Finding Documentation at a Cemetery
by Christine Sievers
If you are unable to find the death certificate of your ancestor, cemeteries can offer an abundance of information. Sometimes, it will include all or almost all of the facts found on a death certificate, and even more. Obtaining this information for your first dead male ancestor, will give you the skills you need when going further back in time where cemeteries are older and vital records are harder to find. More importantly, we never have too much documentation on our ancestors.
Whether you have the death certificate or not, a visit to your ancestor's grave may be the only concrete object that remains to tell of his or her existence. This is sadly true for many of our women ancestors. As a genealogist, you will find that at the site of your ancestor's final resting place, he or she will become more alive to you. Then, you may be bitten by the cemetery bug and begin planning your fa
mily picnic's and trips around graveyards.
Before you visit the cemetery, there is some planning to do. First, call th
e to find the hours that it is opened, and when a good time would be to talk to someone about the burial records. Large, modern cemeteries are busy places; so you will need to be patient and polite. Identify who you are, your relationship to the deceased, and that you are a genealogist.
Next, gather your tools:
- You will want to take a picture of the headstone or grave marker. Recording Cemeteries with Digital Photography, by Steve Paul Johnson, will give you tips on getting good digital pictures at cemeteries.
- Have pencils, paper and a clipboard to record information and thoughts. You may want to include some graph paper.
- Take with you information on your ancestor, as well as other family surnames of relatives who might be buried there. As you get further into your research, information on collateral (sisters, brothers, etc.) relatives will become important. Take the time to visit and record their grave sites, also.
- Wear comfortable clothes, particularly shoes, because you may do a lot of walking. If possible, take an older family member with you. A Lesson in Family History, by Rachel Paxton, will show why this is a wonderful way to generate family stories.
- With the above in mind, a small tape recorder would be very helpful.
When you arrive at the cemetery, your first stop will be at the office. Most modern cemeteries have a cemetery map. They can pinpoint your ancestors grave on it and save you a lot of time. Records to ask about and get copies of are:
- Burial Registers: Burials are recorded chronologically, sometimes including other information such as birth and death dates, age, other relatives as well as the location of the burial plot.
- Burial Permit Records: Since 1920, burials have been regulated. Usually, burials are only allowed by licensed morticians who have obtained a permit. This will be your clue to the funeral home location and death certificate.
- Cemetery Deeds: Often a family will purchase a number of plots for family members. Who is the owner, and who is buried in these plots are again clues for further research. Sometimes, who was never buried in their purchased grave will give a clue to a distant move or a family story.
Now you are ready to find your ancestor's grave. Note the location in respect to other graves, take a picture and record the marker information including symbols and pictures. Take time to wander around the surrounding graves. You may find people important in your ancestors life- other wives, children who didn't survive to adulthood, and maybe even another direct ancestor of yours. How To Read a Graveyard will give you insights into what to look for.
Being prepared will make your trip enjoyable as well as profitable. When you leave the cemetery, you will most likely be armed with clues for further research.
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