There has always been something mysterious about cemeteries. Perhaps the knowledge that those interred took secrets to their grave has resulted in the enigmatic haze that seems to linger over these peaceful resting sites. But it’s not just the dead that hold secrets. Cemeteries themselves are often home to puzzling (and sometimes spooky) features.
We think of cemeteries as quiet tranquil places. As a “Tombstone Tourist,” I’ve spent years in cemeteries searching for genealogy clues, exquisite artwork, stunning vistas, and that perfect photograph. A trip to the graveyard is never boring. I’ve come back with tales of beauty, delight, and terror. Here are just three shocking discoveries I’ve made while searching in cemeteries.
1. Abandoned Crypts
There’s a cemetery in Kentucky that holds a baffling find; three 19th century mausoleums that have disappeared right in the middle of the grounds.
On a humid July day, I stepped inside a grove of trees to escape the searing heat. Inside that cool dimness stood three stately mausoleums, each with a façade protruding from a hill now enveloped in trees, vines, and shrubs. This thicket had been growing untamed for years.
The mausoleums stood side-by-side. The first was a small brick crypt with a surname above the entry along with a date “1895.” But the tomb had been bricked up for so long, trees grew on top obscuring its existence.
The middle mausoleum was built from pressed concrete with niches and arches along the walls. Again, the doorway and windows were bricked shut against the onslaught of trees and ropy vines that brushed and clung to its surface.
The third mausoleum was constructed of plainer concrete set off in a corner. No names or dates were visible but trees blocked any approach. It was visible only through a tangle of vines and foliage.
Who had these monuments been for?
Why had they been abandoned?
Had the bodies been moved when family members relocated?
Or were they simply forgotten?
Perhaps no one left payment for special care in perpetuity.
Apparently, what has been lost and forgotten shall remain so.
2. The Grave in the Middle of the Road
Having grown up in Indiana, I can assure you that Hoosiers are a practical lot. But there’s one roadside attraction that will cause the most stoic of residents to stop and ponder the audacity and fortitude it took to keep a grave in the middle of the road for close to 200 years.
The story began in 1808 when Nancy Kerlin married William Barnett, the great, great, great grandson of Pocahontas and John Rolfe.
Baptism of Pocahontas by John G. Chapman, 1840. (Public Domain Image)
They settled near what would become Amity, Indiana to raise their family.
Nancy died on December 1, 1831 and was buried on top of a small hill overlooking Sugar Creek, one of her favorite spots. Soon others were also buried here and over the years a small county cemetery developed.
But then progress reared its head around the turn of the last century and Johnson County decided that a road needed to be built to connect Amity with other thoroughfares. This meant the grave had to be relocated.
Nancy’s grandson, Daniel G. Doty had a problem with that.
Doty went to the county and voiced his opposition. Nothing changed so he decided to take matters into his own hands. When county work crews arrived they found Doty sitting on his grandmother’s grave – with a loaded shotgun. Again, Doty told the county that his grandmother would stay where she was. If they insisted on trying to move her grave, they would have to deal with him. With that prospect, county workers agreed to let things “rest” where they were.
A concrete slab was placed over the grave in 1912 to protect it.
An historical marker was added in 1982, and Nancy became an anomaly.
But three years ago, after numerous reports of accidents, something had to be done.
In 2016, Nancy’s grave was temporarily moved to widen the road. It was the perfect time for University of Indianapolis archaeologists to see just what was buried there.
Amazingly, they discovered that residents have been driving past not only Nancy’s grave but also the remains of six others – a man, a woman and four children. Was this the Barnett family? No one’s said for sure but the state has now designated this small spot in the middle of the road a family cemetery.
The Grave in the Middle of the Road
3. The Tree of the Dead
In Terre Haute, Indiana there stands the most massively disfigured cemetery tree I’ve ever encountered. Though its genus is no longer identifiable, it stretches at odd angles as if reaching out in despair.
It was a frigid January day when I encountered what I have since called “The Tree of the Dead.”
I’d been taking photos when my husband waved me over to see his find. Over the years I have seen hundreds of ominous cemetery trees, but none like this. This tree was surely waiting for the headless horseman to plunge through that opening with a rush of fetid air as he continued searching for his head.
Stepping closer, I attempted to take a photo, but the tree was having none of it. My camera shut down immediately. There are several explanations for this common cemetery occurrence; the batteries are too cold, connections are corroded, post seals are damaged, or spirits are sapping energy attempting to manifest. Yes, well … but after changing the batteries two more times, I had yet to get one picture.
My husband thrust his camera into my hands and I was able to get two photos before the batteries died. One shows the tree in all of its appalling façade with twisted limbs reaching akimbo to the sky. (Notice the limb with a dragon’s head at the end?)
The second shot shows the opening in the middle of the tree: a bizarre heart shape. And the mishmash of tombstones scattered around the plot date to the late 1800s but names are indecipherable.
Who is buried here?
What happened to give the tree such an appearance?
Could it be caused by a decades-old drought?
Maybe arsenic used to embalm bodies back in the 19th century slowly leaching its way up into the tree?
Or could it be … something else?
A visual reminder of how perilously close fact and fiction are entwined in the graveyard.
Cemeteries hold a vast amount of secrets, most of which we may never know. But the genealogist’s pursuit of answers means we’ll never stop exploring and asking the questions, and perhaps one day, those secrets taken to the grave may be revealed.
Discover tools for locating tombstones, tips for traipsing through cemeteries, an at-a-glance guide to frequently used gravestone icons, and practical strategies for on-the-ground research. And once you’ve returned home, learn how to incorporate gravestone information into your research, as well as how to upload grave locations to BillionGraves and record your findings in memorial pages on Find A Grave.
About the Author: Joy Neighbors is a national speaker, author, freelance writer, blogger, and avowed Tombstone Tourist. Her book, The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide focuses on how to locate cemetery records, what to do when you get to the cemetery and how to understand the silent language of the stones. She also shares a few stunning family secrets along the way. Joy also writes the weekly cemetery culture blog, A Grave.
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Cemetery records are a great alternative when you can’t find a death record. Here’s how to find them!
Genealogists are always on the hunt for records about the deaths of their ancestors. Death records sometimes offer a cause of death, birth information, and parents’ names. However, when a death record cannot be found, was never created, or was lost in a disaster, where should we look next? The cemetery, of course!
Genealogy Gems reader Brenda wrote us the following message:
My father and I were visiting the cemeteries in Preble County, Ohio. We decided to take a drive down Lock Road, which is named for my ancestors. We visited the home of my two times great-grandparents, Michael and Eliza Ann Lock. While visiting with the new home owner, they mentioned the tombstone located in the fence row behind the barn. The tombstone said “Eliza wife of Michael Lock.” The tombstone is hard to read, but I was also able to make out a “13” engraved on it and I know she died August 13, 1884. My problem is that there is also a tombstone listing her with her husband who died November 21, 1928 and a separate marker that says “Mother” marking a plot in Roselawn Cemetery in Lewisburg, Ohio. Would they have moved her body when her husband died or is she still buried on the homestead? I found records at the Preble County Library that references Eliza Lock and the cemetery plot in the Roselawn Cemetery. How do I know where she is actually buried?
Just short of ground penetrating radar and exhuming the body, we may never know for sure where someone is buried. There are some things we can do, however, to get the best answer possible and maybe find some new clues in the process.
Burial Locations of the Past
According to Ohio laws in 1884, burial regulations were made on the township or village level. Further, it was permissible to bury a body within 200 yards of a dwelling if the home owner gave permission. [Research tip:To search the law books of a targeted area, search Google Books with a keyword phrase like Ohio laws 1884.]
It was not uncommon to bury a person on the family farm in the old days. Many people had their own family cemeteries on their property. In fact, some states still allow private burials even today. In Ohio, a person seeking to have a private burial on their property should contact the county clerk. Read more about the current Ohio burial laws here.
Theory #1: Eliza was buried at the farm and a marker was placed on her grave. Her husband died in 1928 and was buried in Roselawn Cemetery. The family decided to place a marker that had both of their names on it, even though Eliza’s body was left at the farm.
Theory #2: Eliza was buried at the farm and a marker was placed on her grave. Her husband died in 1928 and was buried in Roselawn Cemetery. The family moved Eliza’s body to the same plot in Roselawn and had a stone made for both of them.
Theory #3: Eliza was buried at Roselawn Cemetery and a small stone was placed to mark the grave. Then, forty-four years later when Michael died, the family removed the original stone and replaced it with a new one which was inscribed with both of their names. What did the family do with the old marker for Eliza? They took it home to the farm as a memento.
Using Cemetery Records to Confirm A Theory
We can check the burial or cemetery records for Roselawn Cemetery to determine who is buried in the plot of Michael Lock, who purchased the plot, and maybe some more helpful hints.
Cemetery records can usually be found in a cemetery office, a library, online, or in many cases, the offices or home of the township trustees.
First, Google the cemetery name and get a phone number. When calling the cemetery office, be ready with the name of the individual and the death date if known. If a record is found, ask for a copy to be sent to you and be sure to offer to pay the cost of mailing it to you.
If you are unable to reach anyone in the cemetery office, try a quick online search. Many local county organizations are digitizing and indexing these records to put online. I searched for “Preble County Ohio genealogy,” and found a website dedicated to historical and genealogical records for Preble county.
A quick search for Eliza Lock provided a hit!
I noticed that there was a plot location and a death date, but not a burial date like I had seen on Michael’s index card. Michael’s card had two dates.
I checked many other cemetery records in this database. Several records created around the same time as Eliza’s death in 1884 also had no burial date. At first, I wondered if a record not having a burial date meant that the body wasn’t actually buried there. However, there were far too many records that did not include a burial date for this to be true.
I also noticed that this index card was a digital image and I wondered if it was created from some other source. It even seemed to have been altered with white-out. As with all genealogy research, if there is an original source, it should be found. In this case, I want to find out where these index cards came from. Were they created by someone who was looking at a ledger book? If so, then I want to see or view an image from the ledger book.
Locating the Original Cemetery Record Source
Sources come in two varieties – an original source and a derivative source. An original source is the one created at the time of the event. A derivative source is a record created later from the original, such as a transcription or abstraction. When a derivative is made, there is room for errors. This is one reason it is important to find the original source if at all possible. When it is not possible, you can use the derivative source as your proof, but you would indicate that it was a derivative and not an original.
Since this index was found at the library website, I gave them a call first. The Preble County Room assistant told me that the images were taken directly from the files held at the cemetery (the original source). The cemetery kept little index cards as their records. Volunteers later digitized those cards and uploaded them to the website (copy of an original source). According to the person I spoke to, there is no other ledger or record book that they know of. She did tell me that the image on the internet is only the top half of the digitized record (an abstract). This is yet another reason to discover how a record was made. If I had assumed this was the original record in its entirety, I would have missed some important clues.
She happily emailed me the full image of the index card (said to be a digital image of the original index card) and look what we see! [See image below]
The full record held a lot more information. When I compared the lot number of Michael and Eliza, they were the same. According to this cemetery record, it seems that Eliza’s body is buried in the same plot as her husband at the cemetery. I speculate that when Michael died, the family decided to remove the original tombstone marking Eliza’s grave, put up a new one in its stead, and take the old tombstone back home instead of discarding it.
Cemetery records are a great asset to any family history research and can often hold new information. Start today and see what you can find!
Research Tip: Did you know that in many small Ohio townships, the cemetery record books may be at the home or office of a local township trustee? The cemeteries sometimes fall under the township responsibilities, instead of county or village. In my own township, the original cemetery books were once held by the local funeral director. Now, they are held by a township trustee who is in charge of the cemeteries. You can find the names of township trustees by performing a Google search like Harrison Township Preble County Ohio township trustees.
Got a mystery grave in your family history? It’s not uncommon. It can happen for many reasons: no headstone, unidentified body, paperwork missing or lost, graves moved, cemeteries abandoned.
During battles and the immediate aftermath, soldiers’ remains can also be lost. That’s what happened to Private Will Phillips, a “popular jockey” from Australia who joined the British forces during World War I.
Years later, Phillips’ great-nephew chased down his burial place. It wasn’t easy: he had to consult cryptic terrain and battlefield maps created during the chaos of war. He compared cemetery records of known and unknown burials. But he did eventually locate his Uncle Will’s grave next to another soldier’s (mismarked as someone else’s). In the process, he made another breathtaking discovery: a photograph of his uncle taken on the day he was killed in combat–standing next to the man he’s now known to be buried alongside. Read the full story and see photographs of Uncle Will here.