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.
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:
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.
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):
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.
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
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.
More cemetery research tips
- Cemetery records: An alternative to death records
- How to find cemeteries in Google Earth
- How to read a faded tombstone without damaging the stone
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.
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 26 Video and Show Notes
Live show air date: September 24, 2020
Join me for Elevenses with Lisa, the online video series where we take a break, visit and learn about genealogy and family history.
Newspaper Navigator is a new free online tool for finding images and photos in old newspapers at Chronicling America. It doesn’t work the way the Library of Congress website works, so in this episode I show you how to navigate the Newspaper Navigator. It’s a fun session that will have you finding new newspaper gems in no time!
About LOC Chronicling America
Chronicling America is sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress. It features free digitized historic newspapers spanning 1789-1963.
Newspapers Contain Imagery such as:
You may not find the newspaper that you need for your research in the Chronicling America digitized collection. In those cases, turn to the US Newspaper Directory. It catalogs newspapers published 1690-present. Click the US Newspaper Directory button on the Chronicling America website to search. The catalog will tell you where known copies of the paper can be accessed.
Uses of Newspaper Images
Most of the old newspapers featured in Chronicling America include images. And because these old images are in the public domain, they are an ideal complement to family histories.
If you are very fortunate you may find photos or images of your ancestors, their homes, or other things specifically about your family.
Newspaper images are also a wonderful source when you need a photo or image to represent an important idea or item when telling your family’s story, whether in a blog post, article, book, video, PowerPoint presentation or other medium. Example of this would include a photograph of a blacksmith shop in the 1890s in the area where your ancestor worked as a blacksmith, or an advertisement for a Sears home kit just like the one your grandfather built.
Chronicling America’s Newspaper Navigator
The Newspaper Navigator dataset currently consists of 1.5 million pieces of extracted visual content from 16,358,041 historic newspaper pages in Chronicling America.
The visual content was identified using an object detection model trained on annotations of World War 1-era Chronicling America pages, made by staff and volunteers.
This “visual content recognition model” detects the following types of content:
- Editorial Cartoon
It also includes text corresponding to the imagery, identified by Optical Character Recognition (OCR).
Searching the Newspaper Navigator
You can search all images with captions. The results will be returned in a Gallery view featuring up to 100 images per page. This results format makes it very easy to quicky browse the images.
You can also switch to List view which lists the images along with the text retrieved by OCR.
How to Find Images Faster in Old Newspapers
Run a search in Newspaper Navigator of the word baseball and then run the same search in Chronicling America. A comparison of the results highlights the between Chronicling America and Newspaper Navigator when it comes to finding images in old newspapers.
Word Searched: baseball
Newspaper Navigator: 5,427
Chronicling America: 921,534
The search results returned by the Newspaper Navigator are solely focused on photos and images. This means you have a fraction of the number results to review. Another big advantage of Newspaper Navigator over Chronicling America is the size of the image. Newspaper Navigator gives you just the large image to review, while Chronicling America shows you a thumbnail of the entire page with images so small that you must click and load the page to analyze them.
Start by running a keyword search. (example: Blacksmith). On the results you can filter the results by Location and Years. Because the search currently doesn’t support Boolean operators or other types of search operators, you may need to run a few different versions of the same search to get a complete picture of the potential results. We’ll talk more about search strategies in just a moment.
Once you find an image you want, click to open it. The pop-up box offers these four buttons:
- Download Image – Downloads a high-resolution copy to your hard drive.
- Cite this – Generates a source citation that is automatically copied to your computer clipboard. Then you can simply paste it as needed. You can also cite the dataset by including the image URL, plus a citation to the website such as “from the Library of Congress, Newspaper Navigatordataset: Extracted Visual Content from Chronicling America.” According to the website, all images are in the public domain and free to use. Learn more about Rights and Reproductions at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/about/.
- Learn about this newspaper – Takes you to the Chronicling America catalog listing for the newspaper from which the image comes.
- View Full Issue – Takes you to the complete newspaper issue at the Chronicling America website.
My Collection at Newspaper Navigator
You can gather and save collections of the newspaper images you find using Newspaper Navigator. Start by running a search. On the results page click to select the desired images, then click the Save button. This will generate a URL for that collection and copy it to your clipboard. Since Newspaper Navigator doesn’t currently allow you to log in and return to your past searches during different sessions, I suggest pasting the URL into a research log for future reference.
Train My AI Navigators at Newspaper Navigator
A unique feature of the Chronicling America Newspaper Navigator is the ability to “train” the site to search for you. It does this through machine learning.
How to Train My AI Navigator:
- Run a search
- Click to select desired images
- Click Save to save the collection of images
- Click Train My AI Navigators
- Newspaper Navigator will deliver a new set of images based on your selected images. On that page, select additional images that you want by clicking toward the top (+) of the image.
- Click unwanted images by clicking toward the bottom (-) of the image.
Click to select the images you don’t want the AI Newspaper Navigator to find.
- Click Train My AI Navigator again
- Continue adding and subtracting images as needed to further train the system
- Type a name for this training session in the Name My AI Navigator The saved AI Navigator name will appear in the Select an AI Navigator column
- Click Save to generate a URL for this training session and paste into your research log.
- Click + New AI Navigator to create a new training session spring boarding from the first
- Click Clear & Restart to start a new search
Newspaper Navigator Search Strategies
Newspaper Navigator doesn’t, as of this writing, support Boolean Operators or offer an advanced search field. Here are some strategies that can help you have more success in searching the site:
Don’t use search operators, use variations
Even a space between initials can make a difference.
Considering how many variations there can be to a name, when searching for ancestors try searching first on the name of their town or location. If there are still quite a few results, you can then filter to only newspapers from their state. I search the town name first because an article may appear in a newspaper from a different state. In the case of my search for McMinnville, I received a small, manageable results list. Had it been large and included both McMinnville, TN and McMinnville, OR, filtering to just Oregon would be helpful.
Test your search theories
Analyze your results and try variations based on what you are learning about what Newspaper Navigator is focusing on.
Search for word strings
In testing my search theories, I learned that Newspaper Navigator did not do well with multiple words that do not appear right next to each other. Therefore, I tried to find word strings that pertained to my family that I could search for such as the name of a business: Consolidation Coal Company.
Search for Photos
Another interesting search you can run is the word Photo. On the results page filter to the state and years that apply to your research.
Use List View to Find on Page
When dealing with a large number of results, List View can help speed up the review process. List View also displays the text generated by OCR. While not perfect, it can be helpful. Use your computer’s Find on Page feature (control + F on a PC, Command + F on Mac) and type in a keyword such as a surname. This will take you instantly to all occurrences of that word in the text on the page. Click the next page and run it again.
Find images quickly by word search in the List View
Learn More About Machine Learning
In the menu click Data Archaeology to learn more about machine learning and the Newspaper Navigator project.
Premium Video & Handout: Getting the Scoop from Old Newspapers. (Not a Premium member yet? Learn more here.)
Book: How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers
Bonus Download exclusively for Premium Members: Download the show notes handout
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Answers to Your Live Chat Questions
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
Bert asks: Are some newspapers only available for a fee on websites such as Ancestry
Lisa’s Answer: Yes, several genealogy websites have exclusive collections of digitized old newspapers. You can usually search or browse the site for free to determine if they have newspapers from the location and time frame that you need before you make a purchase. Here are some of my favorites that I’ve had good success with:
We are compensated if you make a purchase after using our links above (at no additional cost to you.) Thank you for supporting this free show by doing so!
Christine asks: (What is the ) newspaper navigator date range?
Lisa’s answer: Here’s a break down of the dates:
Chronicling America covers 1789 – 1963 (digitized newspapers)
Newspaper Navigator covers 1900 – 1963 (photos in digitized newspapers)
U.S. Newspaper Directory at Chronicling America covers 1690 – present (catalog, only some are digitized and those are part of Chronicling America.)
Rachel asks: I have an ancestor that was in the social pages all the time in our local newspaper in the 1800’s. I thought it would make a great book or video, any ideas on how to showcase them the best?
Lisa’s answer: I love both of those ideas and I cover many more in my Premium Membership video Inspiring Ways to Captivate the Non-Genealogists in Your Life. Personally I have found that short photo books and short videos that tell one story are received the best by family members. They both offer opportunities to share and highlight items from newspapers. Learn more about quickly and easily making family history videos by watching Elevenses with Lisa episode 16. And I strongly encourage Premium Members to watch these two videos:
Video Magic: Creating Brilliant Videos Quickly & Easily with Lisa Louise Cooke (creating videos)
Share Your Own Life Stories More Meaningfully with Sunny Morton. (writing books)
lagomcurt asks: Are local small-town papers included in the collection?
Lisa’s answer: Yes.
June asks: When you download it ask what to save as. What is your suggestion?
Lisa’s answer: I think you’ll find that JPEG is currently the only option in the Save as Type drop-down menu.
Sharon asks: Does Chronicling America have foreign language newspapers in America?
Lisa’s answer: Absolutely! Searching in the language will help retrieve items.
Pat asks: Does it have Irish American newspapers?
Lisa’s answer: Chronicling America does have Irish American newspapers. If they were published between 1900-1963 then they will be searchable by Newspaper Navigator. I would also recommend searching all newspapers (online and offline) by clicking the U.S. Newspaper Director button at Chronicling America. Then search by ethnicity (Irish) and Material Type (online.) You will find that some are linked to other websites where they can be found online. If you see an image of a newspaper on the catalog page, then you know it is available on Chronicling America in a digital format.
Mark asks: Can the wash out pictures be enhance with the new MyHeritage Photo with the sharping feature and colorization to make it a better final experience with images?
Lisa’s answer: Yes indeed. Because the original quality will be poor and with low dots per inch (dpi) it likely won’t improve the way an original photo would. However enhancing and coloring just takes a few seconds and definitely improves the image. Even better, it often makes the print much more readable. I use it on documents too. Click here to try MyHeritage.
Kathy asks: If you do a search in English, will it find the search term(s) in newspapers that were written in German?
Lisa’s answer: No. You will need to search in German to pick up on any German text. However, if the image itself is similar, My AI Navigator should pick it up.
Lucinda asks: Who is in your necklace and the photo behind you, Lisa?
Lisa’s Answer: It’s my maternal grandmother’s high school graduation photo.
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