Cemetery Research: On Site and on the Trip

by Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA, 2002

It’s all set. The dates are finalized; you have the time off work. The kids have picked the destination. It’s vacation time! But, in all your planning, remember, you are the one who determines the route you’ll take to the beach/cabin/theme park, or wherever. And, therein lies the key: Deciding not just where you are going, but the way you are going to get there. On the road to your destination, why not throw in a few family cemeteries along the way?

It’s a great way to make better use of your travel time, feed your hunger for new information about your family history, and introduce the family to real family history (not just Mom or Dad’s stories, or their time in libraries). In fact, treading through a few cemeteries, playing hide and seek with ancestors’ tombstones, is a great way to get the whole family involved. And, after all, isn’t that something you’ve been trying to do for years?

One of the most memorable events for our family, during a four week, 20 state trip a few years ago, was a Sunday afternoon picnic by an ancestor’s grave. The central Pennsylvania valley was green and beautiful; the sun was shining. We found the church, and the Revolutionary War ancestor, allegedly one of the first burials in the churchyard.

Standing there, we read the story about how he was scalped by the Indians in 1780 on the nearby, mountain ridge, visible just behind the church’s roof. The children, from toddler to teens, listened and began to understand that America’s history was also their family history.

Many family historians include cemeteries as part of their vacations. They visit cemeteries where ancestors were quietly laid to rest. They take pictures, do a rubbing or two, take a video of the area ... or just stand above the grave and slowly turn to look at the sky and the horizon. The world may have changed a great deal, but the sky and the horizon are pretty much the same as they were when the ancestor was placed in his or her final resting place. In such a place you can almost touch and feel the presence of your past.

Planning for Cemeteries on Your Trip

Of course, every trip needs planning and preparation, especially if you are going to take some of your family’s precious travel or entertainment time to tromp through some old cemetery. So, here are a few suggestions that should help make this experience go more smoothly for everyone.

First, don’t plan to visit every cemetery where every relative is buried, even if the road you are traveling literally goes right by the cemetery. You might think it’s great, but for the rest of the travelers, it can quickly become too much of a good thing (especially if they question how “good” it is).

Second, begin your planning with a list of localities, near your intended trip route, where your relatives died. Most genealogical software can generate such a list with a little work using the advanced search and/or tag functions. Search for specific towns and counties in both the death and burial place fields. Since most persons have not entered burial places in their database, so searching death places will generate a larger list to plan with.

Third, select ancestors or cemeteries carefully. Choose places that are not far off your trip route, or are easily included along a route that takes you where you want to go (non-genealogists will only stand for so much on these trips). Choose cemeteries where you have not been before (unless the visit is a family tradition), or where you need key information about a family you are searching. In other words, don’t just go to a cemetery for the sake of going there. Try to accomplish something for your research with your visit. You will feel you have done something useful, and your traveling companions may actually get excited about the new find.

Remember, if some of the cemeteries you want to visit are also only a few miles from your primary destination (such as Grandma’s house), consider making those trips separately, as brief excursions from your vacation’s base of operations. Take only those family members who volunteer. Our multi-day family reunion is held at a Bible camp that is literally only about two miles from a cemetery with many early ancestors. Although our family can only attend this distant reunion every few years, I personally take some time to visit the cemetery on each trip, and different family members volunteer to accompany me. Last time, my health-conscious sister and some of her teens wanted to take a walk, so I volunteered to walk with them (rather than drive) to the nearby cemetery. It was a great experience to introduce some nieces and nephews to some early ancestors, including a local abolitionist.

Lastly, don’t forget to have the children (if you are taking any) help in the planning. This helps them “own” these excursions. Maybe they can help plan which roads lead to which towns, or they can scour the Internet for a motel not far from a cemetery destination.

Identifying the Cemeteries

Once you decide which ancestors’ graves you want to find on your trip, you need to locate the correct cemeteries. Experienced genealogists know there are many ways to learn which cemeteries have their ancestors. If you don’t already know in which cemetery a person is buried, begin with a death certificate, if one was filed. Usually the cemetery is identified on the death record. Obituaries may also provide this information. If the family’s church is known, there may be a cemetery affiliated with the church.

Of course, often you only know the town, township, or county where a relative died, but not the specific cemetery of interment. If this is the case with one or more relatives you are seeking on this trip, there are several ways to learn about local cemeteries. Your first task in this process, however, is to determine, as precisely as possible, where the family lived when the relatives of interest died. A census record or land deed will usually identify the town or township of residence. Probates, obituaries, and even church records may also provide this important information.

With the specific residence, you will want a list of cemeteries in that area. Many sources may provide this information. You can begin with the Internet. Find your counties of interest at USGenWeb. The county pages often include a listing of all cemeteries in the county, sometimes arranged by locality. Another on-line source, Cemetery Junction, includes a list of more than 42,000 (as of December 2004) U.S. cemeteries, some of which have links to inscriptions elsewhere on-line. However, each state list is alphabetical by the name of the cemetery; making is very difficult to identify all of the cemeteries in one locality.

You may also choose to call an organization in a county who would know about the cemeteries. County historical societies are a good place to begin (the county library can help you find a phone number). You could also call a mortuary in the county; you local mortician has a directory (such as the Yellow Book of Funeral Directors) with names, addresses and phone numbers.

For an on-line source for locating Funeral Homes, try Funeral Net or U.S. Funerals Online.

Of course, mortuaries are often only knowledgeable about the currently active cemeteries. Inactive, or closed, cemeteries may require an historian’s help. Meanwhile, Internet sources are usually quite incomplete. Therefore, print directories are still the best place to begin your search. Three nationwide directories or lists are a good place to identify existing cemeteries, the first two of which generally focus only on active cemeteries.

More than 22,600 cemeteries are listed or described in Cemeteries of the U.S.: A Guide to Contact Information for U.S. Cemeteries and their Records (edited by Deborah M. Burek, Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1994). This volume is arranged by state and subdivided by county. Cemeteries are then listed alphabetically within each county with addresses and, where possible, telephone numbers. For active cemeteries, which is the vast majority of the listings, the entry also provides the contact person, years of operation, ownership and affiliations (such as churches), facilities, services (hours of operation) and access to cemetery (ie: sexton or burial) records. Additional information in some listings includes the fax number, former cemetery name(s), physical location, historical and architectural notes and known publications about the cemetery (not necessarily publications of inscriptions). While this may not be the most comprehensive listing of active cemeteries, it does provide the most information for those cemeteries it lists.

A more comprehensive, if briefer, listing of active cemeteries is Elizabeth G and James D. Kot, United States Cemetery Address Book : All States, More Than 25,000 Cemeteries, Addresses, Locations (Vallejo, Ca.: Indices Publishing, 1994). With close to 28,500 entries, it is at least 25% greater than Cemeteries of the U.S. (see above). This directory is arranged by state and then by city, with cemeteries listed alphabetically under each city. The county is given after each city’s name, so that counties are scattered throughout a state’s listing. This makes it somewhat harder to locate all the cemeteries in a single county. The listing are very brief, usually just the name of the cemetery, the address and zip code. For many smaller cemeteries, no street address is provided, just the zip code which can be used with the town and cemetery name to create an address. This directory provides no information about when the cemetery was started, nor whom to contact. The method of compilation (various lists of inconsistent quality) does mean that a few cemeteries are listed twice.

The researcher will want to use both directories. A comparison of listings for the same county indicates that Kot’s Address Book is likely more inclusive. For Berrien County, Michigan, Cemeteries of the U.S. has just nine listings, while Kot’s Address Book has 22 entries for 20 different cemeteries. However, only six of the entries appear in both directories.

The most comprehensive single list of U.S. cemeteries is found in the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), developed by the U.S. Geographical Survey. It identifies every cemetery listed on the USGS 7.5 minute map series, and includes about 106,000 cemeteries. Certainly some cemeteries are not listed, as they had not been mapped, but the list does include many inactive cemeteries and family burial grounds. In addition to the name and location of each cemetery, detailed information also includes the latitude and longitude coordinates to help pinpoint the cemetery more accurately. In comparison with the two directories listed above, this source lists 39 cemeteries in Berrien County, Michigan, almost twice as many as Kot’s Address Book. The total number of cemeteries in this list is about four times as many as in either of the two directories. However, while this listing includes inactive, as well as active cemeteries, it does not include the city or address of the cemetery.

The entire GNIS database contains information about almost 2 million physical and cultural geographic features in the United States. Available in 11 published volumes as The Omni Gazetteer (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991), it is also available on CD-ROM, and on the Internet. Select “United States and Territories” and then enter the state, and optionally the county. Next, select “cemeteries” as the “Feature Type” and the program will return a list of all cemeteries in that county identified by the USGS.

Nationwide directories may not be enough. Cemetery research is inherently local research, and the best sources are local sources. Therefore, take note of a growing number of statewide guides to cemeteries and published inscription sources. Currently such sources exist for at least 27 states. Most are published books, while some are card or computer files residing at a library or historical society in a state. Each of these sources is unique and provides different information.

For example, Ohio Cemeteries (Maxine Hartmann Smith, editor, Mansfield, Ohio: Ohio Genealogical Society, 1978, Addendum, 1990) is primarily a listing by county and township of the known cemeteries. It includes the location, given by surveyor’s township designations, the street name, and directions on how to get to the cemeteries. On the other hand, the Michigan Cemetery Source Book (Lansing: Library of Michigan, 1994) is primarily a listing of inscription sources at the state library (including periodicals), accompanied by a list of cemetery locations. However, statewide sources will almost always be more comprehensive for their area than the nationwide lists described above. In the case of Berrien County, Michigan, the nationwide sources listed 9, 20, and 39 cemeteries, while the Source Book identifies 83, for which 72 have inscriptions on file at the state library.

Locating Published Inscriptions

These two examples bring up another helpful tool for your preparation. Whenever possible, try to find a published set of cemetery inscriptions, before your trip. This serves several purposes. Most importantly, if you find an inscription for some relatives, you will then be sure just who is buried where (except for rare removals). Second, many published inscriptions provide information on the location of the cemetery, helping you figure out just how to get there.

Of course, finding an inscription publication may also provide more genealogical information about your family, and that’s always a plus. Further, with the inscriptions at hand, finding the actual tombstones will be much easier, once you get to the cemetery yourself.

Cemetery inscriptions may appear as articles in genealogical periodicals, or as a book published by individuals, genealogical societies, or other institutions. Sometimes they are part of a collection of published records, and on occasion, they even appear in newspapers. Because of the diverse nature of published inscriptions, they may be difficult to locate.

To find inscriptions in periodicals, begin with the Periodical Source Index, created by the Allen County Public Library. It is available in most genealogical libraries, on CD-ROM, and on the Internet (to search Persi - library subscription required). This index references articles in virtually all English-language genealogical journals, magazines, newsletters, and similar publications. Look up the name of the county where the cemetery is located, and the subject “cemeteries” for a list of articles with inscriptions from that county.

The Internet is also a growing repository of cemetery inscriptions. In addition to using USGenWeb, as mentioned above, several sites try to serve as a clearing house for online inscriptions. Begin with Interment.net. Links there will lead you to individual cemeteries (arranged by state and county). Rootsweb also has a cemetery records site, with an index to over half a million inscriptions.

U.S. Genweb’s Tombstone Transcription Project, is arranged by state and county, with links to transcribed inscriptions. Sometimes the county listing includes just one or two cemeteries, while there may be more then two dozen for other counties.

One strong caution about on-line inscriptions is their incomplete nature. Many well-meaning individuals have begun transcribing inscriptions and posting them on line, but have not completed the task for their chosen cemeteries. Therefore, carefully review such electronic collections to determine if they are complete. Even if they are, also seek older printed versions, which may include more of each inscription (beyond just the dates)

There are of course many other ways to locate cemetery inscriptions. Book-length inscriptions, often including many cemeteries in a town, township, or county, are found at major genealogical libraries. Check with the local public libraries where the cemeteries are located, as well as state libraries and historical societies. Also, contact local genealogical societies. They will usually be aware of any publications covering local cemeteries. Some states have cemetery preservation societies; they may also be able to advise you about the existence of published inscriptions. Lastly, if you have located some active cemeteries in the area of interest, contact those cemeteries. They will know of published inscriptions for their own graveyard, and may also know of publications covering older, inactive cemeteries.

The best, most comprehensive, nationwide list that identifies published cemetery inscriptions is Index to United States Cemeteries (Salt Lake City: Family History Library, 1988). This list, on twenty-five rolls of microfilm, includes hundreds of thousands of index cards, most of which indicate where a set of cemetery inscriptions can be found. Created by the staff at the Family History Library to provide better access to thousands of hidden cemetery collections, this file is arranged by state and county. Each card provides the name and town (or township) of a cemetery with the library’s microfilm or book number for a volume, periodical, or section of a book where the inscriptions may be found. On occasion there will be two or more cards for the same cemetery as the inscriptions may have been located in several sources.

The card file was closed by the library about 1985, so recent acquisitions are not included. This index provides access the library catalog does not, since every listing is filed under the specific location and name of the cemetery. An average county will have between 100 and 200 cards, providing dozens of sources for the researcher to investigate. For example, there are 122 cards for Berrien County, Michigan, identifying upwards of 100 different cemeteries for that county. Certainly there are thousands of published cemetery lists that are not in this index, both within and outside the Family History Library, but no other reference comes close to identifying this many sources. Further, although called an “index,” it does not index names, rather it indexes cemeteries and identifies their published inscriptions.

Supplies for the Cemetery Visit

The next important aspect of preparation is collecting supplies for your cemetery visits. Surely you are not just going to tromp through the high grass and weeds, find the tombstones of interest and walk away! In addition to long pants and a jacket to protect you from local vegetation (including thorns), you will want to capture an image of what is on those stones.

A high quality camera, or two, is your best supply for this task. Bring a variety of film (fast, slow, sunny or cloudy, etc.). Instant picture cameras are good to determine if the inscription can be read, but the quality and life of such pictures is not as good as those made with better cameras. Hence, you may want more than one camera. Be sure to write down the inscription on paper (or your laptop computer) as well, just in case the pictures don’t turn out well. Consider a tape recorder as well; you can narrate the inscription, as well as a description of the stone and its setting.

But, how do you get a clear picture of the inscription? Many ways have been tried, and cemetery preservationists warn against a variety of materials that may, over time, damage the stone. This can include popular aids such as chalk, flower, and shaving cream. All of these may get into cracks on the stone and hold water in freezing temperatures, possibly cracking and damaging the stone.

A useful tool may be a damp rag or sponge, to bring out the carvings. A good mirror can reflect sunshine in such a way as to cast a good shadow on the stone, while you take a picture. This means you can’t do it by yourself; you need a partner to help in this process.

Even if you want to do a rubbing of the stone, be careful not to damage it with sticky tape (no duct tape, etc.). Use appropriate rubbing paper and a light touch to limit other causes of damage. The best discussion of how to capture the image off the stone is in Sharon Carmack’s book, Your Guide to Cemetery Research,  further discussed later. She includes fantastic details and suggestions, based on her research and conversations with cemetery preservationists and others. Indeed, obtaining a copy of her book may be the best preparation you can make for any cemetery research.

Finding the Cemeteries on Site

Proper preparation will have already provided you with the address of the cemetery, and perhaps even directions, but that may not be enough. Finding the right road, or going the right direction (east or west?, north or south?) may take some local help. Whenever possible, obtain a detailed map of the community where the cemeteries are located. You may find an on-line map source (such as MapQuest.com) provides sufficient detail for your needs. Or, you may need to contact the local Chamber of Commerce or county offices. Ask if cemeteries are noted on the map, or, if not, how well the streets are named and if latitude and longitude indicators are on the map (the GNIS database will provide latitude and longitude).

Before you leave, pinpoint as precisely as possible, where the cemeteries are located. You may arrive in the locality on a Sunday afternoon, or late in the day, and not find local businesses or county governments open to answer your questions.

Some cemeteries are quite a ways off the road where they are said to be located. Sometimes you have to hike over a hill, and you can’t see the cemetery from the road. For all you guys out there, who are patiently driving your wife to a cemetery, ask directions! The locals know the area, and are usually more than helpful!

But, one note of caution. Understand the map thoroughly, and watch out for a too-detailed map. One afternoon of our honeymoon was spent partially trapped on what proved to be a non-road through a Massachusetts forest. Having obtained a highly detailed map (six inches to a mile), we turned down a dirt road as a shortcut to the next cemetery we were going to visit. It turned out to be two ruts through the forest, primarily for rangers and fire access. About a mile down these ruts, we came across a large tree across the “road” which had not been cleared after the winter storms. Not wanting to back-up a mile, we got stuck in the muddy ruts trying to turn the van around in too tight a space.

Yes, we got out (after some work and using twigs for traction), but were out of time to see the cemetery. If we had stuck to the paved roads, which went around this part of the forest, it would have only added about three miles to the trip, and saved two hours. Morals to this story: make sure it is really a road, avoid shortcuts that won’t save much time, read the map carefully, and stick to the paved roads, whenever possible!

Searching the Cemeteries

Well, you finally get there, and you locate the cemetery. Now, just where are those family graves? Here is where your preparation really pays off. Strolling around a large city cemetery in upstate New York, four adults (including my non-researcher parents) spent over an hour, with baby in stroller, trying to find my mother’s great-grandfather and family. The sexton was not in, and we had not prepared. We failed.

It was years before I got back to the area on a research trip. I was on a tight time schedule and called the sexton. He was not going to be there, but he did give me great directions, and I drove right to the obelisk. Mission accomplished, and new information learned.

If the cemetery is large, and active, you should have contacted the sexton to learn about cemetery hours, and in what section your ancestors were buried. The office may even be able to fax or mail you a map, with the graves marked.

For a small cemetery, there may be no sexton, especially if the cemetery is inactive. Here your copies of the published inscriptions really pay off. On that same trip through Pennsylvania, we found another ancestral cemetery, not far from the church cemetery with the Revolutionary ancestor. His son and family had migrated a few miles west. It was hidden from the road and difficult to find (we passed it twice before asking directions of a local).

Once there, we found it to be overgrown and poorly kept up. The family stones were difficult to find, but with the published inscriptions in hand, we could find one stone in the inscriptions, then a neighboring stone, and eventually determined the layout from the published list. This led to the family stones, and two surprises. The stones for one ancestral couple were inscribed not only with their names and dates, as per the publication, but also the notations, “Our Mother” and “Our Father.” This valuable information suggested their son(s) had erected these stones, and therefore, likely lived in that area when they died.

The other surprise was a nearby stone, in the same style for a girl of the same surname. It included the inscription, “Our Sister.” Clearly she was a daughter of the mother and father, but she was not in the published inscriptions! She died long before the inscriptions were transcribed, and her stone was quite legible. She was simply missed. We would have missed her also, if we had not stopped by that cemetery, and if our teenage daughter had not been curious about nearby stones. Relying too heavily on the published inscriptions, we would have missed her also.

So, search carefully, and respectfully. Use, but don’t limit yourself to, any published inscriptions you may find. Even family members who are giving you a “guided tour” may miss something. My wife learned about a baby who died in her grandparent’s family from a stone in the city cemetery. The small stone simply said “Baby Sticht” with no dates. But that was enough to pry the lid off a family story forgotten by most of the living relatives, and to rescue an infant child from the mists of the forgotten past.

Once you find the stones you seek, copy the entire inscription, and note the stones’ locations in the cemetery. Add this to your genealogical notes and database so that others can later enjoy the fruits of your research, and reach out to touch the final resting place of their ancestors as well.

Read More About Cemetery Research

For more information about published inscriptions, see chapter 7 “Vital and Cemetery Records" in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records by Kory L. Meyerink  (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998), from which some examples in this article were used (by permission). Cemetery research itself is the subject of part of Chapter 3, “Research in Birth, Death and Cemetery Records” in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997).

By far the most comprehensive source for cemetery research is a newly released book from Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, Your Guide to Cemetery Research (Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 2002).  This guide provides a comprehensive discussion of cemetery research, including methods of locating cemeteries, and recording the information you find there. The author clearly illuminates the fascinating practice of cemetery research. From determining an ancestor’s final resting-place to decoding mysterious headstone symbols, she shows how cemeteries can help fill the holes in your family history


The author - Kory Meyerink is the editor, and primary author of Ancestry’s recent major reference book, Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records. A professional researcher and senior partner at ProGenealogists, Inc, he lives in Salt Lake City, and is the former publications coordinator for the Family History Library, and past president of the Utah Genealogical Association. Accredited in four different areas.

Other Resources - Care of Tombstones and Cemetery Preservation - Andrea D. MacDonald

Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA, "Cemetery Research: On Site and on the Trip," ProGenealogists.com (Online: ProGenealogists, Inc., 2004) [First published in Heritage Quest Magazine, May/June 2002 issue. Reprinted with permission], http://www.progenealogists.com/cemeteryresearch.htm

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