Regardless of whether cemeteries creep you out or provide a great place to run, they offer tremendous genealogical value to help you climb your family tree.
Cemeteries are great resources to trace recent and long-departed ancestors. In the United States, even if a cemetery is close to the public, the names of persons buried in a cemetery are open to the public.
After visiting my Geiszler ancestral plot in Green Lawn cemetery on a Sunday, in 2012, I not only gathered a lot of clues, but I felt grounded and connected to the past.
After photographing 600 stones across 9 cemeteries in one weekend, I developed several strategies to make digging into gravestones a fun and service-oriented experience.
Use these steps to enhance your future cemetery research trips as you hunt for your family in graveyards.
STEP 1: Make a List
If you don't have a map, you can't travel from Alberquerque, New Mexico, to Dallas, Oregon with much luck. The same principle holds when researching burial locations for your ancestors.
Using genealogy software makes it easy to determine which cemeteries you need to visit. If you only have your family tree in an online database, consider downloading it into a RootsMagic or Family Tree Maker tool.
Programs like RootsMagic have the capability to run a missing facts report. I configure the tool to return missing burial places and/or burial dates. I include birthplaces and death places as a clue to where my ancestors may have died.
Once I have this list, I create a spreadsheet and filter the list by death place to create a cluster of where to research.
With my missing facts list prepared, it's time to start online to research cemeteries.
Step 2: Investigate the Paper Trail
If you want to find out where a relative is buried, you first need to explore genealogy records that you have easy access to. With your burial investigation list prepared, begin your search using the common family history resources to answer where your ancestor was buried.
Home Sources - funeral programs, bibles, news clippings, diaries
Family Members – You never know what they know unless you ask.
Death Certificates - If you have access to these vital records, check them out.
Online Gravesite Websites: Such as Find A Grave and Billion Graves.
Obituaries - Have you tried Ancestry's Obituary Index to Newspapers.com?
Cemetery Website - Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio, has an excellent resource. Such a website might also inform you about the availability of cemetery records such as sexton books, plot maps, interment records, and the like.
Funeral Homes - If a death certificate identified the undertaker or there were only a few in existence in the past, investigate whether funeral homes have accessible archives.
It would be best if you never spend time valuable genealogy time searching in person what you can discover through the internet. Do your homework before you do boots-on-the-ground investigations.
After you compare your list to the resources above, you may have discovered:
When and where your ancestor was laid to rest.
Pictures of headstones and other markers.
Transcriptions of inscriptions.
Amounts paid for lots.
Listings of everyone buried in a family plot.
Update your database and your online family trees with any new information. For the names that now have completed burial information, delete the names from your spreadsheet. If you know a burial place but lack images of the tombstones, then leave these names in your research spreadsheet.
Hopefully, you'll have a truncated list that may require an in-person visit.
For more insights, what this video.
STEP 3: Plan a Research Road Trip
For those on your research list with known burial locations and no photographs or known death dates, plot out cemeteries you plan to visit using Google My Maps.
Sometimes the county or city is responsible for the cemetery and surrounding land. They may have records in their archive. The contact for these offices often appears on county government websites.
Ideally, you'll have a burial plot map and a burial location when you visit a cemetery.
I've even visited a cemetery when a gardener knew the cemetery so well that he could tell me landmark directions despite the lack of formal maps. It sounded like this,
"Drive into the cemetery on the main path. Turn left at the dead-end which is up a hill. Drive past two large trees on your right and pull over. Exit your car and your ancestor's stone will be 100 steps to the northwest of that second tree."
Plan time to wander the cemetery for 'new relatives' and head to the cemetery with your research kit.
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STEP 4: Find the burial space.
Using the cemetery plot map or the wander method, find where your ancestor's gravestone is placed.
Take a moment to connect to the past. I often get so busy obtaining information for my family history research. I need for my database and move on to the next research question.
If you're standing where your relative died, take time to feel whatever connections that place will offer. Sometimes you'll shed a few tears, so have some tissues handy.
After you've taken a moment to find the headstone, prepare the ground for photographing my brushing away debris, pulling weeds, and trimming back vegetation overgrowth. Make the stone look nice before you snap a picture.
STEP 5: Think Like a Detective
Once you have them connected, it's time to gather the clues you came for. Record the following:
Name(s) and spelling variations
Titles / Associations
Who shares the stone?
Was anything inscribed on the back of the stone?
Once you have noted the preliminary details, take your research to the next level.
How large is the marker, and what was it made of? This could reveal the wealth of the relative.
Who is buried beside your ancestor? These may be kinsfolk or military unit members.
What monuments, markers, or features surround your ancestor or their lot?
What clues do the cemetery offer?
If your ancestor is buried in a Catholic Cemetery, your ancestor was likely a member of this faith. If a married woman is buried in this cemetery, but her husband is not, ask yourself why?
Was her husband not Catholic?
Was the family too poor to bury the husband beside the wife?
Was he buried in another Catholic cemetery?
Was he buried in another city entirely?
Photograph additional cemetery evidence. You never know when such clues will come in handy.
Monuments near the gravestone
Beautiful scenery, alcoves, groves, or other eye capturing details
The neighboring stones may not be your relatives. If they aren't, you can upload them to Find-A-Grave and offer service to other researchers.
STEP 6: Record Your Findings
When you return from the gravestone, it's time to add your discoveries to your family tree. Also considering sharing details to Find A Grave.
You might need to touch up your photos using Photoshop Elements to crop out details, fix the color levels, or straighten the image.
Enjoy the journey of finding details about your ancestor's final resting place. As you dig into cemetery research, you can learn much about the people who have gone before.
Extend Your Family History Knowledge
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