Did your find where your ancestor(s) is buried? Consider if you gathered all of the other important genealogy clues in your cemetery research.
Genealogy Research

Finding Genealogy Clues in the Family Cemetery

Family cemeteries are gold mines for you the genealogist. Are you finding all possible clues for your ancestors in your cemetery research?

Family cemeteries are gold mines for you the genealogist. But, I have to ask….

Are You Finding All Possible Genealogy Clues in the Family Cemetery?

Are you missing important clues to your research questions? Do you leave the cemetery  where your ancestor is buried with answers or clues to the next step in your research?

In my excitement of just finding a particular ancestor’s gravestone, I have missed important genealogy clues in the family cemetery. I want to help you not make the same mistakes I did.

Let’s look at a few interesting family cemeteries/plots together.

Rev. Caswell Suggs Harward/Howard

Black and white photo of the Rev and Mrs. Caswell S Harward, pastor 1863 - 1868.

Rev. Caswell Suggs Harward [Howard] died in 1871 in Harnett County, North Carolina and is buried in the Baptist Chapel Church cemetery near Sanford, Lee County, NC. Caswell was 42 yeas old at the time of his death and left behind a wife and children.

Tombstone in the cemetery for Rev. C. S. Howard born Aug 29 1828, died Aug 4 1871

His wife Mary Adline [Thomas] Harward is buried with her husband. [Her information is on the back side of the tombstone.]

The gravestone gives the basics: Caswell’s name, birth date, and death date. We get a little more information by the use of the title “Rev” supporting the scant oral history the family knows about Caswell being a minister.

Now it’s time to look around.

This is a church cemetery.

For all practical purposes, Baptist Chapel Church cemetery functions as a family cemetery as it relates to my genealogy research. The church itself is a newer structure (having been re-built due to a fire) and situated a little ways away.

Howard Road runs down one  one side of the cemetery. A small tobacco farm is behind the cemetery. This is a rural community which is consistent with all I have learned about the Howard family in this area.

I confess, on my first visit to this cemetery as a new genealogy researcher, I never questioned Howard Road would have some bearing on my family history research!

Yes, early on I missed the fact that Howard descendants lived right behind the cemetery! 😳

Who else is buried close?

Besides, Caswell and  his wife, their son Allen Suggs Howard is also buried at Baptist Chapel Church Cemetery.  Interestingly most of the closer graves to Caswell and his wife are more contemporary (i.e. in the  mid – to late 1900’s).  Most have the surname Howard. [Howard is a variation of Harward and used by later generations.] Other surnames common to the area are there, too.  

A little ways off is a small “section” of what appears to older gravestones.  These stones are more worn and even off kilter. Closer inspection reveals most are of the Thomas family and dated into the 1800’s.

Hmmm…… graves dating to the 1800’s. Could this be important?

Well, yes. It turns out these early graves held an important clue for my research. Keep reading…..

White tombstone in church cemetery reading Harriett wife of T Thomas .

What Did These Clues in the Church Cemetery Mean?

Based on the tombstones in this church cemetery, I could make a few assumptions.

  • This is a church cemetery, BUT  some of these graves, including Caswell’s pre-date the church! In this case, I knew when the church was founded, but if you do not know, check the church sign or cornerstone for a possible date the church was founded.
  • Faith was important to the Howard Family. After all, Caswell was a minister.
  • Multiple Howard/Harward generations are buried in this cemetery. Since many of the dates for the graves are contemporary, I would conclude the Howard family continues to be active in this church.

The Next Question

The biggest and most obvious questions that arose when analyzing this cemetery were:

“Why was Caswell Howard buried here?  

and

“If this is a church cemetery, why does a section pre-date the church?”

The Answer

The answers to these questions were in the cemetery itself and the land surrounding the cemetery. Remember Howard Road?

The older section of this cemetery was originally the Thomas Family Cemetery located on what was originally the land of Mary Adline Thomas Harward/Howard’s parents.  After Caswell’s death in 1871 leaving her with young children, Mary Adline came “home” to bury her husband and raise her children. Eventually, her descendants inherited the land and they in turn provided land for the church’s current location.

The Thomas Family Cemetery became incorporated into the current church’s cemetery and continues to serve the church’s community.

What I Got Wrong in My Genealogy Research

What did a I do wrong on my first research visit to the cemetery?

Pretty much, everything!

I completely missed  all of this the day I visited the cemetery. (Ahem!)  Weeks later as I worked with the photographs I had taken that day, and pondered the conversations I had had with my aunt, I realized what I had missed and began putting the pieces together.

Top photo of black and white tombstones with tan background on bottom with white text reading What is that family Cemetery really telling you?

4 Tips For Finding All of the Genealogy Clues in the Family Cemetery

Avoid making the mistakes I did! Use these four tips to individual family cemeteries as well as  family plots in larger cemeteries to make sure you get all of the information it has to offer on your ancestors.

1.Always ask Why?

Why is your ancestor buried in this location? Why this cemetery? Why this plot within the cemtery?

2.Note who is buried close by?

Even if you do not know who an individual is that is buried close, make a note. This person(s) could turn out to be relatives and/or close associates of your ancestor. If not now, this information may be helpful to you in future research.

3.Determine why the cemetery itself is in this location?

Is your ancestor in a cemetery “out in the middle of nowhere”? Why? What is the history of that land? Could it be the old home place or the family farm?

Is your ancestor buried in a church cemetery? Could this be the church where your ancestors worshipped?

4.Observe the gravestone markings or designs.

Markings and engravings on the tombstone may indicate military service of your ancestor, religious beliefs, membership in the masons or other clues about your ancestor’s personal life.  Again, make note of the tombstones of those surrounding him/her. Markings on their stones may  provide you clues to the type of community where your ancestor lived. [Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography is a nice resource to learn more about gravestone symbolism.]

Spend a little extra time in that cemetery where your ancestor is buried!

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22 Comments

  • Mary Welter

    This is so very true. I missed the information the first time around because there was no stone and I asked the wrong question at the cemetery office. When I returned, I came armed with questions and my research book and found missing family and relations I never knew about (who were the ones who paid for the graves). Great blog!

    • LisaL

      Mary, So glad you were successful! I love that you were “armed with questions”. Having a plan certainly increases the chances of success. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Deanna Cooley

      I have a question my greatgrandma was buried during the depression in the 30s and she has no headstone or plack and no marker,is there another way I can locate her I am so flustered at this point and don’t know what else to do .

  • Martha L Mooney

    My husband’s aunt is buried in the regular town cemetery. Her parents are buried in the Catholic cemetery the other side of the river. The river was too high so they buried her in the closest cemetery.

    • LisaL

      How interesting and how nice you have the oral history to go with her place of birth. Otherwise, future generations might just puzzle over what she is there.

  • Clorinda Madsen

    Thank you for sharing your story and the things you learned from your experience! I have one ancestor who was buried in his “home town” cemetery in Iowa despite having moved to Montana a year or two previously. He fell sick and didn’t trust the doctors in his new location so he made the long journey by train and whatever other means of travel in 1906 to go back home to see the doctors there. Unfortunately, the very length of the trip and the cause of the illness (appendicitis) likely contributed to his death shortly after the operation.

  • Lorraine Forster

    Speaking of cemeteries (and brick walls), I was told a story about an old cemetery we visited in the middle of Pennsylvania (it might have been Clearfield County) and it was only land, only one tombstone. The church had buried one person across the road and not with the others in the cemetery. The reason was not known for this estrangement, perhaps some infraction. It turned out the person who was a descendant of the “loner” became caretaker of the cemetery and proceeded to systematically take each and every tombstone and crush it into bits resulting in a large pile of stone debris. His ancestor’s lone tombstone was the only one remaining. He somehow got control of the church records and destroyed them too. Perhaps this is the reason for some brick walls.

  • Rhonda Gullatt Malone

    We have a Gullatt family cemetery in Simsboro, Louisiana. I enjoy visiting and hearing stories from my 89-year-old dad about his family. We have one conundrum; however, the headstone of my great-grandfather and another relative are turned backwards. The family “legend” is that my great-grandfather moved another woman into his home with his wife Gertrude. Gertrude became angered by this and her husband’s gambling and drinking during the midst of the Great Depression, so she moved out and into my grandfather’s home. When he died, she had his headstone turned backwards because he was an embarrassment to the family. Could there be another reason?

    • LisaL

      How interesting! I’ve not heard this before. I did a quick internet search to see what I could find. There does not seem to be any consensus. Certainly, strife in the family could result in a stone being turned backwards, but in some cases, a backward stone indicated suicide. There really is no “one size fits all” answer to this one.

  • Rhonda Gullatt Malone

    I don’t know how I found your website, but I have been trying to piece together my parents’ heritage since they are 85 and 89. I’m running into roadblocks with my mother’s family. Her maiden name was Rodrigues, but DNA shows as much English and Irish heritage as Iberian, Spanish, and Mexican. She and I, as well as at least I sister are hemophilia carriers. But I learned on a recent trip to Barcelona that Spanish and Portuguese surnames follow a different variation. Any ideas?

  • Misti

    I recently found a family cemetery and was surprised because I thought only wealthy people had family cemeteries. What were the normal criteria or circumstances for people to have a family cemetery?

    • LisaL

      That’s an excellent question. Gravestones were expensive and often the wealthy were the ones who could afford them. Other families may have had a family cemetery on their land (if they owned any) or be buried in a church cemetery, etc. Their graves may have been marked with a simple field stone that is no longer there or not recognized as a marker. I’ve seem family cemetery surveys where the surveyors found evidence of unmarked graves based on the ground. The graves were never marked or were perhaps marked with a wooden cross that did not stand up to time.

  • Loralee

    Just wanted to comment that I, too, have a SUGGS line! (At least, I’m assuming that you do, too, as that name was used as a middle name a few times.
    My Suggs line was in Robeson, Co, NC, in the very 1800’s and late 1700’s, ands in Johnston Co, NC, in the mid-early 1700’s. Are any of those places similar to where your line was?

    • LisaL

      I haven’t done much research on that Suggs line, but we are almost certainly distantly related. My ggg-grandmother was a Suggs out of Wake County, NC

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