Visiting cemeteries is one of my favorite things to do. Some people might think I'm obsessed with the dead, but as a genealogist it's thrilling to walk through rows of gravestones. Even if I don't recognize the names, I wonder about the people. Cemetery records can be useful for research, even if a death certificate is available. Occasionally, cemetery records provide different or additional information.
There are two basic types of cemetery records. One is the gravestone or recorded monumental inscription and the other is a sexton's records. Many early gravestones were worn away by normal weathering before they could be recorded and not all cemeteries have surviving records, but checking into both types is important. Some organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and the Daughters of Utah Pioneers (DUP) have done cemetery transcription projects. It helps to physically visit the cemetery, if possible, for several reasons. If headstone inscriptions have been recorded, there could be errors. Also, a printed list doesn't give you an idea of the proximity of graves. An entire cemetery of people might be related.
When you visit the site, you might notice that there are more cemeteries in the area than you originally thought. In some instances, it's very difficult to find the cemetery where an ancestor was buried. They may have been buried in a churchyard, a government-owned cemetery, or a family or private cemetery. Your ancestors may have been buried out in a field by themselves. Obituaries and death certificates may help identify the cemetery if the research is focused on the 20th century or possibly the late-19th century.
Cemetery records vary in the amount of detail. Some stones might give only a name and date of death. Others might give birth information, spouse's and children's names, military service information, etc. You never know what kind of information will be on the stones until you research it. Sexton records sometimes include relationships and birth information. Again, the records vary from cemetery to cemetery. You just never know what you might find.
When you visit a cemetery, don't wear your nicest clothes. Some don't receive the best upkeep and you might be walking through grass that is three feet tall. Also, you might have to clean the stones off a bit in order to read them. Some experts recommend carrying a "cemetery kit" used for cleaning stones without hurting them. A cemetery kit might include such items as a nylon scrub brush, a spray bottle with vinegar, and some drawing paper and pencil to rub over the stone. It's a good idea to have such a kit if you're going to do a lot of cemetery research. If you can get the stone looking good enough for a photograph, then you should take a shot. For information on taking photographs in the cemetery (including any preparations to the stone) see Dean and Jeannette Lindsay's article, "Tombstone Photography" in September 1975 edition of the Genealogical Journal.
Cemetery records are a valuable genealogical source and should be consulted early on in your research. You never know what kind of detail you might find about the lives of your ancestors. Make sure you check all available cemeteries in the area. There are probably more than you think. Then, take photographs to preserve the information for your family.
Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
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