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Cemeteries - Facts and Inspiration

Cemeteries provide "rock solid" birth and death dates, and they also provide a fascinating glimpse into a past world which may lead to a greater understanding of the lives of your ancestors.


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Cemeteries provide "rock solid" birth and death dates, and they also provide a fascinating glimpse into a past world which may lead to a greater understanding of the lives of your ancestors. Often graves elude researchers. Many ancestors were buried on the trail as they went to a new world. Some were buried in their yards. Finding the cemetery to search for the graves often represents hard work, good research, and a little bit of luck. To utilize cemeteries effectively, the genealogist needs to locate the cemetery then make plans and preparations for a visit.


Sometimes family records or county histories will provide needed cemetery information. These reference books make it easy to locate the cemetery and the tombstone. If the death occurred after the 1920's, the information may be recorded on the death certificate. Often all that is known about a family is the general area in which the people lived. If this is the case, some research is necessary.

The researcher needs to obtain a county map of the area in question. Usually churches are marked on these maps. If the religious denomination of the family is known, it is a good idea to start with those churches. Remember that people did not have to be a member of a church in order to be buried in the cemetery. If no religious identity is known, it may be a good idea to search all the church, municipal and county cemeteries within ten miles of any direction of where the family lived.

Many people were buried in their yards. Sometimes these cemeteries have been preserved. They are often located out in fields or wooded areas. It is to be hoped that the grounds have been honored and preserved; unfortunately, this is often not the case. Sometimes deeds will provide the only indication that a burial ground was on a certain tract of land.

In my family, my great-great grandfather Henry Fowler was supposed to be buried at Old Tabernacle Church Cemetery in Marion County in 1866. This was known by several of the older members of the family. Nobody in the family or in the community knew where this church was located by the 1980's. Finally, a reference in a deed where he had purchased land mentioned "the church and burying ground." Sadly enough, when checking with the current owners, they stated that there was no cemetery on their property, so the grave has been lost.

Once a decision has been made about what cemeteries to search, it is a good idea to take a map and decide on your route. It is also a good idea not to go alone. Many cemeteries are isolated, and it is better to have another person with you for both safety's sake.


Visiting cemeteries requires proper clothing. Depending on the time of year and location in the country, it is a good idea to wear boots, long sleeves, and long pants. Gloves are also a good option.

It may be necessary to take some clippers to cut down the taller grasses. Not all cemeteries are in good shape, so you may have to cut a path to the grave.

Take a pen and paper. The best case scenario is to draw out the cemetery, showing the location of each grave. The blanks can be filled in as you go around the cemetery. Unmarked graves should be added to this map. Unmarked graves are identifiable by indentations in the ground or certain plant placement.

A piece of styrofoam rubbed over the tombstone will help clear off the moss, lichens and mold of the ages. Take a camera so a visual record can be kept. Take pictures from several angles. It is also a good idea to have chalk to use to distinguish the names and dates.

Many people take rubbings from tombstones. Use a piece of paper and a heavy crayon. These rubbings often bring out the dates and letters that are difficult to read.

Don't ever discount or overlook any clues in a cemetery. Take notes of people buried with your ancestors. Chances are that these people are related in some way. Look around and see who is buried near your ancestors. These people may prove to be related by marriage. Cemeteries often provide an idea of the social standing of a family. Look at the intricacies on the tombstones as well as the writing. The epitaphs often provide a glimpse into the ideals of your family.

Cemetery information is admissible in almost every lineage society. Cemeteries can provide needed dates and names. They can also provide an idea of the lifestyle of your ancestors.

Source Information: GenWeekly, 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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