What types of cemetery records are available to shed light on your ancestor’s life? Have you considered searching for more than the headstone? A cemetery record can contain important genealogical information such as birth and death details, family relationships, and more. If we’re going to discover all we can about our ancestors, we need to be aware of the variety of cemetery records and what can be found in them.
In Back to the Basics: Cemetery Records Part 1 you learned about the various types of U.S. cemeteries, and how to find the cemetery where your ancestor might be buried. In part 2 of this series, you’ll discover what kind of records may have been generated and learn how to find those records. You’ll also discover the type of information that could be revealed in a cemetery record.
Types of Cemetery Records
The sexton historically was a church official who took care of the church and the adjoining graveyard. He would keep a careful record of who was buried and where. The “sexton’s book” as it is commonly called is no longer just for church cemeteries, but has been kept for city cemeteries, commercial cemeteries, and even family burial plots. Sexton’s records vary in content as well as in availability. Here are some of the records generated in the burial of an individual that are often termed “Sexton’s Records.”
– Plat Maps and Records
A Sexton’s record might be any form of a record describing the burials in the cemetery. It could be an index card for each individual describing the burial location and details of birth and death. The record could also be a map of the cemetery showing the various plots. Specific grave locations could be mapped or just the owner of the plot.
The image below shows the location in the Springville Cemetery of my 3rd great grandfather’s burial plot. I’ve visited this site many times with my mother who has an unerring sense of direction in finding the Kelsey marker. On one of our visits, I took a photograph of the headstone and uploaded it to Billion Graves. The GPS details attached will ensure that I can find the family plot again, even without the help of my mother. If I didn’t know the location of a family plot, the cemetery plat map could be used.
A plat map details who owned the family plot, not everyone buried there. In this case, W.H. Kelsey had purchased the plot, so only his name appears.This particular plat map was sent to the Utah Archives where I viewed the microfilm. At one time, it was probably held at the cemetery or city office, but because this is a small cemetery with no more burials taking place, the records were eventually transferred to the state archives.
Another type of record kept for a cemetery was a list of all the individuals buried in a certain family plot. The same microfilm that held the above image also had the entry for W. H. Kelsey and the family members buried in the plot he purchased. This record held more information than was on the plat map or even on the headstone: names of the parents of W.H. Kelsey, his birth and death information, and his cause of death. If a headstone is badly damaged, the cemetery record might be available to show the original information.
This record also revealed several additional family members with relationships and vital information, all of which could be correlated with other records. In some instances, the burial register could hold the only mention of parents or a birth date. As in any other record, the quality of the information depends on the informant.
– Cemetery Deeds
What could a cemetery deed reveal? Just as with any other deed, the information may vary, but generally it will show the name of the purchaser, the date, and could give clues to other family members. The original deed was given to the owner, but a copy would be kept by the cemetery for the records. The Utah Archives also held the deeds for the Springville City Cemetery and I located a deed for William Henry Kelsey’s daughter shown in the image below. In 1926 Mrs. Harriet M. Davis paid to the city of Springville the sum of $125 for the perpetual care and water of Lot 3, in Block 38, Section N.W. in the City Cemetery.
As in any record mentioning our ancestors, we carefully read the record and put it in context of an individual’s life. We ask questions and investigate further which leads us to more understanding and possibly new connection. Upon reading this deed, my questions were: Why did Harriet purchase perpetual care and water for Lot 3 in Block 38 and who was buried there?
Mrs. Harriet M. Davis was the daughter of my 3rd great grandfather, William Henry Kelsey, mentioned in the Springville Cemetery plat map and burial register. Was this his burial plot? Looking at the plat map, I saw that his plot was Lot 2 in Block 13, so Harriet wasn’t paying for the upkeep of her father’s plot.
Turning to her record on FamilySearch, I saw that she was buried in Salem, Utah, as was her husband. The records showed Harriet and her family enumerated in Salem from at least 1880 on. Harriet’s husband was buried in Salem as were many of her children. Then I saw a child, Junius Jordan Davis, who was born 2 February 1882 in Salem, Utah, and died 14 September 1883. Viewing the record on Find A Grave, I discovered Junius was buried in the Springville Cemetery, Lot 3 Block 38.
Now the pieces fell into place. Harriet had likely buried her infant child in the Springville Cemetery because it was near her parent’s home in Springville. She had paid $125 in 1926 for the upkeep of the plot. In 2019 that is equivalent to between $1700-$3000, depending on the inflation calculator. This deed showed not only the remembrance of her child, but her relative wealth at this time. Exploring the information in the deed led to new discoveries for this family and added richness to the story of Harriet Kelsey Davis.
–Grave Opening Orders
If a grave was opened, a record would be generated. Why would a grave be opened? The remains of an individual might be transferred to another locate, a postmortem examination of the body might have been ordered, or another person was going to be buried in the same grave. I haven’t discovered any grave opening orders in my own research, but the will of Georgia A. Dawson comes close. Written in 1861, imagine my surprise as I was transcribing the will and found the following directions for her brother O.L. Lewis.(1)
by authorise [sic] him to use enough of the
interest, that may be in his hands, after
all my debts are paid, to buy three mar
ble slabs to be placed over the graves of my
mother, step-other and myself. First
removing the remains of my step mother
and my two children from their present
burial place. To where my own mother
is buried, and in one grave, place my
self and two children with a marble slab
Georgia died in 1861 in Russell County, Alabama, and I haven’t yet located the cemetery where she and her children were buried. Likely there is no existing cemetery record besides a headstone, but the instructions in the will give us a glimpse of what have happened and why someone might have a grave opened.
Other Burial Records
Besides Sexton’s Records, what other records could be available?
In the 20th century, more government regulation led to the necessity of obtaining a burial permit. Death registration in most U.S. states began after 1900 and the death certificate issued listed the name of the undertaker, his address, and the date and place of the burial. Locating and contacting the cemetery could result in locating the burial permit which could hold additional genealogical information not recorded on the death certificate.
–Church Burial Registers
A church could keep it’s own register of burials listing the name of the deceased, date of burial, and possibly birth and parent information.
If an individual was buried in a family plot, the family bible may be the only source of a private burial. Family Bibles are generally held by private individuals, but many are becoming available through historical societies. The more we connect with our cousins, the more likelihood we’ll discover this type of a record.
-Funeral Director’s Records
The funeral director keeps his own records and may have additional information on the deceased. Death certificates and obituaries often name the funeral home which might hold these type of records. Once that is determined, Google searching could help locate find contact information. Another helpful resource is The American Blue Book of Funeral Directors , a directory arranged by state, city, and funeral home. (3)
Finding Cemetery Records
Now that you’ve learned about new and interesting cemetery records that might hold important genealogical information for you, what’s the next step? Finding those records! In a nutshell, here are some ideas.
-Check offices of current sexton or the town or county clerk, or state archive
-Check with the local genealogy society or the history or genealogy department of the local library
-Use a Google search
-The Family History Library has cemetery records listed in the Locality Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under [STATE], [COUNTY] – Cemeteries
-The library has a few funeral home records listed in the Locality Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under the following:
[STATE], [COUNTY] – BUSINESS RECORDS AND COMMERCE or FUNERAL HOMES
In part 3 of this series we’ll learn about gleaning all the information possible from the headstones of our family members.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
(1) Photograph of headstone of William H. Kelsey, (1830-1895), Springville City Cemetery,. (1)Springville, Utah; Billion Graves, (https://billiongraves.com/grave/William-H-Kelsey/8357202 : accessed 5 June 2019); photographer elder999, 23 May 2014.
(2) Russell County, Estate Case File, Georgia A. Dawson, 1861-1864, Folder 1 Box D; “Index and Probate Estate Case files, 1826-1915, arranged alphabetically, > Probate Estate Case Files, Davis, Edward L. – Doles, Arah, 1826-1915, FamilySearch https://www.familysearch.org : accessed 27 May 2018); FHL microfilm 2,203,643.
(3) The American Blue Book of Funeral Directors, (New York : Kates-Boylston publications, Inc., 1995).