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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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):

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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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Adoption and Genealogy: How to Create and Navigate an Adopted Family Pedigree

Adoption and genealogy often cross paths. More and more genealogists are having to navigating between both birth family and an adopted family pedigrees. Our easy, step-by-step instructions will show you how to merge these two pedigree charts into one with FamilySearch Family Tree and Ancestry.com.

Creating a Birth and Adoption Line with FamilySearch Family Tree

Anyone can create a family tree at FamilySearch.org for free. You need to create your free account first. If you need more instruction on how to get started with a family tree on FamilySearch, click here.

For those of you who already have a FamilySearch family tree you work with, here is how to include both a birth line and adopted line.

In this example below, James Donald Woodard was raised by Robert Cole and Goldie Witt, but is the natural son of Elmer Woodard and Margaret Cole.

Step 1: From the pedigree view, click on the person you would like to have two pedigrees for. Then, choose “Person” to get to the individual’s person page.

Step 2: At James’ person page, scroll down to the “parents and siblings” section. Here, multiple sets of parents can be added by clicking on “Add Parent.” We can also indicate what type of relationship the parent has to the child (choices include: biological, adopted, guardianship, foster, and step) by clicking the little pencil icon at the right of James’ name under the parent couple. Lastly, whichever couple is marked “preferred” will be the parents that will show up in your pedigree view.

Step 3: Add a second set of parents for James by clicking on the “Add Parent” icon and follow the prompts to add the new parents by name.

Step 4: You will have James appearing as a child under each couple. Now, indicate the type of relationship James has with each couple.

Find James in the list of children under Robert and Goldie.

Click on the little pencil icon in his box. A new window will pop-up. You will click on “Add Relationship Type” and then choose the appropriate relationship from the pull-down menu. When you are finished, click “Save.” You will need to do this for both the father and the mother.

You can see that James’ name appears under Robert and Goldie with the relationship noted. (When the relationship is biological, no notation appears.)

guardians on adoption genealogy pedigree

James now has two pedigree options. We can easily switch between the pedigrees for James by clicking the preferred button on whichever couple we would like to view. You can change the preferred couple whenever and how-many-ever times you want!

Creating A Birth and Adoption Line at Ancestry.com

Step 1: First, add one set of parents for the individual. You can do this in the pedigree view. Click on “Add Father” or “Add Mother” and fill in the fields for name, date of birth, etc.

Step 2: Add a second set of parents for Jason by clicking on Jason’s name and choosing “Profile.” This takes you to a new screen that looks like this image below.

Step 3: This is Jason’s profile page. You can see his newly added parents, Mason Tennant and Megan Adams. Click the edit button at the top right of the screen and chose “Edit Relationships.”

Step 4: A pop-up window for relationships will appear. Here, you can mark the type of relationship between Jason and Mason. The choices are biological, adopted, step, related, guardian, private, and unknown. After you have chosen the appropriate relationship for the first father, click “Add Alternate Father.”

Step 5: Add the name of the second father and choose the appropriate relationship. You will then be able to choose which father you want to mark “preferred.” Do the same for the mothers.

If we want to see Jason’s birth or adopted family tree, we need only go to his profile page, click “Edit Relationships” at the top right, and mark one set of parents as “preferred.” Then, that couple will show up in the pedigree view.

Adoption genealogy certainly has it’s challenges, but creating a pedigree chart that includes both the birth and adoption lines, doesn’t have to be one of them! Let us know in the comments below how you have included both your birth and adoption lines into your family history. We love to hear from you.

More Adoption Gems

DNA for Adoption Research: Nice to Meet You!

Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 178: CeCe Moore Talks about Genealogy and Adoption (Listen for free)

DNA Testing for Adoptees: Advice from Your DNA Guide

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

We dig these gems new genealogy records onlineEvery Friday, we highlight new genealogy records online. Scan these posts for content that may include your ancestors. Use these records to inspire your search for similar records elsewhere. Always check our Google tips at the end of each list: they are custom-crafted each week to give YOU one more tool in your genealogy toolbox.

This week:

ALABAMA COUNTY MARRIAGES. Over 700,000 names have been added to FamilySearch’s index of Alabama county marriage records (1809-1950). Some of the index entries have images.

ENGLAND PARISH RECORDS. Indexes to baptisms, marriages and burials from Derbyshire (1538-1910) and images of original records of Yorkshire baptisms, bishop’s transcripts of baptismsmarriage bannsmarriages, bishop’s transcripts of marriages, burials and bishop’s transcripts of burials (1500s-19oos, dates vary) are now searchable on FindMyPast.

IOWA HISTORICAL JOURNALS. The State Historical Society of Iowa has posted back issues of The Annals of Iowa dating to 1863. This is a quarterly, peer-reviewed historical journal. Use the search box to see whether your Iowa ancestors, hometowns or other family connections (schools, churches, friends, etc) are mentioned in more than 150 years’ worth of articles.

RUSSIAN WWII SOLDIERS. According to this article, “Thanks to a new online state initiative, families of Russian WWII combatants…are now able to give their forebears the recognition they deserve, 70 years on. The Zvyezdy Pobedy project, organized by the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper, allows the descendants of those who fought in the Red Army in WWII to find out whether their ancestors were among the recipients of over 38 million orders and medals awarded during the war….There are more than 8,200 names listed in the database, which can be read in Russian at rg.ru/zvezdy_pobedy.”

U.S. CIVIL WAR RECORDS. These aren’t new, necessarily, but until April 30, Civil War records on Fold3 are FREE to search! Among the 43 million items are (of course!) military records, personal accounts, historic writings, photographs and maps. Both Union and Confederate records are represented.

check_mark_circle_400_wht_14064 new genealogy records online

Google tip of the week: Need to read web text in Russian or another language you don’t know? Use Google Translate to translate short passages or even entire webpages! Copy text or a URL (for full page translation) into the left box, then click English and Translate on the right. You can even play back an audio version of the foreign text to hear how it sounds! Learn more in Lisa Louise Cooke’s The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox. The 2nd edition, newly published in 2015, is fully revised and updated with the best Google has to offer–which is a LOT.

We Dig These Gems: New Genealogy Records Online

We dig these gemsEvery Friday, we highlight new genealogy records online. Scan these posts for content that may include your ancestors. Use these records to inspire your search for similar records elsewhere. Always check our Google tips at the end of each list: they are custom-crafted each week to give YOU one more tool in your genealogy toolbox.

This week: European and U.S. Jewish records; Mexico civil registrations; New York City vital records and New York state censuses and naturalizations.

JEWISH RECORDS. In the first quarter of 2015, nearly 70,000 records have been added to databases at JewishGen.org. These are free  to search and include records from Poland (for the towns of Danzig, Lwow, Lublin, Sidelce, Volhynia and Krakow); Lithuania (vital records, passports,  revision lists and tax records); the United Kingdom (the Jews’ Free School Admission Register, Spitalfields, 1856-1907) and the United States (obituaries for Boston and Cleveland).

MEXICO CIVIL REGISTRATIONS. More than 400,000 indexed records have been added to civil registrations for the state of Luis Potosi, Mexico. Records include “births, marriages, deaths, indexes and other records created by civil registration offices” and are searchable for free at FamilySearch.

NEW YORK CITY VITAL RECORDS. Indexes to New York City births (1878-1909), marriages (1866-1937) and deaths (1862-1948) are new and free for everyone to search on Ancestry. Click here to reach a New York research page on Ancestry that links to these indexes.

NEW YORK STATE CENSUSES AND NATURALIZATIONS. The New York state censuses for 1855 and 1875 (for most counties) are now available online to subscribers at Ancestry. According to the census collection description, “The state took a census every ten years from 1825 through 1875, another in 1892, and then every ten years again from 1905 to 1925. State censuses like these are useful because they fall in between federal census years and provide an interim look at a population.” New York naturalization records (1799-1847) and intents to naturalize (or “first papers,” 1825-1871) are also available online.

NEW ZEALAND PROBATE RECORDS. Nearly 800,000 images from Archives New Zealand (1843-1998) have been added to an existing FamilySearch collection (which is at least partly indexed). Privacy restrictions apply to probates issued during the past 50 years. These records contain names of testator, witnesses and heirs; death and record date; occupation; guardians and executor; relationships; residences and an estate inventory.

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Google tip of the week: Some genealogical records and indexes are created on a city or municipal level rather than–or  in addition to–a county, province or state level. When Google searching for vital and other records like burials and city directories, include the name of a city in your searches. Learn more about Googling your genealogy in Lisa Louise Cooke’s The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox. The 2nd edition, newly published in 2015, is fully revised and updated with the best Google has to offer–which is a LOT.

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