Although you may not have guessed it, cemeteries can be excellent sources of genealogical information. This topic tells you how cemetery and funeral home records may help you in your research. Click any of the topics listed at the bottom of this topic to get more complete descriptions of what cemetery and funeral home records exist and where to find them.
Using cemetery records and gravestones, you could find an individual's birth and death dates, and perhaps information about military service. Sometimes you will discover epitaphs that give you insight into the individual's sense of humor, ideas about death, or even the way other people felt about him or her.
If you are having trouble locating an individual's parents, children, or spouse, you can often find information about them, too. Some gravestones have inscriptions such as "Beloved child of..." or "Beloved parent of...," which give you clues to the names of other ancestors. An even better find is a family plot. By locating the burial place of one relative, you may also find the graves of several other relatives. All in all, if you are unable to locate vital records for some of your ancestors, a cemetery may be a good second place to check. You may not actually need to visit a cemetery in order to look at cemetery records and gravestones. Many of these records have been transcribed.
Funeral homes also keep records about the individuals that they take care of. Some just keep the basic information about birth and death dates, but others go much more in depth. You can sometimes find information about the individual's family, occupation, and even insurance information.
Funeral Home Records
Funeral home records often contain the same information as death certificates, plus other family information, financial records, and the name of the deceased's insurance company. To find the name of the funeral home that took care of your ancestor, check the death certificate. It normally gives the name and city of the funeral home. Once you have this information, you can get the actual address of the funeral home either through the phone book or the American Blue Book of Funeral Directors. This book may be available through local community and genealogical libraries.
Locating Cemeteries and Cemetery Records
There are several types of cemeteries in America. First, there are church-owned cemeteries, which include churchyards located right around the church, and cemeteries run by the church, but not adjacent to the church. There are also national, state, and local cemeteries that are owned by the government and maintained by tax dollars. Privately-owned, non-church cemeteries are also abundant. This type of cemetery is usually operated for profit. Finally, you can find small family burial plots on private property.
There are many ways to find out where your ancestor is buried. If you don't know the name of the cemetery in which your ancestor was buried, look in obituaries, wills, and on death certificates -- they often list burial information or the name of a funeral home that you can contact. Make sure that you also ask other family members if they are aware of any family plots. Also check the records of the church that your ancestor attended. Their records may have the name of the cemetery.
If you can't find the exact name of a cemetery, but are fairly certain that your ancestor was buried in a specific area, you can check your local public and genealogy libraries for the American Blue Book of Funeral Directors, published in New York by the National Funeral Directors Association. This book contains the names of cemeteries, organized by location, and will at least give you a target list of cemeteries to check out. With this target list, try to call the cemetery and ask them to check their records. If there doesn't seem to be an office, ask local genealogical societies, libraries, funeral homes, and churches if they are aware of any records for the cemetery. If that fails, you may need to visit the cemetery itself and walk up and down the rows of gravestones in search of your ancestor.
When you have the name of the cemetery, you may or may not know the location. If you don't know the location, you can find it in several ways. First look in telephone books for the area, or ask at the local courthouse, library, genealogical society, or even local churches. Second, look at U.S. Government Geological Survey maps of the area, available in larger libraries and often in sporting goods stores. These maps show all of the roads, houses, and even the small graveyards. Finally, check your local public and genealogy libraries for the American Blue Book of Funeral Directors.
Once you have located the cemetery, you may want to visit it in order to read your ancestor's gravestone. This can often be a great source of information. For example, you can find birth and death dates, relatives' names, and even information about military service or an individual's religion. Another reason to visit a cemetery is that you may find other relatives: often families bought family plots in cemeteries, so where you find one relative, you may find a few others. If the cemetery has an office or caretaker, try calling before you visit. Find out when someone will be available to look in the cemetery records and tell you where your ancestor's plot is. This will save you the trouble of having to search the entire cemetery for your ancestor. If you do have to walk up and down among the gravestones, bring the whole family -- several pairs of legs and eyes are better than one.
Also helpful are cemetery records. These records usually include at least names and death dates, and the location of the plot in the cemetery. You may also find information such as birth dates, spouse's and parents' names. If the cemetery has an office, ask them if it is possible to look through records. If there doesn't seem to be an office, check around the area to find out if the cemetery records are archived anywhere. Local libraries, churches, genealogical societies, and courthouses may be able to help you out.
While actually visiting the grave site is the best thing to do, doing so may not always be convenient. One way to search for ancestors from home is to search online on FindAGrave.com. You may also find your ancestor's gravestone inscription among the transcriptions owned by some organizations. Local libraries, genealogy libraries, and genealogy societies in the area where your ancestor is buried may have or know about transcriptions from local cemeteries. In addition, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Works Project Administration, the Idaho Genealogical Society, and the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers have all transcribed selected gravestone inscriptions from throughout the United States. Contact the Daughters of the American Revolution Library or your local Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for more information about their collections of gravestone transcriptions. The Library of Congress and other large libraries throughout the United States also have transcript collections. If you do look at gravestone transcriptions, remember that there is always the possibility of errors in the transcriptions -- it's best to try to verify any information you find.