Death records are one of the three cornerstones of genealogical research. Along with birth and marriage records, they help create the outline of a family's relationships to each other. They are often also the records that are easiest to obtain for documentation of your family. But what if there is no death certificate available for an ancestor you're seeking? Or what if you want an extra sense of history and context in which to place him or her?
Cemetery Records and Gravestones Are Great Genealogical Allies
Whether you're trying to find a source for death information or supplement information you already have, cemetery records and gravestones are excellent resources. In addition to birth and death dates, which most gravestones have, many also contain information about military service, cause of death, and other relevant genealogical information. 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.
Getting Started with 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 sometimes find small family burial plots on private property.
There are several 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, published in New York by the National Funeral Directors Association. It lists cemeteries by location.
Once you have a target list of cemeteries, try calling before you visit. This could save you a fruitless trip because staff members may be able to search their records for you and tell you whether or not your ancestor is buried there. If there doesn't seem to be an office at the cemetery, try calling churches and funeral directors in the area. They may know where any cemetery records are located, if they exist. You may want to look at cemetery records even if you know that your ancestor is buried in the cemetery. These records usually include at least names and death dates, but you may also find information such as birth dates and spouse's and parents' names.
If your ancestor is buried in the cemetery and you plan to visit the grave site, you should also find out when the cemetery office is open so that you can stop in and find out exactly where the 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.
Other Sources of Cemetery Records
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 and are available in the archives of various organizations and societies. For example, 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.
Another new development in cemetery records research is the creation of online transcription archives. Some contain electronic versions of transcribed inscriptions, and some, like Find A Grave , also provide a photo of the gravestone and contact information for the person who submitted it. Many people use computerized cemetery records indexes to help them find the record that they need.
Do keep in mind that it's best to try and verify any gravestone or cemetery information you find through these types of sources -- there is always the possibility of error in a transcription you find as a secondary source. Plus, it is often a moment of real connection when you finally do find the grave site of a long-sought ancestor; that sense of family place is well worth the trouble.