Have you ever traipsed through a cemetery and wondered if you’re discovering all the clues for your ancestor? We are understandably most interested in the names and dates on the headstones, but what else should we be considering?
In part 1 of this series, you learned about the various types of U.S. cemeteries and how to find the cemetery for your ancestor’s burial. In part 2 you discovered a variety of cemetery records such as sexton’s records, plat maps, and cemetery deeds. This article will show you how to use all of the information on the headstone or memorial to find out more about your ancestor.
What is the difference between a memorial and a headstone? A memorial is designed to embellish a space and remind family members of a deceased loved one. It can take many shapes such as an urn, bench, statue, or other type of ornament. A plaque often accompanies the memorial with an inscription detailing names, dates, and relationships. A headstone identifies the individual buried in a specific plot and also is inscribed with a variety of information.
The headstone of my 3rd great grandfather, Richard Frazier, provides an interesting example. I have researched Richard and his wife, Nancy Briscoe Frazier, reasonably well. But we know as genealogists and family historians, there is always more to the story. Sources for the life of Richard Frazier include the census from 1850-1910, Nancy’s widow’s pension application describing his Civil War service, and this cemetery marker. What can be gleaned from a careful examination of the headstone? We’ll look at the information, symbols, and epitaphs to discover more about Richard Frazier and his family.
Evaluating the Cemetery Marker Information
An important step in our research is to thoroughly analyze each source and the information it holds. Then we use that information to provide evidence for our genealogical conclusions.
A headstone or memorial is an original source, generally created near the time of the event – a burial. A period of time has elapsed between the death of the individual and the placing of the marker. This could be weeks, months, or even years. If a headstone looks fairly new, but marks the grave of an individual who died over 100 years before, this could mean that the family erected a new headstone to replace an old, crumbling stone, or to even place one for the first time. If you look carefully you might discover the original headstone still near the grave.
In the example of R. Frazier who died in 1911, the photograph taken nearly 100 years after his death reveals that the stone is weathered and was likely placed soon after his burial. Different types of stone were used throughout history and carefully examining the stone can give clues to when the headstone might have been placed. Granite, bronze, marble, limestone, sandstone, and slate have all been used to create headstones and memorials.
It is up to us to understand the source – in this case the cemetery marker. When did the cemetery begin burials? Would our ancestor have been buried in the cemetery originally or could the remains have been moved? Researching the history of the cemetery could help us to better analyze the information on the headstone.
Next, does the birth and death information correlate with other sources? Remember that the same family member could have given the details for the death certificate, the obituary, and the headstone. Analyzing each detail separately will help us notice inconsistencies and deal with conflicting information. In the case of my ancestor, Richard Frazier, another source for his death came from the widow’s pension application. Richard’s widow, Nancy, gave the same death date of 13 January 1911 which correlates with the headstone. No death certificate was issued for his death, so these two independent sources are strong evidence for the date of death.
Discovering the Symbolism
A headstone may have additional information besides the inscription in the form of symbols. For example, what do you make of the symbols at the top of the headstone for Richard Frazier? What symbols are present that might give clues to his life and his family?
I detected several symbols and researching each one on the helpful website, Memorials.com, discovered the following meanings.
Arch: Victory of life; or victory of death
Doors & Gates: Passage into the afterlife; Heavenly entrance.
Dove: An important symbolic animal in Christianity representing the Holy Spirit.
Olive branch: Peace; symbol of safety which the dove brought to Noah after the flood
Five-pointed Star: Symbolic of the life of Christ and may also represent the five wounds of Christ.
I wasn’t sure of the religious affiliation of this ancestor, but researching the symbols and their meanings, it was evident that the Frazier family were of a Christian faith and believed in the afterlife. Other symbols might have given clues about military service, occupations, ethnicity, or fraternal organizations.
For another helpful resource see the PDF titled “Common Headstone Symbols and Their Meanings.” This list of symbols includes photographs of examples.
A cemetery marker often includes a short saying or verse known as the epitaph. The family would have chosen the epitaph and it can reveal additional clues to the family’s religion or beliefs. The inscription and epitaph for Richard Frazier reads:
Mar. 12. 1840.
Died Jan. 13. 1911.
The best, the dearest favored of
the sky. Must taste that cup
for man is born to die.
What can be learned from the epitaph? Doing a Google search, I discovered that the source for the verse was The Odyssey, Book III. Would my family have searched out this couplet? More likely it was a common phrase of the era. The Google search identified two other headstones with the same inscription, that of W. F. Patton died 18 September 1911 (1) and buried in the Lystra Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery of Madison County, Georgia, and that of Bascom L. Ferguson died 15 August 1906, buried in the Veal Station Cemetery of Weatherford, Texas (2). It was likely that the engraver had a selection of quotes that could be chosen.
The length of the epitaph coupled with the elaborate engraving hints at the importance of this headstone to the family. Was the family wealthy? The 1910 census taken just a year before his death reveals Richard Frazier, age 70, occupation farmer. Richard was renting his farm and likely was not wealthy. However, at the time of his death in 1911, ten of his eleven children were alive and living in the area. The elaborate headstone was probably the result of the pooling of their resources. As the head of a large family, Richard was evidently revered by them and warranted this lovely memorial. Taking the time to analyze this headstone more fully, I added another piece to story of the Frazier family.
What clues await you in your cemetery research? Careful examination of the cemetery marker, inscription, and symbols could reveal more than you realized at first glance. If possible, visit the cemetery in person to discover the graves near your ancestor. Family members were generally buried near one another and if the surname was different, a search in the cemetery burial list might not reveal the connection.
Each cemetery is unique as are the records. Using the information in this three-part series on cemetery research, I hope you make many new discoveries.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
(1) Christine Crumley Brown, “Lystra Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery,” inscription for W. F. Patton, Rootsweb (https://sites.rootsweb.com/~gamadiso/Cemeteries/lystra/lystracem.htm : accessed 8 July 2019).
(2) “Bascom L. Ferguson – Veal Station Cemetery – Weatherford, TX, USA,” Waymarking (http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMY3TP_Bascom_L_Ferguson_Veal_Station_Cemetery_Weatherford_TX_USA : accessed 8 July 2019).