Have you had to figure out cemetery and headstone research for genealogy on your own? It can be a bit overwhelming! In this article, we’ll help you find new depths to your cemetery research.
Most genealogists seek to find each ancestor’s birth, marriage, and death information. Headstone and cemetery records can provide our ancestors’ death date and final resting place. However, if we dig deeper into cemetery records, we may find so much more information!
Level 1: Online Sites like BillionGraves
Online cemetery databases are one of the most accessible sources for researching an ancestor’s burial. Cemetery database websites collect burial information from around the globe. Volunteers gather this information to grow the database, which is then searchable at the click of a button.
BillionGraves is one of the premier online cemetery databases with millions of records worldwide. A unique feature of BillionGraves is the GPS tag on every record, allowing you to pinpoint exactly where your ancestor was buried. The site also features a companion app available for mobile devices. The app provides tools for volunteers to add headstone photos on location at the cemetery.
A cemetery search for San Antonio, Texas, reveals several cemeteries clustered just east of downtown. Clicking into the San Antonio National Cemetery shows 6,552 records of burials with 4,825 images attached. The zoomed map pinpoints each burial within the cemetery grounds.
Level 2: Published Sources
Headstones erode and become illegible or destroyed by man or nature over time. Cemeteries fill to capacity and then become inactive and neglected. Burials that lack readable markers may not be cataloged on an online cemetery website. How do researchers overcome this challenge?
In earlier decades (the 1910s through 1940s), several organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), published cemetery transcriptions for many local areas. These indexes may include entries for headstones that have succumbed to the wear of time and are no longer readable. Find these transcriptions at genealogical libraries and in the FamilySearch catalog under the location of interest and the category “Cemeteries.”
This transcript from Licking County, Ohio, was organized alphabetically and documents individuals born as early as the 1790s. Most of the memorials found on the transcript do not appear on modern cemetery websites, likely indicating time has worn away many of the headstone inscriptions. The volunteer efforts to transcribe headstones one hundred years ago are a valuable research tool for modern researchers.
Level 3: Onsite Cemetery and Funeral Home Records
Not all burials included a headstone or memorial plaque. Some were marked with a simple cross or stone or not marked at all. How do researchers overcome this challenge?
Many cemeteries now have websites with information on their burials. For example, the picturesque Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, has over a half-million burials on 478 acres. The website features a burial search page where interments can be searched by name or date. The instructions note the index may not be complete, especially for the earliest burials. However, the page notes the records onsite are complete, and you can contact their office for additional information.
The cemetery website offers a Burial and Vital Records: 1840-1937 search page. This index record for Jane Finlay noted her date of death and interment, the lot and grave number, and information about her age and residence at death. The index entry provides a link to a scanned copy of the original cemetery register for Jane.
Cemeteries may provide a PDF guide to their burial records instead of an online search. Other cemeteries publish a phone number or email address on their website. Contact them about specific burials of interest for information about unpublished records they hold onsite.
Funeral homes, also called funeral parlors, began as early as 1759 in the United States. Providing the necessary care and preparation for the burial of the deceased, funeral homes kept records of their work and clients. Many funeral homes hold records dating back to the beginning of their establishment. Historical organizations have made transcriptions of the documents in some locales. Conduct an online search for the name of the funeral home and transcript to see if one has been created for your area of research.
Level 4: Work on the Plot for Relatives
Thus far, we have discussed three resources for cemetery records. The fourth level of cemetery research focuses on a method instead of a resource. After locating an ancestor’s burial information, what else can you do with it? Our ancestors lived and worked with family, friends, and associates. They were likely buried near them as well! Study the burial plot or cemetery for other relatives and associates to maximize cemetery research.
This method works with every level of cemetery research discussed so far.
Remember the GPS tags on each record at BillionGraves? This unique feature allows a researcher to see the burials located near the known ancestor. You can then research those individuals to determine if they were relatives.
DAR transcriptions were created plot by plot and cemetery by cemetery. Some lists were alphabetized, which helps identify individuals sharing the same surname. Other lists were kept in the order they were recorded, which helps identify groups buried together.
Greenwood Cemetery’s search features a plot number search option. Searching by the plot number where Jane Finlay was buried, the following individuals were buried in the same plot: David James Finlay, Francis F. Avant, Robert H. Bell, Elizabeth A. Finlay, Joseph Avant, and Sarah Moore. With further research, you can determine their relationships to one another. Further investigation revealed that the group included two brothers, two sisters, and a brother-in-law.
In a recent research project for a Legacy Tree Genealogists’ client, multiple levels of cemetery research strategies helped piece together the family of Frances Colbert, the client’s ancestor.
Lakeview Cemetery in Marietta, Love County, Oklahoma, has nearly six thousand memorials on the online cemetery database Find A Grave. One entry in the cemetery was located using the surname Colbert, David Colbert, whose headstone is broken and only partially readable. Although the memorial links David to proposed family members, none were buried in the same cemetery. Additionally, there is no information about David’s burial location within the cemetery or those buried near him in the online database.
The city of Marietta, Oklahoma, maintains the Lakeview Cemetery and has a downloadable PDF of the burials there. The guide to Lakeview Cemetery burials noted David Colbert was buried in section 2, block 26, space 6. The owner of the lot was W.H. Cochran.
Utilizing a search feature within the guide, we created the following list of the lots near David’s burial, which W.H. Cochran also owned:
- Willie Cochran, section 2, block 25, space 1
- Forney Cochran, section 2, block 25, space 2
- Hunter Cochran, section 2, block 25, space 3
- Carrie Cochran, section 2, block 25, space 4
- Verta Cochran, section 2, block 25, space 5
- Robert Lewis Green, section 2, block 26, space 1
- Rosebud Green, section 2, block 26, space 2
- Emma Green, section 2, block 26, space 3
- Daniel D. Green, section 2, block 26, space 4
- Tory Thorton, section 2, block 26, space 5
- unknown, section 2, block 26, space 6
- Catherine Vicktor, section 2, block 26, space 7
- Samuel T. Cochran, Jr., section 2, block 26, space 8
- Samuel T. Cochran, section 2, block 26, space 9
The cluster of individuals buried together in the plots owned by W.H. Cochran was confirmed as the extended family of Francis Colbert with the use of additional genealogical records.
- David Colbert was her father.
- W.H. Cochran was her son; his wife and children were buried in block 25.
- Samuel T. Cochran was the father of W.H. Cochran and Samuel T. Cochran Jr. and the second husband of Francis Colbert.
- Robert Lewis, Rosebud, and Emma Green were the children of Daniel Green and Francis Colbert.
- Tory (Green) Thorton was the married daughter of Daniel Green and Francis Colbert, who died as a young woman.
- Catherine Vicktor was the daughter of Robert Vicktor and Francis Colbert.
Another search of the Find A Grave memorials for the cluster of individuals buried together at Lakeview Cemetery confirmed another similarity. Most of the headstones for the family group were styled with an emblem engraved at the top. The deceased’s name was followed by their relationship with parents or spouse, then their birth and death dates. This styling suggests the person or people choosing the headstones wanted the family grouping to have the same look and feel.
Genealogists can document their ancestors’ death dates and burial places by utilizing multiple levels of cemetery research. But they can also document extended family members buried in the same location.
If you’d like more help with your research, our professional genealogists are available for consultations to get you on your way!