We have covered three death records in previous lessons, and each has its limitations:
- Vital records are relatively recent, so they do not exist for early immigrants.
- Church burials may be hard to locate, since the church may have changed affiliation, or the records may have been removed.
- Obituaries are also recent, and did not include all immigrants, even after they became popular in newspapers.
Our fourth death record, cemetery inscriptions, is often the most permanent, inclusive, and accessible record. Regardless of when or where immigrants died, they were almost always buried. Cremation has only become popular in recent years and was virtually never considered by our immigrant ancestors for cultural and religious reasons.
However, cemetery records also have their own limitations as sources for immigration information:
- Most do not include the town of birth.
- Locating the burial site, as well as the records, can be difficult.
Where are Immigrants Buried?
It may be a bit flippant to answer the question with "Where they died!" but, in reality, that is the first important concept to remember. Since all persons tended to be buried in or near the locality where they died (with a relatively small number of exceptions), your first task in locating an immigrant's cemetery record is to learn where he or she died. The death sources discussed in previous lessons will be the best records to review. When people drop out of records where they normally were appearing, it may be an indication of a death.
While it is tempting to describe cemeteries as either private or public, that distinction is not precise enough. A better understanding identifies types of cemeteries as much for their records as for the persons there interred.
Certainly the most significant cemeteries for our immigrant ancestors were sponsored (or owned) by religious groups, notably churches. During much of the 19th cemeteries, there were likely as many immigrants buried in church cemeteries as in all other cemeteries combined. As noted previously, our immigrant ancestors were often more devout than their descendants and, in immigrant communities, the church, synagogue, or other religious group played a central part.
Since the founding of America, churches and synagogues have established cemeteries, usually on grounds next to the group's building. Here they buried the faithful (and sometimes the not so faithful) members of their congregation. For some religions, notably the Roman Catholic, burial in sacred, consecrated, ground was essential to a person's salvation. For many others, burial was a sacrament, to be conducted by a spiritual leader.
While a specific burial site was not always necessary, if a church conducted a burial, the most convenient place of interment would be the local church yard. The records of burials in religious cemeteries are most likely to be found with that religious group.
Since a church usually keeps a burial register, there may be no separate sexton's records (described below). Therefore, church records (described two lessons previously) are the first place to seek information on the death of an immigrant.
Perhaps almost as popular for immigrants of the nineteenth century were cemeteries established by a local community. Typically a city, town, township, or county established one or more burial grounds to meet the needs of its population.
Community cemeteries attracted immigrants whose devotion to their religion had waned during their years in North America. They also attracted persons from faiths not represented in the local community. If there was no church of their choosing in the county, there was likely to be no church burial ground either.
When a community establishes a cemetery (or purchases an existing, private, cemetery), they make arrangements for the use of that cemetery-usually by hiring a sexton. The sexton's job is to coordinate, and often actually handle, the burial duties, usually in concert with an undertaker (mortuary) and often a church as well. However, it is the sexton's responsibility to keep the records of burials in that cemetery, and it is to that officer you must turn in your research (see the section on "Sexton's Records" later in this lesson).
Some of the earliest cemeteries in North America were private, family cemeteries. These are especially common in the southern states and in some New England areas, although they may appear in any locality. While family burial plots are the earliest private cemeteries, other private cemeteries developed during the nineteenth century. These include cemeteries owned by cemetery associations (which often functioned as de-facto community cemeteries) or fraternal or social groups (such as Masons or Odd Fellows).
In each such situation, burials are generally limited to members of the group or their close relatives. Typically, immigrants of the nineteenth century did not establish family cemeteries, unless they were in a very rural area with limited or no other options. However, many immigrants joined fraternal and social groups, and then may well have been interred in their private cemeteries.
The late nineteenth century saw the growth of commercial cemeteries. Today, they are among the largest number in any community, and an increasing number of burials take place in cemeteries owned commercially. It may be the local mortuary, or a separately established company who owns and runs the cemetery now.
While some such cemeteries have existed for more than one hundred years, they are typically a much more recent phenomenon. As a result, immigrant ancestors are seldom found in these burial places unless they lived well into the twentieth century. Typically, these cemeteries are found in the larger cities, although smaller communities have them as well.
Determining the Cemetery
Just knowing the place of death, however, is not enough. In any given locality, there were usually many cemeteries. Often, all four types mentioned above are found within the same city, town or township.
While a researcher can simply search all the cemeteries in a given locality, this is usually not very efficient. The records of these various cemeteries are often in many different places, and not easily accessible. The records are often organized in chronological order or by plot, and therefore, not alphabetical.
The best approach is to review the previous records you have collected that deal with the immigrant's death. These would include church records, family Bible, his or her death certificate, obituary, and other sources. Indeed, some older relatives who know in which cemetery the immigrant was buried.
Most public records of death identify the cemetery where the burial occurred. Note that for religious burials, while the cemetery is seldom noted, it should be self-evident, as most congregations only buried their members in one specific, identifiable, cemetery.
Also note that within larger cities and more populated counties, the local health department may have required a burial permit if the deceased was to be buried anywhere in that political jurisdiction. These are different from death certificates, and are generally found only after about 1870, but will obviously also identify the cemetery of burial.
Lesson 4: Dying to be Found, Part 2: Cemeteries There are many directories to assist you in locating a specific cemetery, or even a list of all possible cemeteries in a certain locality. In large cities, begin with the city directory for the time period when the immigrant died. Usually such directories include a separate list of cemeteries in the city, often arranged by owner (such as private groups) or denomination (for religious cemeteries). These can quickly narrow your search to the cemeteries in the neighborhood, or of the same religious group.
In recent years, cemetery directories for many individual states have been published. A local library in that state, or the state library itself, may have a copy of such a directory.
Active (and some inactive) cemeteries across the United States are listed in one or both of the two major cemetery directories. Each of these directories is different, and some of their listings overlap, while others are unique. Major libraries should have at least one, often they will have both:
- Deborah M. Burek, editor, Cemeteries of the U.S. (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1994)
- Elizabeth G. & James D. Kot, United States Cemetery Address Book, 1994-95 (Vallejo, Ca.: Indices Publishing, 1994)
You may also want to check current directories of mortuaries (available from your local mortician). Obviously, a local mortuary in the area where an immigrant died, will be aware of at least the active cemeteries, and may be able to refer you to a local cemetery association.
Township, City, County, and State Histories
Historical background provided in township, city, county, and state histories often list original cemeteries and many actually record the earliest inscriptions. This is particularly true in the midwestern states.
Once you determine the cemetery where the immigrant was buried (or where you think/hope he or she was buried), there are two key records to seek:
- the inscription on the stone
- the records of the sexton (cemetery caretaker)
The fact that birth and death information is literally chiseled into stone, makes tombstones perhaps the most permanent record in the field of family history. Certainly they can be destroyed and, over time, the inscription will become faint as the stone wears away (a great problem with softer stone). However, the tombstone can preserve genealogical information for hundreds of years-long after any burial books have been lost or destroyed.
Indeed, for most inactive cemeteries, the only pieces of burial information available are the names and dates inscribed on the tombstone. For this reason, published lists of cemetery inscriptions are very popular with family historians.
While it is not common for a foreign birth town to appear on a cemetery headstone, there are literally thousands of cases where such is the case. Such circumstances seem to be more common where there are many immigrants in a cemetery, such as in Pennsylvania German communities or the cemeteries by the Catholic missions in California.
The inscriptions on cemetery stones have been published for thousands of cemeteries in North America. However, there are still thousands for which there are no such lists. Lists are typically published either in a genealogical periodical or in a small booklet. In most cases, local genealogical societies are the publisher.
Sometimes, all or most cemeteries in a county are published in one book, or small collection. However, even in such cases, it is necessary to carefully read the preface of the book or series. Some cemeteries may have been excluded because they were too large to canvass, or they had been published previously.
Use caution when considering published cemetery inscriptions. The information was usually copied by someone who did not know the family as well as you do. They may not have read the dates or names correctly.
Unfortunately, in many cases, the published inscription only includes the deceased's name and dates. The publication omits any epitaphs or other information on the tombstone. It is precisely this other information you are seeking: mention of a foreign place. Still, often there is no other information on the stone.
To determine how complete the listings are, browse the published list thoroughly to note if some entries include more than just the basic names and dates. If this is so, the copyist may well have copied all the information from the stones. If none of the entries contain additional information, it is safe to assume that the important ancillary information was left out.
Also, be certain that the published inscriptions include deaths from the time period the immigrant died. Some published lists only include those who died before a certain date (such as 1900). If your immigrant lived past this "cut-off" date, you won't even find a partial inscription in the book or article.
To find published inscriptions, inquire at the library local to the cemetery or check the catalog of major research libraries. Instructional books about research in that state or locality might include a citation to published inscriptions. Many state cemetery directories also indicate where inscriptions have been published.
A useful, but not comprehensive, list is a card index created by the Family History Library. Titled Index to United States Cemeteries, these 26 microfilms (Family History Library films 1,206,468 through 1,206,494) identify published sources of cemetery inscriptions in that library as of the mid-1980s.
If the inscriptions are not published, you will have to write to the cemetery caretaker, or visit in person (see below). Since published inscriptions are often very incomplete, you may well need to visit or write in any case.
In addition to inscriptions, many cemeteries have paper records of the persons buried there. Typically called sexton's records, these may be in a variety of formats, often as burial registers or plot purchases. In any event, these records often bear no resemblance to the inscriptions (which were determined by the family of the deceased). They should identify the name and death date of the person buried, and often the person who owned the cemetery plot.
If there are complete burial registers, they may include birth information about the deceased individual (and others). However, cemeteries are seldom regulated and usually have only to answer to local health officials. Therefore, there is no consistency in the records they keep. Since many are in private hands (churches, families, commercial companies), they can keep (or not keep) whatever records they choose.
In the absence of good (or even available) sexton's records, you may choose to locate mortuary records. Although not actually cemetery records, they often include more information, including the birth place of the deceased. Remember, however, that several mortuaries may have served one cemetery, and the records of any one mortuary may be even more difficult to locate than the sexton's records.
The first place to find sexton's records is the cemetery itself, certainly if it is an active cemetery. Eventually a cemetery will become "full" and there will be no more room for additional burials. At this point, it is said to have become "inactive."
Accessing the records of inactive cemeteries is usually more difficult than for active cemeteries. If there was a sexton for the cemetery-even for church or private cemeteries -- he may be discharged, or transferred to other duties (possibly to another cemetery). The retention of the records then becomes an important issue.
Even inactive cemeteries still have an owner. Find the current owner for the inactive cemetery, perhaps from the county recorder of deeds, then contact that owner about earlier sexton's records. Another source may be the local historical society, county courthouse, or public library. Any of these institutions may house earlier records, or know where the records are.
Lesson 4: Dying to be Found, Part 2: Cemeteries Key: Be careful that you don't get just a set of cemetery inscriptions. Be certain that you ask for the sexton or caretaker's records. Stress that you want to determine the ownership of a cemetery plot, not just learn who was buried there.
For many family historians, there is nothing more satisfying that actually going to an ancestor's gravesite and personally seeing the tombstone. This may be necessary if there are no published inscriptions -- especially if it is an inactive cemetery.
Be prepared before visiting a cemetery. Several books, as well as the references below, can help you prepare for such a visit. Your ancestor's stone may be overgrown, broken, missing, or illegible to due age and weather elements. If the cemetery is not public, be certain to obtain permission. Take several pictures of the tombstones, in varying light and exposure if possible.
Whatever you do, don't just copy the inscription. Often, even when you find a foreign town name, it is spelled poorly. Later, when you try to locate that town in a foreign gazetteer, you will wonder, "Did I really read that correctly?" Photographs may help others help you interpret what you found.
While cemeteries may not be the best place to learn an immigrant's home town, they are certainly one of the most interesting places to research. Even if you don't learn the ancestral village, you will likely learn two other important identifying items: the names of other relatives, and perhaps a precise birth or death date. If nothing else, you will connect closer to that ancestor. That, in itself, is worth the journey.
- For more information about the various types of cemeteries, and how to search them, see The Source (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997), pages 71-84.
- For a discussion of published cemetery inscriptions, as well as the numerous local, state, and national directories of cemeteries, consult Printed Sources (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998), pages 244-251.
- For background information on your ancestor's cemetery, locate a county, township, or other local history which might list the cemeteries in the area of your ancestor's death.