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Introduction << Cemetery Records <<

| Cemetery Records | Finding Where Your Ancestor Is Buried |
| Types of Cemetery Records |

Cemetery Records

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Cemetery records are a favorite resource of genealogists, and for good reason. They often contain clues to long sought dates, family relationships, military service and much more. And even if the inscription on a tombstone fails to reveal more than the most basic of information, there's something about visiting your ancestors' final resting place that somehow brings you that much closer to them.

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cemetery Cemeteries have been created by governments, churches, corporations, and even by families on their own farm properties. Although there are exceptions, it's possible to make some broad generalizations about each of these types of cemeteries:

  • Government cemeteries - include city, county and state, as well as large Federal ones, which are often military (e.g., Arlington National Cemetery); maintained by tax money
  • Church cemeteries - vary widely in size and sometimes may be located in more than one place (many churches outgrow their first cemetery which usually borders around the church and subsequently end up buying more land for a second one which may be quite a distance from the first); tend to include mostly people of that particular religion; some also have a pronounced ethnic flavor
  • Corporate or private cemeteries - commercially owned and operated cemeteries
  • Family cemeteries - smaller and often older cemeteries, generally found on private property; tend to be hard to find, especially if the family has moved from the area and no longer maintains the cemetery
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    Tombstone inscriptions and cemetery or sexton records can provide a wealth of information. In addition to names and birth and death dates, you might find previously unknown parents, children or siblings buried in the same plot. Especially for women and children who lived pre-1850, cemeteries may provide the best information you'll ever find on them. For instance, you just might finally find your great-great-great-grandmother's maiden name, opening up a whole new line to research. For a more complete list of the data that can be found through cemetery records, see the tombstone records guideand the cemetery records guide.

    Finding Where Your Ancestor Is Buried

    The first step to using cemetery records is to figure out which one(s) to research and contact. In many cases, an older relative might be able to tell you where the family was traditionally buried, but you have plenty of options if you are not so fortunate. Death certificates, obituaries, death notices, and wills are all good starting points to try to identify the cemetery. Even if the cemetery isn't listed, there's a reasonable chance that the funeral home will be. In this case, you can contact the funeral home and ask for your ancestor's record in order to pinpoint the correct cemetery. Another option is to contact the church which your ancestor attended. The church may have records or simply be able to tell you where most of their members have generally been buried.

    If you still can't find any concrete evidence, but have a general idea that your ancestor was buried in a particular town or city, there are other tactics you can try. A search of the Family History Library Catalog by locality and/or subject may reveal some promising candidates. In some cases, you may be able to borrow microfilmed copies of the cemetery's records and review them yourself. This is especially useful in identifying family groups.

    Another alternative is to check the American Blue Book of Funeral Directors (try your local library or genealogical society), which lists the names of cemeteries by location. Barring any other clues (e.g., your ancestor's religion), start with the ones closest to where your ancestor lived. Write or call them and ask for a copy of your relative's record. If you receive no response, consider contacting a genealogical or historical society or library in that area for assistance. If you still have no luck, it might be worth hiring a professional in the area, or better yet, planning a genealogical field trip to go search the cemetery yourself.

    Sometimes there are situations where you actually have a cemetery name, but have no clue where it is located. A search on online phone books may help here, especially if it's still an active cemetery. If you still have some relatives in the area, call them and network until you find someone who can answer your question. A few calls to local churches, genealogical societies, or funeral homes may turn up your answer as well.

    If you're the impatient sort, you might want to try an online search of the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) This database has more than 2,000,000 features, including cemeteries - all around the United States. If your cemetery is listed (older, disused ones may not appear), you'll be able to find its coordinates and print out a map of its location. This can be a useful item to take on any genealogical field trips you might be planning.

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    chalkingYet another option is to search published sources. Traditionally, this has meant books of tombstone transcriptions which generous individuals or societies have taken it upon themselves to record. In many cases, they have recorded inscriptions from stones which no longer exist or whose words have been worn off with time. One such organization, featured in this episode, is the Derbyshire Ancestral Research Group. Once again, contacting local and state libraries and genealogical societies may lead you to some of these invaluable resources.

    Increasingly, these collections of records are being uploaded and made available for searching on the Internet. Probably the best known of these is the USGenWeb's Tombstone Transcription Project. Thanks to the many volunteers who have contributed to this and other similar sites, there are now literally millions of tombstone inscription records from around the world ready for your viewing. To learn about some of the most significant ones, see the transcription extra.

    An even more recent innovation is the introduction of photobase sites which allow you to search or contribute actual photos of tombstones. In many cases, these photobases also include the contact information for the submitter, so you may even find a distant relative who is searching these online transcriptions. You might also want to consider purchasing one of the commercially available CDs with such data.

    Types of Cemetery Records

    Cemetery records can come in a variety of forms, but they generally originate from one of two sources: tombstone inscriptions and cemetery or sexton's records.

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