That person wandering around a cemetery with a cellphone camera and a notebook? Usually it’s a genealogist. Cemeteries can be extraordinary resources for building a family tree. Online databases have made that research much easier, allowing thousands to view a gravestone visited by one person. But you shouldn’t stop with gravestone websites like Find A Grave. Sometimes you’ll need someone to visit the cemetery in person.
How can cemeteries help your research? They can provide information about births, deaths, and marriages. In many U.S. states, state registrations of births, deaths, and marriages did not begin until the end of the 19th century. Before that, you will have to be lucky enough to find a church record – unless the information was recorded on an individual’s gravestone. It’s not uncommon to see a woman buried under maiden name with the label “wife of.” They can indicate religious or social affiliation. This man was a member of the Masons, as indicated by their sign at the top of his tombstone. They can indicate military service. Many gravestones indicate a soldier’s branch of service.This man fought in the Civil War. Finally, they can suggest family relationships. Look who is buried in the same plot – more often than not, they are relatives.
That’s great. So why can’t I use Find A Grave to find my ancestor’s gravestone?
Find A Grave is a great starting point, but it has limitations:
1) Someone has to add your ancestor to the cemetery listing. Don’t see them buried in the cemetery. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
2) You are relying on the accuracy of the photographer. As Find A Grave has become more established, it has become more common to have photos of the gravestones attached. A photo is more likely to be reliable than a transcription – it’s hard to make typos in a photo – but are you sure the photographer took images of every gravestone? Many earlier burials have a headstone and a footstone. A replacement headstone may be next to an original headstone. Does the information match on all images? To know you have most accurate information, you’ll need to know that someone has photographed every stone.
3) You don’t know who is buried where. Find A Grave functions using individual listings. You can connect spouses and children, but what about that niece buried in the same plot?
Find A Grave provides a great starting point for the field of cemetery research – but for a complex case, you want to have feet on the ground. It’s worth hiring… Besides, I love the excuse to get outside.