grave and never even took their children to the site because my grandmother swore she never knew anything about where her mother was laid to rest. It is my biggest roadblock and my biggest source of frustration.

    1. I have a very similar story, Kathleen. My great grandmother was in the 1940 census and then disappeared. She lived with her adult children since her arrival to the U.S. in 1911. She never became a citizen, never worked, never owned a home. There is no paper trail that I can find, she isn’t buried at any of the cemeteries where her children are buried and I think that all of the relatives that had met her are deceased. Talk about a brick wall. Maybe some day some one will come up with some new clues.

  6. Kathryn Watts

    As I was doing some research on an extended line, i found the wife buried in a potter’s field. It was during the depression. She had died young and obviously they did not have the money to pay for the burial, so depending on when the person died, there is always the chance it was something like that. I also found with my great-grandmother, she ran off and got married at 15. Her mother planned on having the marriage annulled, but she was pregnant, so the mothers had the two remarried in the Catholic church. The baby was stillborn when it died. That’s when I learned, generally stillborn babies could not be buried in the family plot in the Catholic cemetery because it was not baptized, so it was buried in the potter’s field section of the cemetery. Once the baby was gone the two parted ways, but never divorced, although both went on with their lives. My grandmother met my grandfather and had four children before they married (her first husband had died).

  7. I was once able to find where someone was buried by contacting the monument company in the town. There was only one so I thought I would give it a shot. So glad I did as they had exactly what I needed!

  8. I have no immediate family left….so I connect with cousins who have trees online, which brings me to a question, at what point is a ” cousin” not considered blood kin…I have quite a few that are 4th 4times removed, 13th cousin, 9th cousin, 5th 5 times removed?

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