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How To Read a Cemetery

It's spring. It must be time to think about reading cemeteries! Judy Rosella Edwards shares some insights into doing it well and issues a challenge!


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1111 (approx.)
Labels: Cemetery  Death Record 
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Reading a cemetery really means reading the headstones. Immediately, there is a problem: reading the headstones! Deciphering older stones is especially difficult and each year it becomes a bit harder to read aging stones. So how can we make the job a bit easier?

Do Not Read In the Dark

This is not quite the same as reading a cemetery at midnight. The stones are not the only record of the dead who are buried there. Shed some light on the stones the easy way. Search for supporting records but, as always, use your head.

Do not assume that the previous cemetery reading was correct. Everyone who died did so after a life and a paper trail. If you have any question whatsoever about what a stone says, step outside the cemetery and verify the information.

It does take a long time to walk a cemetery. But, it wastes a lot of researchers' time when a name is incorrectly transcribed.

Look for supporting evidence such as a matching death certificate. If you can't find the name, perhaps it was not transcribed correctly. I was considering volunteering to update a very old cemetery near my house. I reconsidered when I realized it needed to be completely redone. The oldest stone in the cemetery was transcribed as Bagtter. It was not until I walked the cemetery that I realized the name was supposed to be Pagtter - and there is plentiful local history and primary sources supporting that, right down to the dates on the stone.

The Pagtter daughter was married to the founder of the nearest little hamlet, which was named for her husband. Prior to setting foot in the cemetery, I actually thought I was looking at the Bagtter family and they were buried in England, rather than right down the road from me.

A New Challenge This Spring

Every year we gear up to read cemeteries. Why not make this the year we become more efficient and thorough about cemetery transcriptions?

We are eager to add new names. Perhaps a better place to start would be with the cemetery association. Ask who has been buried since the previous reading. Then add them.

I am quite fond of sites like Find-A-Grave that provide photographs of gravesites. Along with preserving the gravesite, these sites provide an invaluable service to family who cannot travel long distances to visit a gravesite in person.

Consider photographing the stones while you are walking this year. Photograph in the sequence you'll follow when you transcribe them. Photograph all four sides of each stone. Of course, you'll want to use a digital camera since the cost of film would be prohibitive.

Then, devote your time to cleaning up existing cemetery transcriptions. Locate the death certificate for every person. That is incredibly easy to do in Illinois. The Illinois State Archives provides two databases of Illinois deaths. One database is for deaths occurring prior to 1916. The other is for deaths occurring after 1916.

If the date on the death certificate reads August and the cemetery reading shows March, it could be that the stone was engraved with the eighth month, but time has eroded it until the person reading the stone thought that eight was a three - and declared that the person died in March. The death certificate is the correct record.

Why Bother?

Cemeteries are lonely places but cemetery data does not exist alone. It is supporting data of facts. Think of those beautiful stones as evidence of the paperwork it took to get them there.

In addition to the death certificate, there is a deed to the property. Graves are property. They are legally recorded in the city or county office. Grave plots are bought and sold exactly the same way you buy and sell a home. Who owns the plot is interesting. It just might tip off a researcher about who is a relative or close enough friend that they allowed Uncle Marv to be buried in that plot.

Slaves were often buried in graves bearing only their first name. Research who owned the plot. They are likely to have been either family, friends, or slave owners, in days prior to slaves being allowed or even financially able to own land. The plot owner is a key piece of information in linking that person to the rest of the world.

There is an obituary. There is likely a church record. There is a will.

Is It Really Too Much Work?

Granted, including all of these things in one cemetery walk is a daunting task. But genealogy is all about establishing connections and verifying identities. A list of gravestones, in and of themselves, is disjointed. Many families are buried together.

But, dead people don't relocate. They don't move to make room for Aunt Sally and her 17 children to be buried next to Grandpa.

Other people do move the dead. If a body was relocated to a different cemetery, there are ways to establish that, including who probably moved them. The local Recorder's Office will have on record every owner of a gravesite property. Verify who owned the grave in the original cemetery. Then verify who owned the grave in the cemetery where the body was later interred.

That still is not final proof of who moved the body. There will be cemetery records. Every cemetery has an administrator who keeps track of where each body was placed. They have to in order to avoid burying the dead in a gravesite that is already occupied. Stonesetters need to know where to place gravestones, footstones, and other gravesite architecture. There are records on file.

Now the challenge in smaller cemeteries lies in finding the records. Finding that information would be of monumental help to families and researchers. Include as much information as possible about who maintains the cemetery.

In smaller towns, you may find it is a very casual arrangement between the only funeral home in town and the city hall offices that are only open a few hours a week. When my mother died, the funeral director in the tiny village where she chose to be buried had to call the recorder of deeds out of church on a Sunday morning to determine which grave sites were included in our deed. It was worth it since, as he suspected, the gravedigger miscalculated and nearly placed her in someone else's plot on a different family's bit of cemetery property. Of course, what was more amazing was that the recorder was used to it!

Are We Up to the Challenge?

Let's make this an interesting season for reading cemeteries. Let's come out of the dark. Let's make those connections for future generations.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

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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