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Lessons Learned from the Cemetery

Some of the lessons from my recent cemetery research may provide clues in helping you to research the final resting place of your ancestors


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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I recently finished writing a draft of a book for Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, entitled "Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra." That research, taking me through numerous cemeteries and researching family histories for people in the Inyo and Mono County regions of California taught me a lot about cemetery research beyond what I had already known about looking for burial places. Some of the lessons learned may provide clues in helping you to research the final resting place of your ancestors.

Not Everyone has a Gravestone

One of the issues that we faced as we were researching is that time and time again we came across graveyards that either the headstones were gone due to deterioration or vandalism. Some cemeteries were only known by a few historians because they had been lost to time. In other cases, I was told by cemetery personnel about unmarked graves containing burials unknown even to them because of the loss of records.

I think the biggest lesson from this is, don't be surprised when your ancestor doesn't have a headstone! It seemed to me that in many cases, even for 19th century burials, it was a miracle that there were headstones. Besides contacting the cemetery sexton or association governing the cemetery, consider looking through the Family History Library Catalog,, for cemetery transcriptions for the state or county you are interested in. If there are multiple transcriptions done by different groups at different times, look through all of them. I found burials left off of earlier transcription or tombstones that were misread. It also helped me in cases where the tombstone was there but was barely legible. Groups that typically do cemetery transcriptions are the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), various genealogy societies, and individuals.

As you research a cemetery and look for clues about your family, consider learning more about how to "read" a cemetery. One online article that describes this process can be found at Do History's web site, . As genealogists looking for a particular family member, we may too readily run off as soon as we find the burial we are interested in. Reading a graveyard helps provide us with more information that can in turn provide us with more possible family members and allied kin. This article also points out some information about cemeteries that may be new to some. For example, "Christian" cemeteries usually bury people so they are facing east. This is do to the belief that in the resurrection, Jesus Christ will come from the East and those buried will be able to rise up and meet him.

I know in my own family research, we have a few cases where family members were buried on the family farm and there is no longer visible evidence of that grave. That is when newspapers, funeral memorabilia such funeral cards, notices, or family writings may help you.


All kinds of different maps exist that can help genealogists identify changing county boundaries, identify land ownership within a town, and identify what cities belong to which county. Topographical maps, referred to as "topo" maps, can be wonderful finding aids in locating cemeteries. Topographical maps show the earth contours such as mountains and lakes, but also shows symbols for schools, streets, vegetation, and cemeteries. Even individual, lone graves are documented on topo maps. The drawback to using topo maps can be that they can be difficult to precisely locate a cemetery that is no longer visible due to missing headstones. For more information on topo maps, consult the U.S. Geological Survey at

Think about the Time Period

The obvious way to start a cemetery project is to locate cemeteries either through a web site like or Find a Grave, or through the county pages for the US Genweb, The yellow pages listing for a city might also provide information about a local cemetery or cemetery association. City-owned cemeteries should be listed on the city's homepage.

While these resources will yield information mostly about cemeteries in current use, thinking about the time period will help you consider other cemeteries that may be in a location. For example, does the town that you are researching include populations that may not have wanted or been allowed to be buried with the rest of the town? In Gold Rush towns like Bodie, California, prostitutes were not allowed to be buried alongside other townfolk in the cemetery. They were often buried on the outside of the cemetery gates. In the Gold Rush period, immigrants not well-liked by a community, such as the Chinese, often had their own burial grounds. Some cemeteries were started by a fraternal order such as the Masons. Some preferred not to be buried in cemeteries associated with fraternal organizations. County poor farms, sanitariums, and mental health facilities often had cemeteries attached to them. Many times those who died were placed in unmarked graves. Read local histories, ask local historians about these possibilities. Also check out web sites for facilities such as state mental facilities that may still in operation.

Get off the Computer!

Yes, cemetery research really requires that you leave the comfort of your computer room and make a research trip, unless you have someone on-site who will do the work for you. If you need information about a cemetery or a picture of a gravestone, consider contacting the volunteers at Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. Volunteers do everything from copying courthouse records and obituaries to taking pictures of gravestones. This help is free, except for costs associated with copying or mailing the information to you.

Newspapers and Ephemera

Newspapers are vital in cemetery research. Not only can you find obituaries that may help you, but you may find probate notices, notices posted by friends or community groups, or references to cemeteries that may not exist anymore.

In 1872, Lone Pine, California suffered a large earthquake that nearly destroyed the whole town. One of the men who died in that earthquake, Henry Tregallis, not only was mentioned in articles about the earthquake but a notice for the probate of his estate appeared in several editions of the paper, as well as a small article written by the Masons about the death of their fellow Masonic brother.

Ephemera that is created around someone's death such as funeral notices or cards can sometimes be found with family members or might also be found in local museums or historical societies. These funeral notices list the name of the deceased, time for the funeral, and sometimes where the burial will be. Any local repository such as a museum, library or society should be checked for family history files that may include such documents. Genealogy Today, has a database of over 21,000 funeral cards. Other resources such as diaries and scrapbooks may also be invaluable in researching the death and burial of an ancestor. One museum in the area I was researching had photocopies of one girl's journal that included obituaries for all her family members. The inquiry is worth the effort.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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