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.
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.
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 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.
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:
Find A Grave also has pictures of many of the headstones located within cemeteries.
2. Billion 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):
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.
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:
pair of gloves
notebook and pen
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
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:”
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:
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.
Disclosure: This article 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.
How to use Animoto, my favorite new tech tool for creating professional-looking slide shows and videos
New Genealogy Gems team member Amie Tennant shares insights as she prepares for professional certification
A listener shares a favorite genealogy database for finding recent relatives
A listener uses DNA to connect adoptive and biological relatives?who were closer than she thought
A segment from the Genealogy Gems Book Club interview with author Helen Simonson on The Summer Before the War
News from Dropbox and a new initiative to capture the family histories of remote, indigenous populations
NEWS: Dropbox Improvement
New on Dropbox: Now when you share Dropbox content with someone, shared links will stay active even if you move or rename the file or folder.
Dropbox file-sharing tip: “If you ever want to unshare something you’ve already sent out (like to remove access to a sensitive document), it’s easy to disable an active link.” Just sign in to dropbox.com. “Click the link icon next to the file or folder, and click ‘remove link’ in the top right corner of the box that appears. You can also remove the link by visiting dropbox.com/links and clicking ‘x’ next to the file or folder.”
Russ recommends the “U.S., Public Record Index, 1950-1993, Volume 1 and 2.”
“Volume 1 is far more interesting with more data. A search will return a Name AND Birth date, along with more than one ADDRESS, Zip Code and sometimes phone numbers.”
Ancestry’s description of its online database for Volume 1 says original data comes from public records spanning all 50 states, such as voter registration lists, public record filings, historical residential records and other household database listings.
Thoughts about using the U.S. Public Records Index (some of these points come from the FamilySearch wiki):
Not everyone who lived in the U.S. appears in the index, and you’re more likely to find birth information for those born between 1900 and 1990. What you’ll find is primarily where someone lived, and often when they lived there.
It’s rarely possible to positively identify a relative in this index, since there’s limited information and it spans the entire country for up to a half century, and you can’t follow up on the record it comes from because the index doesn’t say where individual records come from. As Russ says, this is a great resource to use in combination with other records. It’s a similar concept to the way you might consult uncited family trees: great hints to go on and follow up with further research into verifiable sources.
When you find more recent listings, you can sometimes find telephone numbers for living distant relatives. The Family History Made Easy podcast has a 2-episode series (episodes 14 and 15) about cold-calling techniques for reaching out to distant relatives you don’t know.
MAILBOX: Katie on Cold-calling and Adoption and DNA
What have you learned in the process of preparing for certification?
“I think the biggest thing I have learned is the meaning of true exhaustive research. We talk a lot about that in our genealogy standards, but essentially, it is looking EVERYWHERE for EVERYTHING that might shed light on your research question.”
Why do you want to become certified?
I want a way to determine how well I am doing. A measuring stick of sorts.
What is the process like?
The process is the same for everyone. Once you have decided to become certified, you apply to the BCG. They send you a packet of information and you are “on the clock.” The clock is up in one year unless you ask for an extension. The portfolio you create consists of:
Signing the Code of Ethics
Listing your development activities (like formal coursework or enrichment activities);
Transcribe, abstract, create a genealogy research question, analyze the data, and then write the research plan for a document that is supplied to you;
Do those same 5 things for a document of your choosing;
A research report prepared for another person.
A case study with conflicting, indirect or negative evidence;
A kinship determination project (a narrative genealogy that covers at least 3 generations)
There is a lot of great free content on the BCG website: articles, examples, and skill-building activities.
GEM: How to Create Family History Videos Quickly and Easily
Beatrice Nash is a bright, cosmopolitan young lady who has grown up traveling the world with her father. Now he’s gone, and she’s landed in the small village of East Sussex, England, where the locals aren’t entirely thrilled about engaging her as a female Latin instructor for their schoolchildren. She spends a summer fighting for her job, meeting a local cast of engaging eccentric characters (both gentry and gypsy) and trying not to fall for handsome Hugh. Then the Great War breaks out.
Disclosure: This article 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!
In Elevenses with Lisa episode 79 Lisa Louise Cooke explains:
How to find 1950 US Census Enumeration District (ED) Maps
The purpose behind them and how to interpret the maps
Ways to use the maps for your genealogy
This is a follow up to episode 51 on The 1950 Census for Genealogy. In that episode I discussed the importance of finding your ancestors’ enumeration district numbers in order to be able to find them when the digitized images are released (before the index is available.) In this episode I will walk you through how to locate the enumeration district (ED) number and then find the actual 1950 US Census ED map. We’ll wrap things up with a quick update on the release of the 1950 US Federal Census.
Episode 79 Show Notes
(Get your ad-free Show Notes Cheat Sheet at the bottom of this page in the Resources section.)
As I mentioned in Elevenses with Lisa episode 51 The 1950 Census for Genealogy, prior to 1880, U.S. Marshalls were the enumerators for the federal decennial census. Starting with the 1880 census enumerators were hired and they were each assigned an enumeration district, also known as an ED. These districts had to be mapped out so that the enumerators knew the area they were responsible for counting. Therefore, maps are drawn in anticipation of each census being taken, including the 1950 census.
Learn more by watching episode 51 on the 1950 census.
About the 1950 US Census Maps
It’s always important to understand the purpose of a record or source, and the 1950 Enumeration District maps (ED maps) are no exception. Unlike most maps where it’s all about accurately drawing up the current roads and geographical features, census ED maps are drawn up for the purpose of defining boundaries for the purpose of counting people. This means as we look at ED maps we need to keep a few things in mind.
The first thing to understand is that the 1950 ED maps were not necessarily up-to-date with the lay of the land in 1950. Not all streets, parks and features will be included. The reason for this is that the maps themselves were not created for this purpose. Existing maps were used and then enumeration district boundaries were drawn on them.
Maps came from a variety of sources including but not limited to county and City Planning Commissions, 1940 census bureau tract maps, and city engineers. In fact, from a mapping perspective the variety of maps in the collection are fascinating.
Look for the map title, description, legend and census stamps typically found in one of the corners. In this example (see image) from Aurora, Colorado the map used was originally created by the city engineer in 1946 and was revised in 1947.
1950 census map of Aurora, Colorado (Source: National Archives)
Following the end of World War II, the United States was growing at a quick pace in 1950. This is particularly true of the newly emerging suburbs. Therefore, if your ancestors built a new home in a new development in 1949, don’t be surprised if you don’t see the street on the 1950 census ED map. However, rest assured that the maps still hold value for your family history as they provide many interesting and unique details about the area surrounding your ancestors’ homes.
Each map was stamped with a small legend where the meaning for each of the colored lines drawn could be indicated. From my random sampling of 1950 census maps across the United States it appears that the coloring coding was consistent as follows:
Red = Township
Green = Corporate Limits/Ward
Orange = Enumeration District
Expect to see errors, inconsistencies and omissions in the maps. The more rural the area the more likely the map was compiled from several sources by the Census Bureau cartographers. This compilation created more opportunity for errors, and often used older maps.
Source: National Archives
The Meaning of Census Enumeration District Numbers
A census enumeration district number is made up of two numbers separated by a dash. The first number (in this example: 1) represents the county/region. The second number represents the area within the county that could be covered by an individual census enumerator within the amount of time provided for taking the census, about 2-4 weeks. The official start of the 1950 US Federal Census was April 1, 1950.
Census enumeration district (ED) numbers on a 1950 census map.
How to Find 1950 Census Maps
Some 8,000 census maps have been digitized and are available at the National Archives. However, the National Archives website can be challenging to navigate. I recommend using the Unified 1880-1950 Census ED Finder Tool at Steve Morse’s website.
1. Go to https:/stevemorse.org
2. In the menu in the upper left corner hover over US Census and in the secondary menu click Unified 1880-1950 Census ED Finder
3. Select the state from the first drop-down menu.
4. Next select the county.
5. Then select the city.
6. You will then see many enumeration district links listed. In order to find the right one for your ancestor’s home, enter the house number and select the street from the next drop-down menu. Don’t worry about directional parts of the address like west or east unless they are offered in the list of street names.
7. As soon as select the street name, the list of ED numbers should be reduced. In this example we are down to three.
8. To further reduce the possible ED numbers, we can select Cross or back street on same city block. If you’re not sure what the neighboring streets are, click the see Google Map This will plot the address you entered into Google Maps where you can then find the closest cross street, and the next streets over. If the address is not precisely marked on the map, check the address that appears in the Google Maps search box.
In my case, the One-Step tool didn’t allow me to specific W. Arcade, so Google Maps just gave me the general area, and not the address. By adding the W. to the address and pressing enter on my keyboard Google Maps was able to precisely plot the location. Now we can make note of the closest cross street (ex. N. Center), the street north of the address (E. Monterey Ave.) and the street south of the address (W. Noble St.)
9. Head back to the Unified 1880-1950 Census ED Finder page and enter each nearby street (you can enter multiple.) This should reduce the ED numbers one. This is the ED that includes your ancestor’s address.
How to Find 1950 Census Maps
1. Make note of the ED number, and then go back and click the button that says See ED Maps for ____________ County. You could have clicked this button without going through the process of locating the ED number, but the ED number makes it much easier to find your ancestor’s home street on the map. This number will also assist you in being able to find your ancestors in the 1950 census before it is indexed.
2. You will now be on the Viewing 1950 Enumeration District Maps in One Step Re-enter the city from the drop-down menu.
3. Click the Get ED Map Images You will receive two links. The first link is Links to NARA viewer will take you to the page on the National Archives website which includes all of the information about the map and the record hierarchy. Source citation information can be gathered from this page.
5. Click the second link called Direct links to jpegs on NARA server. This will take you to the image by itself as hosted on the National Archives website. I find this the easiest way to save the full resolution image to my computer hard drive. On my PC I right-click on the map and select Save Image As.
This page is also important if you want to use this image in another program such as Google Earth. The URL for this page is the direct URL to the image. Notice that it ends in .jpg. This means that it is the image alone, and this link can be used to create a custom map overlay in Google Earth. You can see an example of a custom map overlay in my video Create a Family History Tour with Google Earth Pro at the 06:13 mark.