With warmer temperatures and social distancing still in place, there’s no better time to get out of the house and do a bit of hands-on cemetery research. Where your ancestors are buried can give you a peek into who they were and what was important to them. Why should you visit the cemetery if you already have a birth and death date for your ancestor? Because you never know what you may find. Nearby gravestones can lead you to other family members. Little grave markers can tell the story of children who died in infancy for whom no other records exist. Flowers left on a grave may lead you to living descendants.
If you think about it, cemeteries provide lessons in family history. While not considered a primary information source, gravestones can be an excellent source of dates, birthplaces, maiden names, spouses’ names, and parents’ names. They can also provide evidence of military service and membership in a fraternal organization. If you find your ancestor buried in a family cemetery, it was likely part of a larger plot of family land. Did you find your ancestor in a church cemetery? This would indicate they were involved in a faith community.
The first step in your cemetery research is locating where your ancestor was buried. Death records, obituaries, and funeral home records can help identify this. Also look at close relatives of the ancestor. If you’ve located a sibling grave already, reach out to the cemetery office to inquire about others with the same surname. I did this recently when visiting my grandparent’s cemetery and found an uncle’s grave that had been hiding from me for years. Ask family members too, as they may know the location, have a mass or prayer card, or even possess a long-lost family Bible. Keep in mind that where your ancestor lived may not be the same place they died and vice-versa.
Newspapers can also be a fantastic place to discover obituaries that often include the burial site. In New York, we are lucky to have fultonhistory.com, which gives free access to so many newspapers across the state. Newspapers.com, an extension of ancestry.com, also offers millions of newspapers from around the world with a subscription.
Now that you have the cemetery name in hand, you’ll need to locate it. Findagrave.com and billiongraves.com allow users to search for cemeteries around the world. On the findagrave.com home page, you can search by an ancestor’s name, cemetery, or location. The map view shows the exact location, should you want to visit. Billiongraves.com allows users to collect photos of headstones and upload them to the site using a phone camera app. Once uploaded, the photo is tagged with the GPS location and becomes available to all users. (I located an ancestor’s tombstone in Italy!)
Let’s say you’ve found the cemetery, but discover the grave is not marked. This can be so disappointing. At the very least, you want to know where the grave is located, so you can pay your respects. But, as a genealogist, you’d also like a photo for your family history records. My suggestion is to reach out to the cemetery office. Not all of them have an office, but if the one you’re exploring does, request a map of burials. The office will have information on where they are located, even if they are unmarked. No cemetery office? Try calling the town or city hall and find out which department oversees cemeteries so you can obtain a map of burials in that particular cemetery. I had great luck find an ancestor’s "pauper" grave this way and put a marker up myself. (It’s not weird, lots of genealogists do this!)
Most important, notice the graves in the same area as your ancestor. I learned to never overlook what’s right in front of me when I photographed the graves surrounding my grandparents on a whim. After a little research, I found the husband and wife next to them, although not related, held a significant connection. The women had traveled from Italy to Ellis Island together in 1912. I like to think they were friends until the end.
Planning a cemetery research trip is a wonderful way to learn more while paying respect to previous generations. I consider cemeteries sacred ground where tombstones stand as monuments to an ancestor’s life. Implementing these tips should make your next adventure into finding your ancestors’ resting place a bit more productive. Stay safe, and happy hunting!
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a member of the National Genealogical Society and Association of Professional Genealogists. She is a Board member and President of the Niagara County Genealogical Society, guest lecturer and freelance writer. Send questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.