Cemetery records are sometimes the hardest to find and yet they
give the most information. The information varies from nothing but a simple
John Doe, born 1821 died 1900, to the entire history of the person and their family.
Cemetery records can be found in several places:
- County Clerk's or Recorder's Office (Check both!)
- Local Genealogical and Historical Societies
- State Historical Societies
- Local Church or trustee in charge of the cemetery.
If found, cemetery records can establish the following things:
- Birthdate and deathdate of deceased
- Birthplace of the deceased (Often given in the late 1800's)
- Names of spouse or children
- Favorite sayings of deceased
- Sometimes have pictures or carvings of the deceased on them
- Cause of death (Common in Old West towns - died of gunshot wound)
Many counties now have a master index for every cemetery and obituary from the
local papers that is in their county. Many do not! Just because your person is not
listed, doesn't mean they weren't buried there.
Tombstones are victims of nature and depending on what they were made from, may
not have lasted very long. Sandstone tombstones last about 150 years before the
writing is illegible. Metal and bronze plates last much longer and are much easier
to read. The newer marble stones also do well with nature and weather.
The older stones tended to be smaller, or tall and thin. Once the frost settles
into the ground in the colder climates, the base of the stone becomes unstable and
after many years the stone will topple. They usually fall backward onto the grave.
This is because most people are buried facing the east, for religious reasons, and
that's the direction of the most prevalent winds. It only takes a few years for
grass to grow over a tombstone and bury it.
If you FIND a tombstone, you also want to note the following:
- Others of the same name in the same cemetery
- The names and dates of others in that plot
- Who bought the lot? Check the County Recorder's office or the curator's records
- Who maintains the lot? Who puts flowers on it?
If you DON'T find a tombstone but have reason to believe they're buried there,
ask the following:
- When was the last Cemetery project done?
- Could the stone have fallen before the Cemetery project was completed?
- Are there other stones nearby which indicate there may be others buried nearby but
the tombstones are missing?
- How big is the boundary of the lot? Could there be MANY burials missing? Check
the recorders office for record of the size of that lot.
- Has the cemetery ever been 'witched' or 'probed'? (You can witch for graves just
like you do water. The grade 9 wire reacts to the disturbance in the ground.) Probing
is taking a long poker like those used to pick up garbage in the park and poking down
through the soil to see if there are buried tombstones.
- Has the cemetery been moved? Just the stones or the bodies too?
- Has there ever been a natural disaster go through the cemetery such as a flood or
a tornado which might have moved or destroyed the stones?
- Has some farmer flowed it under?
- Are there loose stones lying in the bottom of a creek nearby or in a farmer's barn?
These are all questions your local genealogical society can answer. If your people
were pioneers crossing the prairie, you most likely will not find a tombstone. Wooden
crosses didn't last long. Check church records for a record of a burial or death also.
If they were out-of-sorts with their church, they might have been buried outside of
'holy grounds' and outside the perimeter of the cemetery. This happened to one of my
great - grandfathers. His tombstone was more than 20 feet away in a corn field outside
the Catholic Cemetery boundaries.
If they weren't buried in a local cemetery, check to see if they have been buried
on their own property. Also, many of the larger families maintained family cemeteries
on their own property.
The object of this lesson is to write to your local genealogical society in the
county you're searching and ask for ALL references to your surname. If they have a
county wide index, it will pick up all cemeteries. Be certain to note where the
cemeteries are and then pinpoint them on a map. If a man lived near the county border,
he could have been buried anywhere within 30 miles! Don't restrict yourself to one
county. Search every county around it.
Record your searches and your finds in your research log and the information you
find on your pedigree and family groups sheets. You might just be the lucky one who
finds: "Sarah R. Kimel Mock, born 14 Apr 1808 in Henrico, Virginia, married to John
Jesse Mock, died 25 May 1876. Mother of Sarah, Suzanne and Robert, daughter of Henry
and Anna Kimel."