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Going To The Grave - Part II - Seeking Records

Once the genealogist finds which cemetery holds his or her ancestor, contacting the cemetery's superintendent and asking for a list of all the interments in his plot is the next step.


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Once the genealogist finds which cemetery holds his or her ancestor, contacting the cemetery's superintendent and asking for a list of all the interments in his plot is the next step. This should be done even if the cemetery lies close by, since the superintendent's files often contain information that's not shown on tombstone inscriptions.

Although many town cemeteries don't have records before 1890, some do, but they may be incomplete. Generally, by 1890, the cemetery superintendent was recording the death information as it appeared on the death certificate presented by the undertaker. Family relationships and lines of descent on file with cemetery superintendents can be helpful, for they can tell a great deal about the deceased and his or her family.

Since cemetery records are often kept chronologically, and to avoid confusion with other families with the same surname, it's important to give the superintendent the name and burial date of at least one ancestor in a short letter requesting a list of all those buried in the plot. Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope for his reply.

Record-keeping policies vary from cemetery to cemetery. Some are able to give only the names and dates of those buried in the family plot. Others may send complete information on each ancestor. Some cemeteries charge a modest fee for this service; others don't.

There are no national standards set for the contents of cemetery records. Usually, they contain the name, age or birth date, date of interment, marital status, cause of death, location of the grave and either the name of the attending physician or the undertaker. The information on the death certificate is compiled from the answers given to the undertaker's questions by a survivor, who may or may not have had accurate information.

Who gave the information in the first place? In some cities, modern death records contain the name of the informant; in others, they don't. Though this information should be given by a person who should know the facts, often someone who makes an educated guess gives it. Possibly the deceased survived his contemporaries and his children. Even if relatives remain, grief can play havoc with memories. Also, birth dates can be distorted through the years as men and women try to hide their true age for one reason or another. To make sure that gravestones, as well as death and cemetery records are correct, it's best to compare them with information from other sources.

It's important to visit every family plot within reasonable traveling distance to see what can be learned from the inscriptions on the headstones. Many researchers take photographs or rubbings of each tombstone as a visual record. Look for other information such as the military unit in which a veteran served--often the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars places this or at least the war in which the veteran fought on a metal plaque at the gravesite. This information can lead the researcher to pension and other service records kept by the federal government. Some inscriptions will tell about those not buried in the plot. So it's important to not rely only on the interment record.

Gravestone inscriptions can sometimes provide information leading to missing dates and relationships. A good search can often correct misinformation received elsewhere or provide information to prove false a previously accepted statement. Some historical societies supplement gravestone and cemetery records with information taken from church records and newspaper obituaries.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

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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