Cemetery records are an often-overlooked but essential part of genealogy research, and include more than just inscriptions on headstones or monuments. Research in cemetery records can help locate missing family members, determine ancestral hometowns, distinguish between similarly-named individuals, and provide clues into your ancestors’ lives.
Locating cemetery records
Church, government, private, and family cemeteries have many types of records. A cemetery that is part of a church will likely hold burial records, but the difficulty will be in finding the current repository. Some are within the church, others are at national repositories, and some may even be in the homes of clerks and ministers. Government cemeteries (town, county, or military) and private cemeteries may have sextons’ records, cemetery deeds, and records of plot sales. These records may include information about persons buried in unmarked graves. Additionally, in many cases volunteers have transcribed the information on headstones. WPA projects in the 1930s helped preserve the records of tombstones that have deteriorated due to the ravages of weather and time. Other websites, including Billion Graves, Find A Grave, and USGenWeb, are excellent resources for photographs and transcriptions of records.
Cemetery records—more than just birth and death dates
Tombstones often include data in addition to birth and death dates. Some memorials contain relationships to parents, spouses, and children. Tombstone decorations sometimes include symbols or words about occupations, cause of death, membership in fraternal or religious organizations, or general philosophies of life which can provide important details into the lives of your ancestors.
The burial place can also give indication of religion, military service, or ethnicity. Two similarly-named individuals in a county may be distinguished by the locality of the cemetery and the people near whom they are buried. Oftentimes, relationships may be deduced by inclusion in a certain plot or family cemetery.
For many women and children who died before 1850, as well as children who were born and died between census enumerations or before vital records were kept, a cemetery may provide the only record of their life.
Where were your ancestors buried?
Determining the location of an ancestor’s final resting place is often difficult. Death certificates and obituaries frequently refer to the burial place, but when they do not, there are alternative methods to find this important information.
Home addresses can often be found in land, census records, or city directories, and then cemeteries within a half-mile radius of the deceased’s home may be searched. If no results are found using these restricted parameters, city directories and county histories often contain references to a comprehensive list of local cemeteries, and various repositories may need to be searched for records.
Following are several recent cases (shared with client permission) which demonstrate just a few of the ways cemetery records may be used to resolve questions in genealogy research.
Clarifying relationships and locating lost children
The 1900 census for Jefferson County, Alabama, included an entry for James and Nannie Collier and their three children. The household listing included an unmarried boarder named Sterling Simmons and a baby girl named Nora. Usually, an entry includes the names of the parents, then the children from oldest to youngest, and finally boarders and other household residents. The placement of Nora’s name seemed to suggest that she was the daughter of Sterling Simmons.
A tombstone in the Collier Family Cemetery in Owens, Limestone, Alabama solved the mystery, found with the inscription, “Children of J.E. & Nannie Collier,” for Nora Collier who died on 21 June 1900 — four days before the census taker visited her parents’ home, and for her sister Mary L. Collier who died in 1898 and didn’t appear on a census at all. The tombstone connected Nora and Mary to the proper parents.
Disproving the relationship between Joseph Loughery and Robert Lowry
A client asked us for help locating the father of her ancestor, Joseph Loughery. Only one possible candidate lived in the county – a man named Robert Lowry. The Lowry family lived near Coffee Creek, and most were buried at the Old Coffee Creek Baptist Church Cemetery. Robert Lowry was buried in Coffee Creek Cemetery without a surviving headstone.
Joseph Loughery was buried in a small family cemetery in Queensville, near Route 345-N at the southern edge of Queensville, Indiana. An indexed entry of his tombstone read “27 May 1808 to 24 September 1842, aged 34 years, 3 months, 27 days.” Also buried in this cemetery were his wife’s parents, and other documented family members.
Although the Lougherys and the Lowrys lived in the same county, their farms were in different townships. Also, Robert Lowry’s associates – executors, witnesses, or otherwise – never crossed over into Joseph Loughery’s records. Since Lowrys and the Lougherys lived in different townships and had separate associates—this effectively disproves any relationship.
Finding lost relatives and a cemetery register
Another case involving the use of cemetery records to locate lost relatives is that of George Washington Dickson. He was born to Scottish immigrants in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1863. The Dickson family worked as Indian service agents and moved to the Dakota Territory, Nebraska, Wyoming, and finally Fort Duchesne, Utah. Because the family lived on the edge of the frontier, vital records were not always available. Searches of the Fort Duchesne cemetery found a headstone for “Grace, dau. Of Geo. W.” in the military cemetery. Post cemetery registers included a little more information for a “child of George Dickson, civilian employee of U.S.Q.M.D.” Nothing more is known about little Grace, but a simple cemetery marker and an entry in a record of civilian interments in the National Cemetery in Fort Duchesne connected her to her father, George Dickson.
Family relationships, an ancestral hometown, and lost children
One more example, taken from the personal family history of one of our own researchers, helps illustrate the usefulness of cemetery records. Engebret and Marit Jorgenson immigrated to Wisconsin from Norway in 1865 with five children. In 1882 a newspaper article reported that Marit had just given birth to her fourteenth child. The three children mentioned in the newspaper article all passed away by the end of 1882. By the year 1900, all but five of the fourteen children had passed away.
The parents, Marit and Engebret, were buried in the Forest Lutheran Church Cemetery that adjoined their property. The church records included death and burial records for several of the children. Further searches in newspaper and county histories reported that the church was founded by immigrants and that “nearly all of them came originally from the community of Valders, Norway.” The Jorgenson family monument includes relationships and birth and death dates for many of the children who died young. Little Freddie Jorgenson was born in 1885 and died in 1894 (between census years since 1890 is not available), and his siblings, Carrie (1876-1892), Edward (1870-1892), and Gertie (1868-1897), were also buried in the same cemetery.
For the Jorgenson family, the cemetery records helped fill in missing family members plus pointed research to their town of origin in Norway. The information included the births and deaths of almost all of the family members, relationships between children, parents, husbands, and wives. By researching the church cemetery a little deeper, newspaper records revealed the ancestral village of most of the parishioners.
Frequently, genealogy research involves digging into as many records as possible, harvesting small tidbits of information, and then formulating and proving a theory about what the records indicate. Cemetery records often provide information that helps clarify relationships, find missing relatives, and solve family mysteries.
If you have hit a brick wall in your genealogy research, or are interested in finding out more about where your ancestors were buried and what information those cemetery records might provide, the professionals at Legacy Tree Genealogists can help. Contact us today for a free quote!
 1900 U.S. Census (population schedule), Precinct 18, Jefferson, Alabama, ED 104, page 41B, James Collier household, http://myheritage.com, accessed July 2017.
 Find A Grave, Collier Family Cemetery, Athens, Alabama, Memorial no. xxx, headstone for Nora Collier, 1899-1900, http://findagrave.com, accessed September 2017; and
Limestone County AlArchives Cemeteries….Collier Cemetery # 2, USGenWeb Archives Project – Alabama, Limestone County Cemetery Records, http:// http://www.usgwarchives.net/al/limestone/cemetery.htm, accessed September 2017.
 Hoosier Journal of Ancestry, Jennings County Special #2 (Little York, Indiana: Hoosier Journal, 1987), Old Coffee Creek Cemetery Records, pages 65 and 69. Family History Library 977.217 B2hj no. 2.
Find A Grave, Lowry family entries, http://findagrave.com, accessed January 2017.
 Find A Grave, Coffee Creek Christian Church Cemetery, Paris Crossing, Indiana (transcription), Robert Lowry entry, memorial no. 175855880, http://findagrave.com, accessed February 2017.
 Daughters of the American Colonists, Muscatatuck Chapter, “Family Cemetery – Queensville” in Cemetery Records, Jennings County, Indiana, Volume 3c (Seymour, Indiana: n.p., 1990), page 112, Family History Library 977.217 V3c.
 1870 U.S. Census (population schedule), Ypsilanti City, Washtenaw, Michigan, page 30, John B. Dickson household, http://myheritage.com, accessed September 2017.
 U.S. Burial Registers, Military Posts and National Cemeteries, 1862-1960, burial of Grace Dickson, child of Geo. Dickson, Civil Employee U.S.Q.M., 21 September 1891, http://ancestry.com
 1900 U.S. Census (population schedule), Forestville, Door, Wisconsin, ED 41, page 18A, Englebret Jorgason household, http://myheritage.com, accessed July 2017.
 Forest/Carnot Lutheran Cemetery, Forestville, Wisconsin, monument of Engebret Jorgenson, 15 September 1833-21 October 1907, http://rootsweb.ancestry.com, accessed September 2017.
 Valders, Norway Emigrants Started Tanum Lutheran Church in 1872,” 22 March 1862, Door County Advocate, http://doorcountynewspapers.org, accessed September 2017.