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Find a Grave: 7 Strategies for Successful Searching

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

The free website Find a Grave is home to over 190 million gravestone memorials around the world—and it keeps growing. Over 10 million new memorials have been added in the past year alone. Volunteers and relatives have contributed about 170 million images, mostly of tombstones but also of people and genealogical documents.

Find a Grave is powered by Ancestry.com, which acquired the site in 2013. Ancestry has kept its promise to keep Find a Grave free and to keep improving it. Try these seven strategies for digging in to data on your relatives’ final resting places and extend your family tree.

1. See what a name search reveals.

Pick a relative of interest, even one whose burial place you already know—just to see what you find. Follow these steps on the Find a Grave home page:

Screenshot of Find a Grave homepage.
  1. Enter at least a surname and narrow your results by adding a birth or death year (use dropdown menus to specify a range of years). Add a burial location if known, or last known residence.
  2. Click More Search Options to include similar name spellings and/or partial surname matches in search results. Here you can also add a maiden name, nickname, title or the name of a first-degree relative.
  3. Read more tips, such as using wildcard characters for unknown letters in a name.

You won’t necessarily find entries on your first try. Keep looking until you find a relative. Then explore his or her memorial. Some may include only basic information, such as a name, tombstone image and data transcribed from the stone. Others, such as this one for Thomas Callister, may be richer. It includes:

Screenshot of a relative's memorial on Find a Grave.
  1. A full name and particulars of his birth, death, and burial;
  2. A link to the burial place on Google Maps (GPS-tagged to show an exact location);
  3. Images, such as his photo and obituary;
  4. An additional image of his tombstone (under Photos);
  5. Links to his relatives’ memorials, discussed in more detail below.

2. Look for other relatives buried nearby.

Many memorials link to additional memorials for the deceased’s first-degree relatives. Callister’s memorial links to his parents, spouse and a child. These names can help confirm you’ve found the right memorial or give you new research leads to follow. This is especially helpful when you’re looking for a woman’s maiden or married surname and families.

These additional memorial pages can lead to welcome discoveries. John Armstrong‘s memorial links to that of his spouse, Ida Mae Felix Armstrong. The couple relocated to Ohio from Pennsylvania and are not buried near their forebears. But Ida Mae’s memorial links back to her parents and siblings. This reveals her family of origin and associates this migrant couple with the location where they met and married.

What about relatives whose memorials aren’t linked together? Along the right side of a memorial, choose among options to search for memorials with the same surname in the same cemetery or in the surrounding geographic area, as shown below.

Screenshot showing how to search Find a Grave memorials with the same surname in the same cemetery.

John Armstrong’s memorial doesn’t link to any of his children. But if I run a search for more Armstrong memorials in Elmwood Cemetery, I discover burials for two sons and several possible grandchildren. A separate surname search in Elmwood cemetery under a daughter’s married surname (which I already knew) unearthed her memorial, too.

3. Harvest historical evidence.

As you review new information in memorials, don’t forget to evaluate its reliability, just like you would with someone else’s online family tree or any other compiled record. For every date, place or family relationship shown, ask yourself, “How do they know this?” Verifying what you see will help you build a more accurate tree, and may lead to additional family discoveries.

First, scrutinize any tombstone image (if there’s no image or it’s not easy to read, you can request one using the Request Photo button). Tombstones may spell out those names, dates, places and even family relationships you’re dying to confirm. You may need to look at a grouping of tombstone images to correlate descriptions such as “Mother” or “Father,” and then confirm their physical location together. Sometimes the stone of an ancestral couple will list all their children’s names, even if they’re not buried together.

Next, review other evidence, such as images of birth or death certificates or obituaries. Extract all information into your family tree and cite your sources. Attach the memorial to someone on your Ancestry tree by clicking Save To and select Ancestry, as shown here. (From the Save To button, you can also print or copy to a digital clipboard.) You can also attach memorials to FamilySearch’s Family Tree. Log in to FamilySearch, go to the Family Tree and navigate to the right person page. Search for the Find a Grave memorial and attach it.

Screenshot from Find a Grave showing how to link memorial to Ancestry.

Follow up with additional research to verify and complete what you see on Find a Grave. Remember that you’re looking at the deceased’s life from the perspective of its ending. The spouse buried with that person may not have been the only spouse, or the other parent of that person’s children.

4. Learn more about the cemetery.

In each memorial, you’ll find a link to a landing page for the burial ground. Here’s one for Elmwood Cemetery, the final resting place of the Armstrongs:

A screenshot from Find a Grave showing a landing page for a burial ground.

Details on specific landing pages may vary. Several standard items appear at the top: alternate name, location and map link, cemetery office phone number, and the number of Find a Grave memorials. (The percentage indicates how many memorials have grave photos.) It’s common to find photographs of the cemetery. The Photos page reveals two images of an Elmwood Cemetery map showing lot and section numbers. (Learn more about cemetery plot maps.) The map, plus the paragraph describing the cemetery, its ownership and records, provides invaluable information for anyone wanting to locate additional burial records.

You can also use the Cemeteries search from the home page to locate a specific burial ground or all possibilities near an ancestral location. Enter the name and/or location, as shown here, or choose the option to Browse by Location with the map. (You can even select your current location, if you’re visiting an ancestral hometown.)

5. Thank Find a Grave volunteers and collaborate with relatives.

Find a Grave contributors are generally either local volunteers or relatives. Sometimes you’ll see that a local created the memorial and relatives supplemented with additional resources. If you click on View Source by the Memorial ID number, you’ll see a link to the user profile(s) of the memorial’s creator and current manager; the latter fields ongoing contributions. Each individual image credits its contributor.

Screenshot detailing Find a Grave contributors.

To contact contributors, click on their user profiles. Begin by thanking them for their efforts. All volunteers appreciate a little gratitude! Ask short, specific questions, such as the publication information for an uncited obituary they posted, or, if they are related, if they’d like to correspond.

If you want to copy, download or otherwise use pictures shared on Find a Grave, always seek permission. First, check the submitter’s user profile to see whether it gives blanket permission to use their images. Otherwise, contact them. (The Find a Grave Community Rules talk more about image use.)

6. Add what you know.

By this point in your Find a Grave exploration, you’ve likely noticed several opportunities for you to pitch in and share what you know. To do so, create a free login.

Start by adding to an existing memorial. Click Suggest Edits to see a screen like this:

Screenshot from Find a Grave showing how to add to an existing online memorial.
  1. Information already in the memorial will autofill in the appropriate boxes. Add or edit.
  2. Add a precise burial location by pinning the memorial to a map or entering latitude and longitude coordinates. (Get these from your smart phone if you’re on location.)
  3. Add links to that person’s parents and/or spouse(s) by inserting their memorial numbers. (You can’t add someone’s children to their profile—you have to go to each child’s memorial and add their parents.)
  4. Add other text here, such biographical information.
  5. Click Save Suggestions to send the edits to the manager.

If you want to add an image, such as a photo or digitized document, just click Add Photos from the memorial page. You can also request permission to manage an existing memorial.

Of course, you can also create new memorials for deceased relatives who don’t have them. Or consider using the free Find a Grave app to photograph tombstones for new memorials or to fulfill photo requests near your location. One little-known Find a Grave feature is the ability to create your own virtual cemetery by gathering several burials onto a single landing page. Do this for your family (or for another historical group you care about, like this African American Medal of Honor Recipients virtual cemetery). Learn how to do all these tasks and more in the Find a Grave Support section.

7. Leave a personal memento.

Now that you’ve learned about the powerful resources available on Find a Grave, you may find yourself visiting lots of relatives’ memorials. To show you’ve come by, leave a virtual flower and note: it’s free (click Flowers > Leave a Flower).

Screenshot of virtual flower and note option on Find a Grave.

It’s not quite the same as visiting in person, but it’s surprisingly satisfying. In Find a Grave’s virtual cemeteries, flowers never wilt, photos never fade and you don’t have to travel any distance to honor the past, connect and share.