Back to the Basics: Cemetery Records Part 1
Memorial Day and summer are approaching and you may be getting ready to do some hands-on cemetery research. If you’re not able to visit a cemetery in person right now, can you still do cemetery research? What are the basics that you need to know? In Part 1 of this series we’ll cover the types of U.S. cemeteries and strategies for locating a cemetery for your ancestor.
Why Cemetery Research
Why should you explore cemetery records? Often a cemetery record might be the only mention of a child who was born and died in between census years. It could also be the only mention for a woman, especially if she died in childbirth and no marriage record survives. Examining the various headstones around your ancestor could reveal additional family members previously unknown. Because the records could reveal a wealth of information, it’s important as researchers to understand the various types of cemeteries, how to locate the records, and what types of records are available.
Types of U.S. Cemeteries
We’ll be discussing mainly United States cemeteries in this series. If you’re researching in another country, check out the FamilySearch Wiki for that country + cemetery. You’ll learn specifics for that locality.
In the United States, several types of cemeteries could be researched for your ancestor.
– Church cemeteries: If your ancestor worshiped at a specific church, he may have been buried in an adjoining church cemetery. Especially in Colonial America, a church cemetery was often located next to the church. As an area grew however, the church cemetery may have been relocated. In many instances, the church owned and operated a cemetery, but it was not connected or adjacent to the actual church. The records may still be at the church or in the collection of a minister. The records could also be archived in a regional church archive or university collection. Discovering the records of a church cemetery will require inquiring on the local level. Contacting the local library, historical or genealogical society could yield information on where the records are currently housed.
– Government owned cemetery: A cemetery could be maintained by one of the various government jurisdictions – town, county, state, or national. This type of cemetery is maintained by taxpayer money and the records may be on site or at the courthouse or city hall. The records may also have been sent to the state archives.
– Commercial cemeteries: A cemetery may be owned by a corporation and run as a business. This became more prevalent in the mid 1900s and continues today. There could be an instance were records are private, but many are accessible. Contact the cemetery office to discover the procedure for obtaining the records.
– Family cemetery: In rural areas especially, a small plot of land was reserved for a family burial place. If there were records created they may be at a local society or handed down through the family. Inquiring on the local level may help you discover additional information.
– Military Cemeteries: The United States has many cemeteries designated only for veterans. These are operated on both the national and the state level. There are also cemeteries overseas for soldier who died during service.
Locating a Cemetery – Online Resources
My 3rd great grandfather, Thomas Beverly Royston, died in 1868 in Chambers County, Alabama. He does not have a death certificate and his probate estate file doesn’t reveal a burial place. I haven’t personally seen his gravesite, but thanks to others, I have a photo and a memorial of him to view online. Online resources are very helpful as we begin our search for an ancestor’s unknown burial. Here are some of my favorites:
Find A Grave
Find a Grave.com is a valuable resource and has made our cemetery research much easier. A memorial for an ancestor often includes a photo of the headstone and other information.You can search with a variety of information such as name, birth, death, and cemetery location. Be careful to use name variations and track your searches in your research log. The Find a Grave search engine will only locate exact spellings of names, so you may have better luck using the Find A Grave indexes on Ancestry or FamilySearch which do discover spelling variations. As with any search, try various websites and indexes for the best results.
You can also search Find A Grave just by location to discover all the cemeteries in a city, county, or state. I entered a search for Chambers County, Alabama, and discovered 262 cemeteries in just this county alone. Scrolling through the results I saw that many of these were small church and family cemeteries ranging from 0 memorials to over 1,000. The Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery where Thomas Beverly Royston was buried is one of the larger cemeteries. He is the only member of his immediate family buried in this cemetery. His wife and several of his children moved on to Texas after his death.
Billion Graves allows you to add a GPS location to any grave site then add identifying information. Using the search by cemetery function, you can view the actual location of a cemetery on a topographical map. With the BillionGraves Plus subscription you can view the graves around those of your ancestor – allowing you to find possible family members.
I took the GPS coordinates from the Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery on Find A Grave (33.0872002, -85.3463974) and put those into the search of Billion Graves to take a look at the area. Notice that the cemetery was identified on Billion Graves as “Bethel Cemetery.” My initial search with the full name of Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery didn’t locate the cemetery. Also noted on the map is the Bethel Baptist Church. When I make a trip to Alabama, I should be able to locate the cemetery with no trouble. Unfortunately, no one has added images to Billion Graves with a GPS attached for specific graves, so I’ll be traipsing the cemetery looking for the exact site.
Additional online sources
Internment.net is described on the website as “a free online library of cemetery records from thousands of cemeteries across the world, for historical and genealogy research.” This website includes cemeteries from Canada, Ireland, Britain, Australia, and more.
The Tombstone Transcription Project, hosted by USGenWeb has links to state projects, foreign cemeteries, and military cemeteries. Results will vary from state to state as these are volunteer projects.
JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry is a “database of more than three million names and other identifying information from cemeteries and burial records worldwide.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hosts the National Gravesite Locator where you can search for burial locations of veterans. My father-in-law is buried in the Utah State Veteran’s Cemetery in Riverton, Utah, and a search by name and death year found his record.
The DAR Genealogical Research website has indexed records that include gravestones as well as family Bibles and material taken from personal collections. The GRC Search stands for Genealogical Records Committee Index. Learning to use the index and website could yield huge dividends if your ancestor is listed.
Locating a Cemetery – Digging Deeper
What if you’ve tried searching for your ancestor on the major cemetery websites with no luck. What are your next steps? Start with what is known. Is there a death certificate that lists the place of burial? Does an obituary or death notice name the cemetery? If there is no death information, you can narrow down the last known location of your ancestor. Where was he in the last census of his life? Did he own land? If so, research the various cemeteries for that town or county. Start with those closest to his home and then work outwards. Was the ancestor living with a child at the end of his life? He could have been buried near that child’s home, or in a cemetery with his parents, wife, or other children. Think of all the possibilities based on what you know about the ancestor.
Once you’ve narrowed down a possible location for burial, use Google Earth and Google Maps to search within a 5 mile radius for any cemeteries, then broaden to a 10 mile radius. Take note of all the possible cemeteries to search. Your research log would be an excellent place to list the cemetery and contact information. As you do the research, you can enter information about what was found and not repeat the searches.
Early county maps and gazetteers could describe cemeteries that don’t show up on modern maps. County and town histories might name cemeteries in the area at the time your ancestor lived there. Contacting the local historians or residents could be helpful. Funeral directors in the area might also point you to cemeteries.
Don’t forget about contacting cousins, especially those living near your ancestor’s home place. I’ve corresponded with many cousins who knew where an ancestor was buried because they lived close by. They gladly shared their photos of the headstones. Some of these photos were not on the major cemetery websites or were better images. Compare the photos of my 3rd great grandfather’s headstone. One is on Find A Grave, the other sent by a cousin. The version sent by my cousin will enable me to further my research because I can see the inscriptions and images clearly.
Now that you have learned about the various types of cemeteries and how to locate your ancestor’s burial, part 2 of this series will explore the various types of cemetery records and clues the headstones might reveal.
What other strategies have you used to discover your ancestor’s burial places? Leave a comment and let’s learn together.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!