Cemetery Research for Genealogy: 4 Steps for Finding Your Ancestors’ Graves

Cemetery research is a crucial family history skill. Tombstones are monuments to our ancestors lives and may have key genealogical clues engraved in the stone. Follow these four steps to finding your ancestors’ burial places and the records that complement them.

Many of my ancestors are buried just two miles from my house in Round Hill Cemetery in Marion, Virginia. I drive by the cemetery each day, as I take my daughters to school. I never pass by without glancing up at the hallowed ground which holds the remains of those who came before me. The sun perfectly illuminates their resting place each morning and a majestic tree stands at the very top of the hill–a living monument to the lives they led in the town where I now raise my own family.

It is an emotional experience to stand in the place where an ancestor’s remains have been laid to rest.

Each time I visit the grave of my grandma, I have a vision of a family standing around a casket on a bitter cold day in March. It was a just few days before the official start of spring, but it was the dead of winter to me. That ground is sacred to me, now.

Each time I visit, I am transported back in time to that day. A wound is re-opened for a moment, but the moment is fleeting because I quickly remember her life, not her death.

I remember the stories she told, the service her hands rendered to her family and, most importantly, the love that transcends time and even the icy grip of death. Death truly loses its “sting” as we stand before a monument of stone and see beyond to the life it represents. Scenes like this one have played out at each grave.

I am reminded of this quote from Fear Nothing, a Dean Koontz book, whenever I visit the cemetery:

“The trunks of six giant oaks rise like columns supporting a ceiling formed by their interlocking crowns. In the quiet space below, is laid out an aisle similar to those in any library. The gravestones are like rows of books bearing the names of those whose names have been blotted from the pages of life; who have been forgotten elsewhere but are remembered here.”

I have often gone to my ancestors’ resting places to take pictures of headstones and search for relatives I may have missed in the past. It seems like each time I visit, I notice something new.

This library of marble holds many clues that have helped me break down brick walls in my family history research. These clues have been there, etched in stone, for decades. It wasn’t until I recognized how to read the clues that I began to understand the importance of cemeteries in family history research. 

These resting places have become much more to me than merely a place to go and offer a bouquet of flowers. There are answers waiting to be discovered. The key to getting the answers is knowing which questions to ask.

In my experience, the best genealogists are not the ones with the best cameras, the best software, or the best gadgets–they are the ones with the best questions.

asking questions good questions

Curiosity is the most important tool to the successful genealogist.  The next time you find yourself in a library of marble, take a few moments to let your curiosity run wild. Ask yourself: 

  • “Who are the people surrounding my family members?
  • What are their stories?
  • What do the etchings on their headstones mean?”

That curiosity will lead to the most remarkable discoveries and you will see for yourself how a piece of marble truly can break down a brick wall.  

Below I’ve outlined the steps for finding family cemeteries and which questions you should be asking when you get there. Get inspired by my own examples of breaking down brick walls, and implement these methods I used for your own success!

Cemetery research step #1: Identify the cemetery

The first step in cemetery research is to identify the name of the cemetery where an ancestor was buried.

The best places to start looking are death certificates, funeral home records and obituaries. Each one of these records should contain the name of the cemetery where a family member was buried.

We sometimes fail to look beyond the names and dates on death certificates. If we get in the habit of taking the time to absorb all of the information on these important documents, we will find genealogical treasure.

Sometimes, the death certificate will not give us the name of the cemetery.

This was the case with my great-grandmother, Mollie Weimer Overbay. I was frustrated to see that the death certificate only indicated that she was buried, as opposed to cremated or removed to another location. While the certificate did not provide me with the name of a cemetery, it did offer the name of the funeral director: W.B. Seaver.

cemetery research for genealogy

Luckily, I was able to follow this lead to the local funeral home. Within their records, I discovered that she was buried in Round Hill Cemetery, along with many of my other ancestors.

cemetery research for genealogy

Cemetery research step #2: Locate the cemetery

Once you have located the name of the cemetery, several resources can guide you to its location.

Three helpful websites are listed below. Which you choose may depend on personal preference or familiarity but also on which site seems to have more records for the locales of most interest to you.

1. One of my favorite online resources is Find A Grave.

This website allows you to search for cemeteries all over the world. 

At the home page, click on the Cemeteries tab (#1, below).

Then enter the name or location of the cemetery (#2). In the screenshot below, you can see part of the Google Maps interface that shows you the exact location of the cemetery, should you want to visit in person:

cemetery research for genealogy

Find A Grave also has pictures of many of the headstones located within cemeteries.

2. cemetery research for genealogyBillion Graves allows users to collect photos of headstones by using an iPhone/Android camera app.

The app, available on Google Play and the App Store (for iPhone and iPad), tags the photos with the GPS location and, essentially, maps the cemetery as headstones are added.

Search for cemetery locations using the Billion Graves app or on the website by selecting the “Cemetery Search” option and then entering the name of the cemetery or a known address (to see it on Google Maps):

cemetery research for genealogy

3. Interment.net can also be helpful.

From the home page, scroll down just a little until you see “Browse Cemetery Records by Region.” This can be especially helpful if you’re looking for all records within a specific county or other region. However, it’s not quite as useful if you’re trying to locate all cemeteries within a certain radius of a location, regardless of local boundaries.

cemetery research for genealogy

In addition to these resources, it is essential to contact the local library, genealogical society, and/or historical society where your ancestors are buried. These organizations are well-known for maintaining detailed listings of local cemeteries within their collections.

For instance, within Smyth County (where I live) there is a four-volume set of books that contains the work of two local historians, Mack and Kenny Sturgill. They spent several years mapping local cemeteries and collecting the names on all of the headstones.

Although these books were completed in the 1990s, the information is still valuable to genealogists. Detailed driving directions were given to help future researchers locate cemeteries that would otherwise be difficult to locate. Many of them are on private property and even in the middle of cow pastures or wooded areas.

Furthermore, some of the headstones that were legible in the 1990s have now become difficult to decipher due to weathering or have altogether disappeared. It is likely that the counties in which you are conducting cemetery research offer similar resources.

Cemetery research step #3: Prepare for a visit

Once you have found the cemetery you want to visit, you will want to take the following items along with you to make the most of your visit:

  • a camera
  • pair of gloves
  • grass clippers
  • notebook and pen
  • long pants
  • sturdy shoes

You may also want to use a damp cloth to bring out the carvings on headstones. A side note: if you are like me and have an aversion to snakes, you will either choose to go on cemetery expeditions during the winter, or you will invest in a pair of snake chaps.

Get more help! The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide (above) contains detailed step-by-steps for using FindAGrave and BillionsGraves, plus guides for understanding tombstone epitaphs and symbol meanings.

Disclosure: Genealogy Gems is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Thank you for supporting our free podcast by using our link.

Cemetery research step #4: Visit and search for clues

cemetery research for genealogy

This headstone shows something unusual: the couple’s ham radio call signs (the codes engraved just below their names).

The headstones found in cemeteries can reveal much about your family. You will find more than birth and death dates. If you look closely, you will discover symbols related to military service and religious beliefs, maiden names of the women in your family, and you may even find family members that you never knew about. Many times, you will find children buried in the family plot. Look around to see who is buried near your ancestors. It is likely that you will find connections to other family members when you are visiting the cemetery. These connections may lead you to break down long-standing brick walls within your family history.

In my own experience, there have been several instances in which cemetery research has helped shed light on a family mystery. I had grown up hearing that there were members of our family who had fought in the Civil War. Who were these men? What experiences did they have during the war?  Where had they fought?

The answers to these questions came as the result of a visit to the cemetery.  I had gone to Round Hill Cemetery to photograph the headstones of my Weimer ancestors. As I worked my way down the row, I encountered an unfamiliar name—William Henry Wymer. At the top of his headstone, there was a Southern Cross of Honor—a symbol used to denote a soldier who fought during the Civil War. Below his name was the following inscription: “Co. A, 6 VA RES, C.S.A:”

cemetery research for genealogy

When I went home that afternoon, I began to search for more details. With some census research, I learned that he was the uncle of my great-grandmother, Mollie Weimer Overbay. Upon confirming his relationship to our family, I began searching for a pension application for his wife, Rhoda:

cemetery research for genealogy

The application had been submitted in 1926 and told the story of William’s life. Among other things, I learned the answers to my questions about his service during the Civil War. His wife indicated that he enlisted during the last year of the war and was present during a well-known battle in our county—the Battle of Saltville. I am sure that my great-grandmother had grown up listening to tales of this battle and William’s experience during the war. The details of the story had been lost but were now re-discovered thanks to a trip to the cemetery.

Subtle clues like this one await you as you search out your own ancestors. The next time you make a trip to one of these libraries of marble, take a few moments to look closely at the clues that surround you. They may not be obvious, but they are there, waiting for your curiosity to uncover them. So, bring your cameras, your gloves, and your grass clippers to the cemetery on your next visit—but don’t forget to bring your questions and your ability to perceive the minute details, as you stand beneath the towering trees, among the rows of marble, waiting to offer up their long-held secrets.

More cemetery research tips

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PERSI Adds Thousands of Articles: New Genealogy Records Online

New genealogy records online recently include thousands of articles and images in PERSI, the Periodical Source Index. Also: new and updated Australian vital and parish records, German civil registers, an enormous Japanese newspaper archive, and a variety of newspaper and other resources for US states: AZ, AR, IA, KS, MD, NJ, PA, & TX. 

PERSI thousand of articles new genealogy records online

PERSI Update: Thousands of new genealogy articles and images

Findmypast.com updated the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) this week, adding 14,865 new articles, and uploaded 13,039 new images to seven different publications. PERSI is one of those vastly under-utilized genealogy gems: a master subject index of every known genealogical and historical magazine, journal or newsletter ever published! Click here to explore PERSI.

The seven publications to which they’ve added images are as follows:

Click here to read an article about using PERSI for genealogy research.

More New Genealogy Records Online Around the World

Australia

Parish registers in Sydney. A new Ancestry.com database has been published: Sydney, Australia, Anglican Parish Registers, 1818-2011. “This database contains baptism, burial, confirmation, marriage, and composite registers from the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney,” says the collection description. Baptismal records may include name, birth date, gender, name and occupation of mother and father, address, and date and parish of baptism. Confirmation records may include name, age, birth date, address, and the date and parish of confirmation. Marriage records may include the names of bride and groom as well as their age at marriage, parents’ names and the date and parish of the event. Burial records may include the name, gender, address, death date, and date and parish of burial.

Victoria BMD indexes. MyHeritage.com now hosts the following vital records indexes for Victoria, Australia: births (1837-1920), marriages (1837-1942), and deaths (1836-1985). These new databases supplement MyHeritage’s other Victoria collections, including annual and police gazettes. (Note: comparable collections of Victoria vital records are also available to search for free at the Victoria state government website.)

Germany

Just over 858,000 records appear in Ancestry.com’s new database, Halle (Saale), Germany, Deaths, 1874-1957. “This collection contains death records from Halle (Saale) covering the years 1874 up to and including 1957,” states the collection description. “Halle, also known as “Halle on the Saale,” was already a major city by 1890. These records come from the local registry offices, which began keeping vital records in the former Prussian provinces in October 1874. “The collected records are arranged chronologically and usually in bound yearbook form, which are collectively referred to as ‘civil registers.’ For most of the communities included in the collection, corresponding alphabetical directories of names were also created. While churches continued to keep traditional records, the State also mandated that the personal or marital status of the entire population be recorded. (Note: These records are in German. For best results, you should search using German words and location spellings.)”

Japan

A large Japanese newspaper archive has been made available online, as reported by The Japan News. The report states: “The Yomiuri Shimbun has launched a new online archive called Yomiuri Kiji-Kensaku (Yomiuri article search), enabling people to access more than 13 million articles dating back to the newspaper’s first issue in 1874. The archive also includes articles from The Japan News (previously The Daily Yomiuri) dating back to 1989. This content will be useful for people seeking English-language information on Japan…Using the service requires registration. There is a minimum monthly charge of ¥300 plus tax, with any other charges based on how much content is accessed.” Tip: read the use instructions at the article above, before clicking through in the link given in that article.

New Genealogy Records Online for the United States: By State

Arizona. Newspapers.com has added the Arizona Daily Star, with issues from 1879 to 2017. The Arizona Daily Star is a daily morning paper that began publishing in Tucson on January 12, 1879, more than 30 years before Arizona became a state. The Daily Star’s first editor was L.C. Hughes, who would later go on to become governor of the Arizona Territory.

Arkansas. The University of Arkansas Libraries has digitized over 34,000 pages of content for its latest digital collection, the Arkansas Extension Circulars. A recent news article reports that: “The Arkansas Agricultural Extension Service began publishing the Arkansas Extension Circulars in the 1880s. These popular publications covered myriad agriculture-related topics: sewing, gardening and caring for livestock among them. Now, users worldwide can access these guides online.” These practical use articles give insight into the lives of rural and farming families in Arkansas, and feature local clubs and community efforts.

Iowa. The Cedar Rapids Public Library has partnered with The Gazette to make millions of pages of the newspaper available online. The Gazette dates back to 1883, and the new database is keyword searchable. A recent article reports that 2 million pages are currently available online in this searchable archive, with plans to digitize another 1 million pages over the next 18 months.

Kansas. From a recent article: “Complete issues of Fort Hays State University’s Reveille yearbooks – from the first in 1914 to the last in 2003 – are now online, freely available to the public in clean, crisp, fast-loading and searchable digital versions in Forsyth Library’s FHSU Scholars Repository.” Click here to go directly to the yearbook archive and start exploring.

Maryland. New at Ancestry.com: Maryland, Catholic Families, 1753-1851 (a small collection of 13.5k records, but an important point of origin for many US families). “Judging from the 12,000-name index at the back of the volume, for sheer coverage this must be the starting point for Western Maryland Catholic genealogy,” states the description for this collection of birth, baptismal, marriage, and death records for the parishes of St. Ignatius in Mt. Savage, and St. Mary’s in Cumberland, Maryland. Find a brief history of Catholicism in western Maryland with lists of priests and a summary of congregational growth. Then find lists of marriages, baptisms, deaths, and burials, and even lists of  those “who appeared at Easter Confession, confirmation, communion, or who pledged financial support for the parish priest.”

New Jersey. Findmypast.com subscribers may now access small but historically and genealogically important collections of baptismal records (1746-1795) and additional church records (1747-1794) for Hannover, Morris County, New Jersey. States the first collection description, “Despite being small in population, the township is rich in history. It was the first settlement established in northwest New Jersey, dating back to 1685, and is situated by the Whippany River.” The second group of records “pertains to an active time in Hanover, with the resurgence of religious revivals kicking off around 1740. The most populous denominations in the latter half of the 1700s were Presbyterian, Society of Friends (Quaker), Dutch Reformed, Baptist, and Episcopal.”

Pennsylvania. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, located in Carlisle, PA, was a federally-funded boarding school for Native American children from 1879 through 1918. The Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center is a project that is building an online searchable database of resources to preserve the history of the school and the students who attended there.

They recently announced a new resource titled Cemetery Information. According to the site, this collection provides “easy access to a wide range of primary source documents about the cemetery and the Carlisle Indian School students interred there.” Available materials include an individual page for every person interred there with their basic information, downloadable primary source materials about their death, an interactive aerial map of the cemetery, and more.

Texas. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission has digitized a series of collections featuring archival holdings from the First World War through the Texas Digital Archive. These collections are:

  • The Frank S. Tillman Collection: “The bulk of the collection focuses on the Thirty-Sixth Division and also features items from the Ninetieth Division, the Adjutant General of Texas, and other Texas soldiers.”
  • General John A. Hulen Papers:”Highlights include correspondence, photographs, and scrapbooks, dating 1887-1960.”
  • 36th Division Association Papers: “The papers include correspondence, reports, military records, and scrapbooks, dating 1857-1954. Records relate to Texans’ experience during World War I, railroads in Texas, and the San Jacinto Monument.”

genealogy giants quick reference guide cheat sheetWhat genealogy websites are you using? Which additional ones should you also be using?

Learn more about the giant genealogy websites mentioned in this post–and how they stack up to the other big sites–in our unique, must-have quick reference guide, Genealogy Giants, Comparing the 4 Major Websites, by Genealogy Gems editor Sunny Morton. You’ll learn how knowing the relative strengths and weaknesses of Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com can help your research. There’s more than one site out there–and you should be using as many of them as possible. The guide does share information about how to access library editions of these websites for free. This inexpensive guide is worth every penny–and may very well help you save money.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Find Your U.S. Ancestors in These New Genealogy Records Online

Learn more about U.S. ancestors in new genealogy records for Navy and Marine officers, WWI veterans, historical and genealogical journals, and new genealogy records for 12 U.S. states: Ala., Ark., Hawaii, Kan., La., Mass., Miss., Mont., N.Y., Texas, Utah, and Va. 

new genealogy records

Following are new genealogy records (and updated collections) for the U.S. and several U.S. states. In which may your ancestors appear?

U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Officer Registries. Ancestry.com subscribers may search a new database, “U.S., Navy and Marine Corps Registries, 1814-1992.” From the collection description: “This collection includes registers of officers of the US Navy and Marine Corps from between the years of 1814 and 1992. Within these records you can expect to find: name, rank, ship or station.” (Note: the above image shows the first group of female Marine officer candidates in 1943; click here to learn more and see this image’s citation.)

World War I Veteran’s History Project: Part II Launches. The Veterans History Project has launched “Over There,” the second in a three-part, online web series dedicated to United States veterans of the First World War. “Over There” highlights 10 digitized World War I collections found in the Veterans History Project archive. Click here to access Part II and other veterans’ collections featured in “Over There.” Part III will be available in fall of 2017. (Click here to read the full announcement from the Library of Congress.)

U.S. and Canada journals. PERSIPERSI, the Periodical Source Index, has been updated with historical and genealogical journal content covering Ontario, Canada as well as Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, & Rhode Island. Search PERSI at Findmypast.com to discover articles, transcribed records, and images of your ancestors and their communities, churches, schools and more in thousands of journals. Some journals are index-only and others have digitized articles: click here to learn more about PERSI.

Statewide: New genealogy records

  • Alaska: Ancestry.com has a new database of Alaska, Vital Records, 1818 -1963. It contains birth, marriage, and death records.
  • Arkansas: A new digital exhibit tells the story of the first African-American college west of the Mississippi River, located in Phillips County. Lives Transformed: The People of Southland College “includes photos and scanned images of letters, circulars, forms, the Southland newspaper and other ephemera, including invitations, the catalog of studies, a diploma, and a commencement program,” states a news report.
  • Hawaii: Over 300,000 indexed names have been added to a free FamilySearch.org collection of Hawaiian obituaries since 1980.
  • Kansas: New browsable image collections of Kansas state census records for 1865, 1875, 1885 and 1895 are now free to search at FamilySearch.org. The growing size of each collection by year–from 4,701 pages in 1865 to 116,842 pages in 1895–witnesses the tremendous growth of this prairie state after the Homestead Act of 1862 opened its land for cheap purchase and settlement. (Did you know? Kansas census records 1855-1940 at Ancestry.com are also available for free to Kansas residents.) Click here to learn more about state census records in the U.S.
  • Louisiana: Over 100,000 new images and thousands of indexed names have been added to FamilySearch’s free collection of Louisiana death records (1850-75, 1894-1960).
  • Massachusetts: More than half a million names are in 22 volumes of sacramental records (baptisms, confirmations, marriages, deaths) for the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Archdiocese of Boston, now online at AmericanAncestors.com.
  • Mississippi: Ancestry.com has updated its collection of Mississippi Naturalization Records, 1907-2008. This collection pertains to naturalizations finalized after 1906, when most were taken care of in federal courts.
  • Montana: Find a new collection of Montana County Marriages, 1865-1993 at Ancestry.com. Details for both the bride and groom may include name, age at marriage, and marriage date/place. (You may also access this collection for free at FamilySearch.org.)
  • New York: The Leon Levy BAM Digital Archive has added more than 70,000 playbills, posters, and ephemera from the history of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, dating to the Civil War era. (We found this in a New York Times report.)
  • Texas. Ancestry.com has updated its database, “Texas, Select County Marriage Records, 1837-2015.” The collection description states, “This collection consists of a mix of marriage licenses, returns, certificates, affidavits, and indexes. The documents that are available in this database vary depending on the county. All marriage records include the names of the bride and groom, as well as the date of the license and/or marriage. In many instances, additional details are available as well.” This collection continues to be updated: keep checking back!
  • Utah: There’s a new digital archive of photos, yearbooks, and other documents relating to the history of Brigham Young College in Logan, Utah. The school taught high school and college courses and was open 1877-1926. Learn more about it in a news report at HJnews.com.
  • Virginia: A decade’s worth of obituaries from the Evening Star (Winchester, 1899-1909) are now available at subscription site Findmypast.com.

Did you see the new Genealogy Gems Book Club announcement for this week? It’s a new memoir by a U.S. journalist who tracks down an old family story about her immigrant roots. You won’t want to miss this family history murder mystery! Click here to learn more about the book and watch a trailer for its PBS documentary.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links. Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

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