clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Researching Family History: Genealogical research in cemeteries

Just like a census, christening, or probate records, tombstones often provide valuable information about ancestors. The warm summer months offer an ideal time to travel to where one's ancestors once lived, died and were buried. It's not just an opportunity to collect information, but to connect with your ancestors in a unique way as you kneel by their tombstones and walk where they once walked. There are several types of cemeteries. Family cemeteries or plots are usually located on or near farms, homesteads or plantations. These cemeteries were usually used before and during the 19th century. They are usually in great disrepair and may be covered by overgrowth.Church cemeteries are adjacent to the local churches. Some burials were recorded in church records. Many abandoned churches no longer have records which survived, making the information on tombstones invaluable.Public cemeteries consist of town, village, city or township. Since they are maintained by government entities, there are sextons and caretakers who may have access to a registry of burial plots identifying names, dates, places and plot location.Before taking a trip to a cemetery, prepare as much information about your family as possible. Records of the family including names, dates, and places they lived are vital to the search. First, locate the cemetery where your ancestors may be buried. One option is to check cemetery listings on Web sites. Death certificates and obituaries sometimes show the name of the cemetery.It can be helpful to visit a local public, historical or genealogical library in the community where our ancestors lived. There we can look for books such as local histories, censuses and biographies that might have information on the family. Sometimes however, the information isn't readily available. You may have to choose a few possibilities in a general area and go to each cemetery to search. It is best to contact the caretaker or sexton to ask permission to enter whenever possible. When you go, be sure to dress for the occasion. Long sleeves, full-length pants and gloves are appropriate to keep out insects, weather and debris cleaned off the tombstones. Once the cemetery has been located, we begin the search for our ancestors' tombstones. This can be tricky as many old tombstones have weathered or crumbled through the years. Other tombstones that once bore deep engravings may have smoothed out and are now virtually unreadable. Sextons can be very helpful in locating tombstones and recovering information that may seem lost. In some cases, sextons may have the information on paper or even in a computer database. A few years ago we searched through several abandoned cemeteries in Ireland looking for ancestors' tombstones. Many of the tombstones were difficult to read, engravings of the information had faded by weather. While searching the cemetery, we often found it necessary to clean away the moss and grass to get to the engraving. Before we go tombstone hunting we should prepare a \"Tombstone or Cemetery Kit.\"BYU professor Dr. Gerald Haslam suggests it should contain a notebook, black shoe polish with applicator, charcoal sticks (light and dark), large sheets of paper, water, vinegar, and of course, a digital camera. As \"Indiana Jones\" as it may sound, it is also helpful to have pruning shears to cut back any overgrowth around the tombstone. If needed, first wash off the stone with a sponge, water and vinegar. ALWAYS HANDLE THE STONE DELICATELY, WITH CARE! If the engraving is faint, snug paper (I like butcher paper) over the stone and rub shoe polish over the paper until the inscription appears.Without paper, lightly rub charcoal sticks over the tombstone engraving. Use light charcoal on dark stone and dark charcoal on light headstones to bring out the inscriptions. Always wash the headstone afterward.Transcribe EVERYTHING written on the tombstone into your notebook. Important information can often be found such as names of parents and children, religion, hobbies, feelings, occupation, etc. Also keep notes of the plot numbers and locations.Digital pictures are priceless. After preparing the tombstone, aim the digital camera, adjust settings, and get the right lighting to pick up the engraving and shoot!The experience of researching in cemeteries is certainly unique and can be very rewarding. If you go out to research in cemeteries, don't forget your cemetery kit!

Russell Bangerter, president of Ancestral Connections Inc., graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in family

history/genealogy. After an LDS mission to Scotland, he served 10 years

in the U.S. Army Reserve and Idaho National Guard as chaplain's

assistant, where he worked with records.

Bangerter researches professionally, writes and compiles family history

books, and enjoys lecturing on the subject. He can be contacted at or 801-254-9023. He and his wife reside in South Jordan, Utah.