GENEALOGY 101 ARTICLE: I Found Great-Great Uncle George!_Washington County PA Genealogy and Family History_Little Washington

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Washington County 'Little Washington' Pennsylvania
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Washington County Pennsylvania History and Families

GENEALOGY 101 ARTICLE: "I Found Great-Great Uncle George!"
When a Death Date is Missing on a Tombstone

You've searched and searched for a burial location, and finally found *your* family and the "person of interest" in X graveyard. You're so excited! Looking at the tombstone, though, you only see a Date of Birth. Maybe the death date eroded into oblivion through the years? You rub your hand lightly over where the death date should appear, and feel nothing. Maybe the family just never paid for the extra date. Maybe the stone mason forgot. Maybe no one cared? Well, at least you found him! 

Wait! Not so fast! 

Just because a name appears on a stone, does it really mean the person was buried there? Well, the spouse is there, so certainly the "better half" should be laying beside him or her, especially since both names are on the tombstone. Or the parents and siblings are there, so certainly "John" should be there too. But, is that always true?

In death do us part...

If you find a stone (or cemetery list) with a person's name (and even a birth date) but no death date, NO, it does not necessarily mean the person is buried there.

When a spouse dies, or when a parent must buy a plot for family member (spouse or other child), the buyer sometimes pays for a name and birth date, leaving the death date blank for that inevitable time. However, the person whose name is engraved there may move away (or a spouse re-marries). When the person dies, the individual ends up buried elsewhere... in another neighborhood, another church yard, another county, or even another State. Yet, to naive eyes, it looks like they are buried "right there."

As I mentioned in my last writing, I buried my sister 5 years ago (my, has it been so long?). I paid for her tombstone with her name and dates, and had her husband's name engraved there as well. When talking to her husband later, he said his side of the family are determined that he'll be buried with them. (I told him over my--er, his--dead body---LOL). But, if that were to happen, it would appear he was buried beside his wife without a death date, and his body would lie elsewhere with (presumably) another tombstone. Would anyone connect the two locations?

As it turned out, my brother-in-law was never buried beside my sister.  His daughter had his remains cremated.  His ashes were taken to Texas, while my sister is buried in Washington County.  So much for my intentions for a tombstone with dates for both of them.

In my previous days of cemetery hunting, I saw many stones with a missing death date. I used to assume the body was there, but someone didn't engrave the date. My assuming stopped when I found an ancestor in a graveyard in Ohio...and a cemetery book listing the burial details. His obituary confirmed he'd been buried where he died--in Ohio--likely the family was too poor to transport his body (hmmm.. or maybe he was on the outs with a survivor? I'll never know.)

If you can find it, always check the cemetery record and the obituary. Obituaries announced the burial spot so people in the community could attend (walking, by horse, or by buggy).  Yet, do not use the obituary as proof of where the person was buried!  My sister's obituary lists the wrong cemetery; I can only hope researchers in 100 years find my family history book with the corrected information!  However, in most cases, the obituary gives the correct burial location.

The cemetery book (especially more recent) will likely show the grave lot owners, the grave opening (actually digging it), the death & burial dates. Some cemetery books (or the church book) will show who dug the grave, if the cemetery had no full-time person. As recent as the 1950s in some church yards, family members (men) dug the grave (as in the case of my great-great grandmother).

So, when you see a blank date in a cemetery list, try to visit the cemetery yourself. If you can't feel an engraved date, consider that the burial never took place. Look for other sources to confirm the burial location.  Don't stop with just one source; find several that confirm the same fact.


Oh, and never rely on family story or word-of-mouth 'facts' about burial locations.  The informant may be well-meaning but thoroughly mistaken.  

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