Grave Concerns

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

How you can tell a genealogist from someone who’s not interested in family history? The genealogist is the one unconsciously turning her head and slowing down when driving by a cemetery. We just can’t help it. On a cross-county trip, my husband can tell what direction we’re going by where the sun is. I can tell by looking at a cemetery (I’ll explain how later).

Police officers have eyed me warily because I spend a lot of time hanging out in cemeteries, wearing jeans and a black T-shirt emblazoned with a bright, white skull with wings. Though the police may be skeptical, gang members adore me and have offered me honorary membership. I’m actually wearing a 17th-century winged death’s head, a popular piece of art carved on gravestones back then, but I just know that one of these days I’m going to be “hauled downtown” for questioning.

It’s worth the risk, for the same reason I can’t drive by a cemetery without gawking. Cemeteries are the place where you can be closest to your ancestors, both physically and spiritually. While it’s always a thrill to find your ancestors’ names in historical documents, nothing can beat finding their names carved on a tombstone and knowing that your ancestors are just 6 feet below your feet. You’re treading on the very same ground where they once walked, looking at the same headstones they looked at before they died. Here you have physical evidence that your ancestors existed.

But there’s much more to visiting your ancestors’ grave sites than meets the eye. And, of course, first you have to find them.

Finding the final resting place

If your ancestor died from about the late-19th century forward, you may easily learn where that person was buried through home sources such as funeral cards and oral history. Death certificates and obituaries traditionally carry this information, too. If not, but a funeral home is given, contact them: Check the American Blue Book of Funeral Directors, available in most public libraries’ reference section. If the funeral home no longer exists, contact the local or state historical society or local public library to see if they know what happened to the records.

For ancestors who died earlier, discovering grave sites may require more creativity. You need to know the locality where the ancestor died, since chances are that was also where the person was buried. Because genealogists have that fascination with cemeteries, many individuals and organizations have fully transcribed cemetery information and published the results — so look in the locality where your ancestor died for a published cemetery transcription. Check the catalog of the Family History Library < catalog.asp> for the locality, followed by “cemetery.” This library has perhaps the largest collection of published cemetery transcriptions; those on microfilm you can borrow through your local Family History Center. More and more cemetery and tombstone registries are popping up on the Internet, too.

Another resource to try is published family histories. If your ancestor is included in a published family history, an earlier genealogist may have located the grave and recorded its whereabouts. If you know the ancestor’s religious affiliation, try contacting the churches in the area. To see if cemetery records exist, try writing directly to the cemetery sexton (if the cemetery is still active) or to the town hall or county courthouse where the cemetery is located.

Also try the US Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Information System on the Web at <>. Type in the locality and “cemetery” in the “Feature Type,” and this will give you a list of cemeteries in that area.

Finding the right cemetery also depends in part on what kind of cemetery it is. At least eight different categories of cemeteries exist, according to Kenneth T. Jackson and Camilo Jose Vergara’s Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery:

1. Church graveyard. These were our country’s first cemeteries. In Europe, the elite were buried inside the church under the stone floor. In America, this wasn’t feasible because the churches were so much smaller, so everyone was buried outside.

2. Family burial plots. These were on private property and may be difficult to locate today if the cemetery hasn’t been maintained and isn’t well known in the community. Many genealogical societies have a cemetery committee, which not only transcribes tombstones in local cemeteries, but also attempts to locate and document family burying grounds. Check with the local genealogical society for hard-to-find grave sites, and look under your ancestor’s county on the USGenWeb site <> for contacts and possibly lists of family plots in the area.

3. Country cemetery. These are the ones you see as you drive down the “blue highways” of America. They often contain homemade or mail-order markers.

4. Elite garden cemetery. The garden-type cemetery began in the early 19th century; Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., was the first of its kind in 1831. These cemeteries are park-like, containing pathways, ponds, trees, foliage and benches. Before we had public parks, this is where people went on Sunday afternoons to picnic, contemplate and take afternoon strolls.

5. Ordinary urban cemetery. These might look like a “stone yard.” They’re just rows and rows of tombstones with straight paths and little foliage.

6. Veterans cemetery. These are for the honorably discharged and their families. The United States has 117 national veterans cemeteries; Arlington Cemetery is the most well-known. To locate an ancestor who was buried in a veterans cemetery, write to the National Cemetery Administration (402B), Burial Location Request, Department of Veterans Affairs, 810 Vermont Ave., Washington, DC 20420. Include the ancestor’s full name, date and place of birth and death, from which state he or she entered active duty, and military service branch. The records are indexed.

7. Memorial park. These are flat, grassy lawns with barely any visible evidence that people are buried there. The tombstones are flat and flush with the ground, containing the name of the deceased and usually just a birth and death year.

8. Potter’s field. This is where the county or city buries the poor, the unknown and the unwanted. If your ancestor fell into one of those categories, you’re probably out of luck.

Planning your cemetery field trip

After locating the cemetery, you’ll want to visit it. The best time of year to make a field trip to the cemetery is early spring. The weeds shouldn’t be overgrown, and the snow and winter rain may have cleaned off the tombstones. Cemeteries are wonderful places to get chiggers, ticks, bug bites and poison ivy rashes, so wear protective clothing and boots and bring bug repellent.

Watch for uneven ground, since graves tend to sink. When my daughter Laurie was 3 or 4, we went cemetery-hopping. Laurie was walking behind me, when all of a sudden I heard her call out for me. She’d fallen into a sunken grave. She was OK, and her therapist says she still has a good chance of leading a normal life.

Don’t just rush to find your ancestor’s grave, photograph the tombstone, then leave. Look around you. This is your ancestor’s final resting place. Remember, you will never be closer to your ancestor than right at this moment. What does the cemetery look like? Take a few pictures of the overall cemetery and of the gateway into the graveyard.

Here are some other items to note:

• Who’s buried around your ancestor? They could be relatives.

• What’s the location of the grave from the entrance? You’ll want to be able to find it again or tell others how to get there.

• Is there a map of the cemetery, giving sections and plot numbers? If so, mark the location on the map and keep it in your files.

Analyzing the headstone

Now let’s concentrate on the tombstone. What kind of stone is it? Though parts of the inscription may be weathered and unreadable, or it may have sunk into the ground so that you cannot read the death date, you can still get an idea of when the stone was placed by the composition of the stone. If the stone is granite and the death date is, say, 1789, then this isn’t the original stone, because granite wasn’t used until the 1880s.

Here’s a quick history lesson in tombstone materials:

• Before the 1650s — Grave markers were uncarved, rough-cut boulders.

• 1660s-1850s — Tombstones were made from sedimentary rock such as sandstone or limestone.

• Late 1700s-1880s — Marble became popular. Marble is especially prone to weathering and dissolves easily in acid (acid rain is a real enemy to marble tombstones). In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration revived the use of marble for veterans’ markers.

• 1880s-1910s — Soft, gray granite and cast-metal markers began being used.

• 1920s-present — Granite is the most popular material.

Note what kind of artwork is carved on the stone. These symbols weren’t chosen randomly — they have special meanings.

Also be aware that stonecutters do make mistakes. Just because it’s carved in stone doesn’t always mean it’s accurate. Mistakes are costly to correct, so if the carver accidentally made your great-grandmother many years younger than she actually was, making her 12 when she had her first child, that’s what the tombstone would tell posterity.

Taking Photographs

Next you’ll want to take a photograph of your tombstone find. You’ll need:

• camera and film

• spray bottle filled with water

• plastic or nylon brush (never wire)

• rags

• mirror (preferably a full-length one)

Before you snap a picture, the stone may need some light cleaning. Lichen and moss love to attach themselves to tombstones, and birds find them irresistible to perch and poop on, making the inscription harder to read and unattractive to photograph. Spray the stone with water only, lightly use a nylon or plastic brush to loosen the debris, then gently rub with your rag. Keep in mind that tombstones are historical artifacts; some have been around since the 1600s. Just because it’s made from stone doesn’t mean it’s durable. Some stones may already be crumbling, in which case do not do anything to the stone!

Acidic compounds, such as vinegar, can eat away marble. Many genealogists, myself included, used to use shaving cream on the stone to clean it and better bring out the image, but gravestone preservationists now caution that shaving cream is also acidic. Chalk is another method we used to recommend but don’t anymore, because it can leave a residue on porous stones. Stick with plain water to clean a stone; sometimes just wetting it can also help bring out the inscription.

Photographs turn out better if you take them in early morning light. In many cemeteries, graves lie on an east-west axis (which is how I’m able to tell what direction I’m traveling by a cemetery). That puts some inscriptions on the west side of the stone, so if you wait until late afternoon to take a picture, you’ll cast a shadow over the inscription with the sun behind you. The reflection from a mirror will help light up the stone for a better photograph, but you’ll need to bring along an assistant to hold the mirror.

Even if you’re photographing your finds, it’s still a wise idea to make a written record of the inscription. You can also try a tombstone rubbing. Sometimes your photos don’t turn out, or worse, as a friend of mine discovered after taking a whole roll and getting home, there might be no film in the camera!

Finding Living Relatives

If you thought you would find only your deceased ancestors in the cemetery, think again. Visiting the cemetery around Memorial Day or a town’s Decoration Day, you might find living relatives of your ancestors. If you can’t visit on one of those days, leave a note or ask someone in the area to do it for you.

Professional genealogist Marcia K. Wyett once tried writing a note, saying she was interested in contacting relatives of the person who was buried there, and giving her name and phone number. She addressed the envelope to “The Relatives of….” She put the envelope in a small plastic bag, bought an inexpensive plant to leave at the grave, and attached the plastic bag to the plant. It worked like a charm: After Memorial Day, she got a call from a relative of the deceased.

Picnicking in the cemetery

Most people visit cemeteries on only three occasions: funerals, to pay their respects to loved ones, and when they’re being buried themselves. And that seems to be enough — for most people. Family historians, though, look on cemeteries as big outdoor research libraries. We even picnic in cemeteries. When my daughter was a toddler, we went on several outings like this.

“Oh look, Mommy,” I remember her saying, pointing to a group of people nearby. “They’re having a picnic, too.”

“No, Laurie. They’re having a funeral.”

Certainly, you don’t want to interfere with someone’s big, last shebang, so you’ll want to move your picnic basket to someplace unobtrusive.

But picnicking in cemeteries isn’t morbid and it’s not new. The elite garden cemetery was designed to be appealing for Sunday strolls and picnics, so you’re actually carrying on an historic tradition. Besides, you can’t help it — any more than you can drive by a cemetery without gawking.

From the October 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine

Unlock the treasures in all the records you can find with our Ultimate Guide to Genealogy Records eBook!

Discover the best genealogy records using the tips and strategies in this guide, which shows you how to find and use census records, birth records, marriage records and more.