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

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.

 

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Photo + Story Competition: RootsTech 2018 Contest

A new Photo + Story competition will be part of RootsTech 2018! If you can take a story-filled picture and caption it meaningfully, you should enter. Check out these tips for creating winning family history photo and story combinations. Winners will receive prizes from Canon and Dell–so start putting together your best photos and stories.

Photo + Story Competition

RootsTech 2018 Photo + Story Competition

“A good photo tells a good story. And behind every good photo and story is a photographer who recognized the moment the two had come together and snapped the shutter.” So says the press release announcing RootsTech 2018‘s Photo + Story Competition. Here’s how to enter:

“Participate by finding or capturing a photo and story, past or present, of you or a family member. Unlike standalone photo or story competitions, we want you to use the power of both photo and story to share, persuade, inform, inspire, connect, and belong.” In fact, some of those verbs are the four categories in the competition:

  • Connect
  • Belong
  • Family
  • Heritage

Winners will awarded prizes from Canon and Dell, which will certainly help your future family history storytelling! Selected entries will appear in an exhibit at RootsTech 2018.

photo + story competition RootsTech 2018This contest complements the appearance of RootsTech 2018 keynote speaker Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton. His personal glimpses into the lives of ordinary people in New York has set a standard for quality photo stories.

Details You’ll Want to Know

Here are several must-know details if you’d like to enter the contest–or encourage someone you know to enter:

  • Entrants can submit one photo and story in each of the categories.
  • Entrants must be at least 18 to apply.
  • No professional qualification, licenses, certificates, or certification is required.
  • If you didn’t take the picture, you must have permission or rights to use the photo (if it was taken after 1923). Agreeing to compete places full liability on the participant.
  • Go to RootsTech.org for contest entry details.
  • The deadline for entries is December 31, 2017.
  • Selected entries will be notified by January 15, 2018, with more information on their intent to exhibit.

Family History Storytelling Tips for You

At Genealogy Gems, we’re all about helping you to discover, preserve and share your family history. If you’re thinking of entering this contest, consider how the following tips, adapted from a Genealogy Gems article on family history storytelling, can help your Photo + Story competition entry:

  1. Create vivid “characters.” Photos can capturing someone’s expressions, body language, mood, unique clothing or a moment of intense personal drama. They can also create compelling portraits of the heirlooms or objects that store family memories. Your stories can do the same. Choose unique, meaningful details–both in words and pictures.
  2. Paint the backdrop. What’s going on in the background of your picture? The “setting” and any background action should help tell the story, not distract from it. In your story, add essential details that the image can’t communicate. Is the exact date or place important? What else?
  3. Tell why this story matters. Call it what you will: a meaning, a moral, a message–the best stories and photos say something about life. Something more than skin deep. Think about why the picture and story matter to you. Share it clearly, concisely, with humor or feeling or whatever tone best works for you and the message.

Genealogy Gems will be at RootsTech 2018 to help you discover and share your family stories! Click here to learn more.

 

Navigating the End of FamilySearch Microfilm Lending

Just announced: The FamilySearch microfilm lending service will end on August 30, 2017. Let’s cover what we know so far, how it may impact you, and strategies for getting the information you need. 

WHAT: FamilySearch Microfilm Lending Ends

Most of the Family History Library’s microfilm vault has already been digitized and is online–or will be within a short time. According to the website:

“Over 1.5 million microfilms (ca. 1.5 billion images) have been digitized by FamilySearch, including the most requested collections based on microfilm loan records worldwide.”

However, the world’s largest lender of microfilmed genealogical records will be discontinuing the distribution of microfilms to Family History Centers in the near future.

“On September 1, 2017, FamilySearch will discontinue its microfilm distribution services,” announced the site yesterday. “The change is the result of significant progress in FamilySearch’s microfilm digitization efforts and the obsolescence of microfilm technology. Digital imaging has made it easier to find ancestors through the internet, mobile, and other technologies.”

This means the clock is now counting down your ability to borrow microfilmed genealogical records from the Family History Library. The last day you can place an order for delivery to your local Family History Center is August 31, 2017.

It’s a change I’ve seen coming, but it’s still a little disconcerting now that it’s here. But change is the norm in today’s busy world, so let’s break down the details we know so far together.

WHY: Why are they discontinuing microfilm lending before they’re done digitizing?

It’s just too expensive. “The cost of duplicating microfilm for circulation has risen dramatically, while demand has decreased significantly,” says a FamilySearch Q&A. “At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult and costly to maintain the equipment, systems, and processes required for film duplication, distribution, and access.” FamilySearch wants to redirect its microfilm lending resources to providing more and better electronic record access.

I have personally visited the microfilm distribution facility, and the best analogy I can give you is that it looks a bit like the inside of an Amazon warehouse. It’s a mammoth and expensive undertaking, certainly not something you open or close lightly. I’m thankful that in the decades before the Internet, FamilySearch devoted so many resources to helping all of us gain access to hard-to-find records from around the world.

Photo Credit: Lisa Louise Cooke

WHEN: What will be available online and when

According to FamilySearch, they hope to finish digitizing the records that they have permission to digitize, in 2020. Unfortunately, some films we will not be digitized because of contractual limitations, data privacy, or other restrictions. Look to the Catalog for access details for the records you want.

Microfilm lending familysearch

By Lhsunshine (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

HOW: How to order FamilySearch microfilms between now and August 31, 2017

I encourage you to use the microfilm lending service while it is still available. While most microfilmed records will be eventually digitized, the fate of a small percentage may remain unknown for some time. Follow these steps to view them now:

1. Go to FamilySearch.org and log in, or create a free login. (You’ll need the login to order records.)

2. Under the Search menu, select Catalog.

3. Search by location, listing first the largest jurisdiction (such as the country) and proceeding to the smallest, such as “United States, Illinois, Cook, Chicago.”

4. Review search results by clicking on the record categories and then each entry. Within the entries, watch for interesting items that only list microfilm or microfiche formats.

5. Within record entries, order items you want by clicking the microfilm reel icon on the far right, under Format. Select the lending period and the correct currency. It currently costs $7.50 USD to borrow a microfilm reel for 90 days.

During the order process, you’ll select a family history center near you to receive the item(s). When your order arrives, you’ll be notified. Check the center’s schedule before visiting; most have limited hours. Centers are free to use. When you get there, identify yourself and request your film. Then put it in the microfilm reader and scroll through it until you find the item number and pages you need. (Here’s a helpful article: How to Use a Microfilm Reader.)

What about accessing microfilmed records after August 31, 2017?

You’ll still have several options. Sunny Morton, author of the quick reference guide Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websitessays the FamilySearch catalog will still be a go-to resource:

“At this point, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah still plans to keep on hand microfilmed copies of records that are not yet online. So your options include going to view them in person (since to the best of our knowledge the library won’t be lending them), arrange for someone else to view them (such as through the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness Facebook group), or use the FamilySearch Catalog to identify the records and then attempt to locate them through other repositories and websites.

To find records you may borrow from other sources, click where it says ‘View this catalog record in WorldCat for other possible copy locations’ [see screenshot below]. This will take you directly to this item’s listings in WorldCat, which is the enormous, free multi-library online catalog. Look either for a copy at a library near you, or a copy at a facility that participates in inter-library loan. (This is the same process you already have to use to find copies of books you can borrow, since the Family History Library doesn’t lend these, either.)”

What about accessing the digitized records?

After August 31, 2017 many genealogists will be turning to the online FamilySearch catalog and Family History Center Portal. (Learn more about the Portal at the FamilySearch Wiki.) As you attempt to view records through the portal, you may be prompted to go to a Family History Center to view the record, and the site will link you to a map of all locations.  It’s important to understand the difference between an official Family History Center and an Affiliate Center. We’ve learned that Affiliate Centers do not have access to what is called the Family History Portal. That portal is only accessible from an officially designated Family History Center.

So how do you know which location on the map is official, and which is an affiliate? I turned to genealogy blogger and friend of Genealogy Gems Amie Tennant for clarification:

The (online) FamilySearch map of Family History Centers is not accurate. With the new changes to microfilm loans, this is going to be a big problem. In other words…if a person assumes all FHCenters are the same and travels to the nearest one, they will be sorely disappointed to realize that this one will NOT have access to all the digitized microfilm. (Researchers) should call ahead to confirm whether the center they see on this map is an affiliate or a full FHC with access to the portal.

I’ve reached out to FamilySearch for additional official information on this and several other important questions that have arisen with the discontinuation of microfilm lending. I’ll report to you here on the Genealogy Gems blog and the podcast as more information becomes available.  Check out Amie’s article for more information on the various levels of access.

What do you think?

The end of the FamilySearch microfilm lending service is a major milestone. It signals exciting future online access, but provides obstacles for the next few years. What suggestions do you have for researchers to gain additional access to essential microfilm? Please share with the Genealogy Gems community in the Comments below.

 

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