Summer is here and with it comes time for hands-on cemetery research. Where your ancestors are buried can tell you so much about them and their lives. You can also learn what was important to them. Is your ancestor buried in a church cemetery? They were likely involved in a faith community. If they were buried in a family cemetery, consider that it was very likely part of family land at one time.
As a research tool, cemeteries are crucial for building a family tree. Grave markers are a direct connection to our ancestors’ lives and may have clues, literally, written in stone. There is so much more to cemetery research than just the names and dates on the gravestones. Look around to see who is buried near your ancestors. It’s likely you will find connections which may lead you to break down a brick wall within your family history. Here are some basics that you need to know.
Check death certificates, obituaries and funeral home records to identify the cemetery where your ancestor is buried. Also, look at close relatives of your ancestor. If you’ve located where their sibling is buried reach out to the cemetery office and inquire about others with the same surname. Keep in mind that where your ancestor lived may not be the same place they died, and vice versa.
Once you have the name of the cemetery you’ll need to locate it. Findagrave.com and Billiongraves.com allow users to search for cemeteries around the world. On the Findagrave.com home page you can search by an ancestor’s name, cemetery name or by location. The map view shows the exact location should you want to visit in person. Billiongraves.com allows users to collect photos of headstones and upload them to their site by using a phone camera app. Once uploaded the photo is tagged with the GPS location and becomes available to all users. (I located an ancestor’s tombstone in Italy through this site!)
Now that you’re ready to explore, organization is key. With that said, repeat after me… it is not weird to have a graveyard kit. Mine includes: A plastic pail, scissors and a trowel, wet wipes, garden gloves and disposable latex gloves (I like clean hands), insect repellent (Lyme disease is no joke, people!), cemetery map with grave location marked (call during office hours and they will have them waiting for you!), masking tape (for when your spouse complains), rags, flashlight, cheap aluminum foil, whisk broom, notebook and pen, plastic grocery bags (I like clean knees too!), drinking water, water jug that can easily be refilled, sunscreen, soft toothbrush and old shoes. Obviously keep your phone charged and handy, not only for taking photos but for your safety. With safety in mind, it’s best to have a partner with you. Just tell them you’re going for ice cream.
By studying tombstones, we can discover facts about an ancestor such as hobbies, occupations, organizations, family members’ names and military service. They may also include cause of death. While visiting a Boston cemetery, I located a tombstone showing a man pinned under the wheels of a cart pulled by running horses, a tragic event memorialized for eternity. Even the nearby plantings may be symbolic; oak trees represent strength while weeping willows are the symbolic tree of sadness. Looking closely, you may see symbols that held greater meaning in a time when many people didn’t know how to read. Photograph the stones and notice the carvings, initials and symbols. A Google search can easily decipher these.
Planning a cemetery field trip is a wonderful way to learn more and pay your respects to previous generations. I consider cemeteries sacred ground where tombstones stand as monuments to an ancestor’s life filled with rich genealogical details just waiting to be unearthed.
If you have a story to share or an idea for a future column, feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is the President of the Niagara County Genealogical Society and a member of the National Genealogical Society. She has been doing family research for more than 15 years and blogs at noellasdaughter.com.