What’s in a Cemetery Record?
You’ve searched Find A Grave and Billion Graves. You’ve visited your local cemetery and taken photos of the headstones. What’s left for your cemetery research? Answer: the records kept by the cemetery office or sexton’s records. You may be surprised at the details in these records. I recently discovered a collection of cemetery records at the Utah Archives for my Kelsey family and today I’m sharing what I found. I’ll also give you three tips for locating cemetery records of your own.
First of all, why go after the cemetery records? Isn’t all of the information for an individual on their headstone? In the case of my great great grandfather, William Henry Kelsey, take a look at his headstone, located in the Springville City Cemetery. I took this photo, then uploaded it to Billion Graves and transcribed the information on it. You can see that the transcription reads:
Nov. 21 1830
Dover Co of Kent
Aug 5 1895
I’ve been going to this cemetery for years with my mother to visit the graves. We’ve taken lots of pictures and enjoyed honoring this pioneer. What I didn’t know was that there was much more information waiting to be discovered in the official cemetery register.
On a recent trip to the Utah Archives I browsed the online catalog in preparation and saw that the Springville Cemetery Interment Records collection has burials as early 1851. Why would this be worth looking at? Deaths were not required to be registered officially in Utah until 1905, with general compliance starting in 1919. Without a death certificate filed with the state government, the cemetery administrative records can give valuable information.
Many cemeteries have offices or official caretakers that keep record books of burials. These are called sexton’s records and are kept in the cemetery office. In some cases however, they might have been moved to the city or county offices, or even an archive, like the Springville Cemetery records.
I previously detailed my visit to the Utah State Archives, explaining how I prepared for my research outing. Upon arriving, the staff pulled the microfilm for me and I started scrolling through the records. I first saw this map of the cemetery and located William H Kelsey’s family plot. This shows who owns the plot, not necessarily everyone buried there.
Several pages later on the microfilm was the burial register. Note how much more information is listed than on the gravestone. We see that the entry for William H Kelsey lists his father Edward Kelsey and mother Ann Gibbons, his birth and death information, and his cause of death. The birth date which is difficult to read on the headstone here is much more legible. If a headstone is illegible or damaged, this might be the only place the death date is recorded. Also, information on other family members buried in the family plot is listed together – very helpful since we generally research entire families!
Cemetery records vary depending on the caretaker, but here are some of the types of records you might find for your family.
- Registry of burials: This generally includes the name, burial date and plot; but can have birth and death dates and places, parent information, marital status, age, etc. and cause of death.
- Cemetery Deeds : The original deed is given to the plot owner, but the sexton keeps a copy in the cemetery deed books; it will show the location of the plot.
- Plat records : Often these are cards filed with the name of the plot owner, date of purchase, and names and dates of burials in the plot.
- Plat maps: These show grave locations and plot ownership; sometimes these are reconstructed years later, when records began to be kept in a cemetery.
Not sure where to access these sometimes elusive records? Here are some tips for success.
- Start with a simple Google search for “cemetery records” and the name of the cemetery or location. This might point you immediately to an archive, cemetery office, or courthouse where you’ll find the records.
- Use the FamilySearch Wiki to pinpoint records. Enter the county, state, and “cemetery records” into the search box. Each locality will vary, but you may get lucky and find some great information.
- Contact the local library, historical or genealogical society of the area where the cemetery is located. Generally someone in the know will be able to tell you where the records are housed. Use a Google search to find contact information.
Best of luck in your family history endeavors!