During the past 229 years of American history and 350 years since colonizing North American, Mother Nature has been able to erase wooden and obliterate many stone markers.
Some cemeteries are meticulously preserved with manicured lawns with clean, readable head stones, while others are overgrown with years of vegetation and the headstones have long since been unreadable.
But there are some methods and perhaps a great deal of patience which can help in such matters. Obviously, if you can physically visit cemeteries and walk the miles of rows and do your own search, it is by far the greatest assurance to either finding an ancestor or ruling out a cemetery which he or she is not in. But for the majority of us, and now due to the high price in traveling, visiting distant cemeteries are less and less of an option.
The first step is to contact the nearest genealogical society and find out if the leg work has been done for you. A twenty- to forty-dollar book of such surveys is reasonable. Another source are online cemetery databases. These databases are expanding slowly to include larger and larger regions of the U. S. One such site is: "http://www.interment.net/."
One source which is often overlooked is the organization in charge of taking care of a cemetery such as the IOOF (International Order of Odd Fellows). In fact a researcher can sometimes find interesting bits and pieces of data from notes and card files which had been written concerning each stone. Caretakers often jot down family members whom had visited or history concerning the establishment of the stone. It could be a gold mine of information. That old caretaker may know things you had only dreamed of.
Don't worry about discrepancies which may arise from such sources. Especially unwritten lore or a good yarn told by a lonely caretaker. Conflicting data is better than none and the effort to resolve such inconsistencies may lead to hitherto unknown sources.
Such an example was the case with my 4th-great-grandfather, Adam Smith Jr., whom traveled from Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to the western boundary of Muskingum County, Ohio in 1811 and eventually founded the small town of Gratiot, in Licking County, Ohio. In his will of 1838 he had specifically requested to be buried inside and to the right of the main gate.
So when I received a copy of Newark's genealogical society's survey and found no mention of Adam, it started a four-year mystery. I had later noticed that all of the known early elders of the church were also missing from the list. How could this be? Were they buried under the church? Were they in some side cemetery which was not surveyed?
Gratiot is presently a tiny bedroom community for other cities. So I took a shot and sent a letter to local churches.
To my amazement, four years later I received a reply from a new pastor of one of the churches. She told me of a recent book published of the area and provided the name and address of one of the authors. To my delight, this woman was quite knowledgeable about the cemetery and the church Adam had started. She was able to confirm his burial and that the stones had been made from poor quality stone and had crumbled under time. It sure explained a lot!
The earlier the burial, the greater the chance the family buried members on the farm and not in a conventional cemetery. So knowing the location of an old estate may lead to clues about relatives and their final resting places. I have found one Ohio farmer uncovering stones in his fields. His father had used the stone to hold up one corner of his chicken coop.
Sometimes you really need to read the area history. My earliest immigrant was buried with no documentation. Then I discovered that there was a heavy flood in the area during the mid 1800's which mentioned many cemeteries were obliterated. It would have been an explanation to the absence of data. Sometimes you will find large construction projects have cause the moving of stones and remains. Again, you may not know this, if you did not read some of the local history.
I was fortunate to discover Adam was indeed buried where he wanted to rest. You really need to keep chipping away at such mysteries until you get an answer.