A primer on cemetery research to find ancestors.

A primer on cemetery research to find ancestors.

I’ve always loved gravestone and cemetery research to find ancestors.

Although I do most of my genealogical research via the internet, and in a very small amount via snail mail, there is something visceral about visiting the actual graves of our ancestors and recording the information about them (and their families if in family plots).

In previous posts, I related the story of my family’s genealogical driving tour of Nova Scotia a few years ago. The first was about our exploring a community cemetery and the other was regarding our experience taking the Fort Anne graveyard tour.

When you’re working on researching distant generations of ancestors, cemetery research is one of the most satisfying, hands on forms of genealogical exploration you can do. It’s one way to connect with a tangible reminder of particular ancestors, which is often an elusive feeling.

Finding a tombstone or other sign of the resting place of an ancestor can give you insights into who they were.

Is their tombstone humble or grand?

Does it contain an inscription that speaks of a simple life, of one that hints at a great love story, or a somber and religious disposition?

What dates are inscribed?

The information source is rich, yet locating cemeteries and navigating the research process isn’t always straightforward. Here’s how to get started with genealogical cemetery research.


What can I expect to learn from a cemetery?


Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org Updates and Additions to 22 Aug 2015.


It’s important to note that cemeteries and grave markers can be excellent sources of information about the deceased. While they are not primary information sources, they can clarify details such as:

  • an ancestor’s name, including obscure details like maiden names and middle names or even occasionally pet names;
  • date of birth;
  • date of death;
  • names of family members including parents, spouses, and children;
  • religion;
  • military service; and
  • fraternal order membership.

Cemeteries are a wonderful source of information that can confirm what you’ve learned from earlier research. In other cases, you’ll garner information that you didn’t know.

For example, there may be symbolism on a tombstone suggesting that your ancestor was a member of the Masonic Lodge or perhaps they are buried in a Catholic burial ground. Each of these small clues can open up new avenues for research and exploration.


How to find out where someone is buried?


There are many ways to find where your ancestors are buried.

The first is to look at any records associated with their death, including certificate of death, obituaries, church notices, and other funerary documents. Consulting similar information for spouses, siblings, children, and parents can also sometimes lead you to the right information.

If you know your ancestor’s religious affiliation, it’s possible to find out if there’s a church or community cemetery. Consult local records and histories.

Finally, there are a number of cemetery guides online that can help you locate an ancestor’s gravesite.

You might also want to try billiongraves.com and findagrave.com. They can be very helpful in locating family members and their information.


Making the most of a cemetery visit.


Whether you’re already near a cemetery where an ancestor is buried or you’re making a special trip, there are several things you’ll want to do to make the most of your visit.

The first is to bring a copy of any information you have about the ancestors, such as names and dates of birth. If you have a map or details of the cemetery, bring those as well, as large burial grounds can be difficult to navigate.

To document as much information as possible, bring paper and writing implements or electronic devices to record information and make any notes.

Consider bringing a digital camera with you to document the cemetery, individual headstones, and the relationship between specific stones that may be useful later.

Avoid taking grave rubbings, if possible. It’s a source of conflict but most people today feel that the risk of damage to the stone is too high. A high resolution camera now yields a wonderful degree of detail.

A final note on the logistics of cemetery visits: dress appropriately for being outdoors, and think ahead to things like bug spray and sunscreen. Wear a hat, and bring plenty of water as your visit may be a lengthy one.

If the cemetery you’re visiting is on private property, get permission first.

If the cemetery in question has a caretaker and you’re able to find them, spend a moment saying hello and explaining your mission. They may have valuable information.

Finally, if you’re headed into a cemetery that’s overgrown, isolated, or in an unknown area, consider bringing a companion for both company and safety.

A professional genealogist can help you with all types of genealogical issues, from completing all your research to answering specific questions about cemetery research.


Jillynn Stevens is a writer and researcher. She is the Director of Digital Content Marketing for Be Locally SEO where she enjoys helping clients expand and improve their businesses through articles, blogs, website content and more.