7 Records to Look for in Cemeteries

7 Records to Look for in Cemeteries

Tombstones aren't the only records available in the graveyard. Bring your ancestors' deaths (and lives) to light with these seven cemetery resources.

cemetery records genealogy deeds maps certificates

We think of cemeteries as an ending. Our ancestors’ tombstones represent their final destination. Their point of no return. But really, the gravestone is just the beginning. Careful “tombstone tourists” know to look for more than just inscriptions when visiting the cemetery. Other documents of a burial contain tidbits of vital information that can breathe life into your long-departed ancestors: a scandalous murder detailed in a death certificate, an unfamiliar place named on a burial permit, or a previously undiscovered mystery person listed on your ancestor’s plot record. Or if you can’t find a relative’s death information in more-typical records, another kind of cemetery record may hold the answers you need. These little surprises can assist you in learning more about the deceased, their deaths, and their lives—and maybe even introduce you to a new member of your family tree. In this excerpt from my book, The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide, we’ll discuss seven records you should look for during your next trip to hallowed ground.

1. Sexton’s records

Also known as records of interment, a registry of burials or a “cemetery book,” sexton’s records are documents kept in the cemetery office for a variety of reasons. These records may be in a book, ledgers or notebook; on loose papers in filing cabinets; or even on index cards in boxes.

Older cemetery books contain three basic types of records: chronological records of burials, reports pertaining to where the graves are located, and cemetery deeds (see the next section). Chronological burial records include the name of the person buried and the date of burial, but additional details (such as the name of the plot owner, measurements of the plot or how much was paid for it) will vary based on the sexton who kept the record.

Basic information from cemetery records may be on cemetery websites such as Find A Grave, but you may find more information on the record itself. Today, public cemeteries have superintendents and offices that keep hours of operation, perhaps a website, or at least a phone number to call for assistance (for example, if the cemetery is managed by the city, the office is probably offsite at city hall). Stop by the office, check the website, or call and ask where old sexton’s records are kept. They may have been transferred to a library or historical society, or digitized online if you’re lucky. For cemeteries on private land, start by contacting the local city, township or county government. You also should see if the records are on microfilm through FamilySearch: Search the online catalog by place, entering the county or town where the cemetery is located, then look under the categories for cemeteries. In addition to burial records, you might find cemetery directories, deeds (see below), and other records mentioned in this article. Click to view a listing, which will have links to rent the item for viewing at a local FamilySearch Center (and sometimes to a digitized version online at FamilySearch).

2. Cemetery Deeds

A cemetery deed, like any deed, is issued for the purchase of real estate—albeit this piece of land is just big enough to bury the dead. The original deed was given to the purchaser, and the cemetery office keeps a copy for its files. The cemetery records the transfer, sale or inheritance involving this deed, and so does the city or county recorder of deeds office where the cemetery is located (similar to any parcel of land). The deed includes the size and dimensions of the plot, its location of the burial lot (including section and plot number), the name and address of the buyer and seller, amount paid, and the name and address of the cemetery where the plot is located. By researching the cemetery deed, you might discover other plots that were also sold to the same buyer, dates of the purchase, how much was paid, if the plots were ever used, and who was buried there.

If the cemetery office doesn’t have deeds for its plots, look in local court records. Surviving cemetery deeds may have been kept in separate deed books, or they may be recorded with other deeds. A search of the FamilySearch catalog (as described in Sexton’s Records, above) also might uncover cemetery deeds available on microfilm.

3. Plot records and maps

Plot records contain information about a physical grave lot, usually the location or section, the plot or grave number, who is interred there (including those whose graves may not be marked with a stone), and a visual description of the site, such as a tombstone inscriptions and symbols. You may also find the deed number, who the deed was issued to, when the plot was purchased, how much was paid, and if other plots were purchased at the same time. Plot records can be found in a “lot book,” typically available from either a cemetery’s office or a local genealogical society that has custody of these records. See an example in the case study below.

4. Plat Maps

Before local governments became involved in overseeing cemeteries in the 18th and 19th centuries, few put much thought into diagramming or mapping out burial grounds so future visitors would know where to look for relatives’ graves. The deceased were usually buried in order of demise, grouped together as families or interred wherever it was convenient. Descriptive records of who was buried where may or may not exist for these older cemeteries, but the actual location of the grave could be lost to time.

Enter plat maps: documents that show the layout of all the graves in the cemetery. Plat books include wayfinders such as section names and numbers, row numbers, and grave or plot numbers. You also might find additional details such as who owns a grave. These records may contain redundant information with other types of cemetery records mentioned here, but watch for any inconsistent details that may warrant further research.

Once you’ve found an ancestor’s grave on a plat map, pay attention to any names on the plots nearby. These could be family members, in-laws, close friends or neighbors, whose records might provide clues to your ancestors’ marriages or immigrant origins. Compare the names to your findings to census records to see if you can identify them. Keep a list of these folks to refer back to as you do “cluster research” to develop a robust picture of your ancestors’ lives.

5. Burial permits and records

State and city health departments have been regulating burials since the beginning of the 20th century. Burial permits or certificates, known today as permits for “disposition of remains,” are government documents that allow a body to be buried. See an example of below. They also may be issued as burial/removal permits, allowing for the remains to be removed from the funeral home and transported to the cemetery. A state’s local health office or the town clerk in the place where the death occurred (even if the body is to be buried elsewhere) issues the permit to a funeral director or embalmer who’s registered with the local board of health. The funeral home handling the arrangements then fills out the permit. It stays in the possession of the funeral director until after the burial has been completed.

These permits can be as simple or as detailed as issuing department desired. They’ll typically include the name of the deceased and the date of death, and also may provide the city where the death occurred (not necessarily where the deceased had actually lived), burial date, cemetery section and plot numbers, name of the informant who provided details about the deceased, and that person’s relationship to the deceased. A burial permit sometimes lists the manner of death, be it natural causes, accident, homicide, suicide or undetermined (and whether an investigation is pending).

Burial permits or certificates might be in the cemetery office, with the government office that issued the record, archived at a local library or historical society, and/or on Family History Library microfilm. Copies may be in funeral home records. Other records sometimes included with a burial permit are burial transit permits, grave opening and closing orders, and information on disinterment of remains. Opening and closing orders grant the cemetery permission to place the casket or remains into the grave and seal it. They usually provide the deceased’s name, gender, age, date and location of death, cause of death, burial place and cemetery plot number, plus the undertaker’s name.

6. Funeral records

Cemetery papers may also include funeral record (or funeral service) forms, created by the undertaker to glean pertinent information about the deceased’s burial. You also can look for these records by contacting the funeral home (or a business that has since acquired it) that handled the arrangements. Some funeral records have been transferred to local libraries and historical societies.

In the example below, the funeral record for John Williams provides a lot of information. Mr. William was a retired merchant and a widower, and his parents were German. The record even names them. His daughter ordered the funeral after his death from tuberculosis. The funeral service was to take place Jan. 29, 1898, at 8 a.m., and would feature six pallbearers. John’s casket had six handles and was adorned with a cross and a plate that read “Our Father.” He was laid to rest in a burial robe in St. Joseph Cemetery, and the record gives the section and lot number. Seven carriages were hired to transport funeral guests to the cemetery.

7. Death certificates

Old death certificates are often available through a state or county office, on microfilm at libraries or through FamilySearch, and online at sites like Ancestry.com . But they also might be included in cemetery papers, depending on how detailed cemetery officials were. It’s certainly worth a look if you can’t find a death certificate elsewhere.

When you do find death certificates among cemetery records, those for burials around the same time can help you identify epidemics that raged through cities. Charles A. Plummer’s death certificate shows he died Aug. 28, 1881, at age 13, in Evansville, Ind. He’d contracted typhoid fever, a bacterial disease spread through contaminated food and drinking water. The death certificate shows Charles lasted four weeks after the onset of the disease. Additional research could reveal whether other family members succumbed.

Tombstones may be the most obvious stop for genealogists researching in cemeteries, but savvy researchers will dig deeper into the records kept at your ancestor’s final resting place. Maybe these documents can bring to life long-dormant details about your ancestors.

Case Study: Plot Records

Let’s look at an example to see what a cemetery’s plot records can tell you about your ancestors. Plot records may contain maps that show the arrangement of burials within a family plot (as opposed to a plat map, which covers a section or the entire cemetery). This record shows that on March 8, 1897, Sarah Wiley paid $60 for lot number 11 in section 23, a spot large enough for four graves. Because Sarah was the purchaser and Rudolph is the first to be buried there, we can reasonably assume that she was married to Rudolph and his death necessitated buying the plot.

The second person laid to rest here is a woman named Madalina Stickmann. Could this be Sarah’s mother? Elizabeth Weley (notice the spelling difference from Robert and Sarah’s name?) was buried third, next to Rudolph—possibly a daughter. Grave No. 4, next to Madalina, holds Adam Stickmann. But Sarah herself isn’t interred here.

Now we have unanswered questions. Where’s Sarah? Did she remarry, and is she buried with that husband? If so, did they have children? Another possibility, though less likely, is that Elizabeth and Rudolph were the parents of Sarah—and if that is the case, why didn’t Elizabeth purchase the plot? Further genealogical research may provide the answers.

Case Study: Burial Certificates

This burial certificate for Lizzie R. Utteridge was originally hard to read, but I can make out a little more by manipulating the image with photo-editing software (I use iPhoto on my Mac). I heightened the contrast to make the text stand out from the background, which lets me see that Lizzie was born in Indiana and died July 21, 1881, in Warrick County, Ind., at the age of 4 months. It gives the family’s religion, Cumberland Presbyterian, a clue that led me to digitized records on the church archives’ website. Lizzie died of cholera infantum and “congestion of brain.”

A common cause of childhood death in the 19th century, cholera infantum was a nonspecific term for fever, vomiting and diarrhea (it wasn’t related to Asiatic cholera). Doctors associated it with teething and finger foods; today we point to spoiled food as a likely cause.  It was especially prevalent in urban areas during the hot summer months, hence another name for it, “summer complaint.” Congestion of the brain was a swelling of the brain due to accumulation of fluids. Treatment at that time was to divert blood from the head by administering hot mustard footbaths, and by applying ice or cold water to the head. You can look up old causes of death at the Archaic Medical Terms website.

Lizzie was buried in Roses Hill Cemetery in Evansville, Ind., but the date of burial is missing. I’ve learned that this cemetery’s paper records aren’t plentiful, as is sometimes the case, so a visit is in order to locate Lizzie’s grave and perhaps graves of her family.

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Avowed “tombstone tourist” Joy Neighbors is the blogger behind A Grave Interest and the author of The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide (Family Tree Books), from which this article is excerpted.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Family Tree Magazine.