How Cemetery Records and Inscriptions Expand Your Genealogy:
1. Identify places of origin for ancestors–village or town, county, country written on the tombstone; separate cemeteries for each ethnic group or special divisions in the cemetery: East Side Polish, West Side Polish, German, French, Irish Catholic, Irish Protestant. Pay as much attention to where the grave is located as you do to the inscription on the stone.
2. Compare family naming patterns on stones and in sextons registers with relationships stated or obvious from the arrangement of graves in the burial plot. It is normal in America, Canada, Europe, and British Isles for the wife to be buried on the left of the husband. In older sections of the cemetery, extended family members are often buried in proximity to each other–children, grandchildren, aunt and uncles and their spouses, etc. In newer sections, husband and wife are together, extended families will be found in their own plots scattered through the cemetery or buried elsewhere.
3. Identify and document elderly parents who emigrated from the old country, who die shortly after their arrival, and there is an entry carved on the back of the family stone (later concealed by large bushes or vines). The tombstone or the sexton’s notation in the register may be the only evidence to alert you that the parents did come.
4. Original spelling of your surname on emigrants’ tombstones and proof of name changes. Americanized, shortened, changed surnames will be carried by younger generations–children and grandchildren. Grandfather is buried under the original spelling of the name–exactly as he spelled it himself. Somehow it just didn’t track right to bury him under an assumed name.
5. Evidence of religious background: artwork carved on the stone including crosses and their variants. Size and color of the tombstone–Quaker stones in NC were restricted to 12″ high, with few words carved on them. Swedish burials in MN have modest stones in shades of pink, cream, or warm gray sandstone. Polish stones in Detroit are large, red or black in color, and stand elbow to elbow as if they were army troops lined up to march.
See also August K Gillespie, “Gravestones and Ostentation: A Study of Five Delaware County Cemeteries,” Pennsylvania Folklife XIX (Winter 1969-79): 34-43. Quaker stones were under 14 inches high (1840-1960) and included 4-6 lines of inscription. Presbyterian stones averaged 35-38 inches in height (1840-1890) with 8-10 lines of inscription. The Article also compares Baptist, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic stones.
6. Use cemetery inscriptions to fill in vital record gaps for the “shadow years’–1890’s and 1780-1840. Where county courthouses have burned and marriage records are missing or incomplete, the cemetery can provide dates and evidence of marriage. Tombstones are one of the few records that supply full dates of birth and death.
7. Evidence of occupation, education, and training in skills and crafts. Look for tools carved in great detail out of limestone and mounted on the tombstone: carpenters hollow-handle handsaws, coopers adzes, stone carvers chisels and mallets, blacksmiths hammers and anvils, millers grinding wheels. Trains, pianos, motorcycles, weapons, plows and scythes of the farmer–they are to be found in the cemetery.
Fraternal symbols, military service medals as well as flags and plaques, marks and logos or their names and dates–usually carved at the very bottom of the stone or on the back. Watch for all of these. Some will be in foreign languages too.
8. Inscriptions in German scrip, French, rather than English. In the early twentieth century, other European, Middle Eastern, and oriental languages will appear. If you don’t read the language, rub the stone or take clear photographs of the inscription. Example:
Here rests our father and grandfather, Joseph Knapp. He was born at Oldenburg, Selbach, Kreis Oderweiler, entered the German Army in 1814, served 1816-17 in the 15th Regiment, 8th Infantry Company, in England and France. God grant him eternal rest.
Translated from the German in “Observations in a Cemetery,” by Glenn R. Atwell. It was published by the Western New York Genealogical Society Journal VIII, No. 1 and reprinted in the Federation of Genealogical Societies Newsletter 7 (Mar 1983).
9. Small children are frequently buried at the foot of a grandparent’s grave or in a small burial between grandmother and grandfather. When a child dies, the whole extended family grieves–watch for these graves and their proof of missing maiden surnames.
10. Migration patterns apparent in places of birth for several generations can be seen in the same family plot. Or observed on the stones from the whole cemetery. People travel together and settle in clusters near each other. The burial yards will reflect the migration patterns with an accuracy no other source can match.
11. Watch carefully for immigrant family members who die within a few days or weeks of each other. Two or three similar families, related to each other, travel together. When family members die, they create a blended family made up of the survivors. When you first begin your research, you are searching for the blended family! You might not recognize the original family units in the passenger lists unless you search the cemeteries and church records first.
Bath Cemetery, Bath Maine, Route 295 (between Portland and Augusta) Notes made in the cemetery: We walked every stone in the cemetery looking for George Briggs’ stone. It was located on the edge of a mounded hill on the lane for that section. The stone was a large one–the only stone in that section. Since the plot holds the graves of 7 children and the mother, we reasoned that the plot was pretty full.
It was as if, George Briggs, having buried his wife and 7 children between 1861 and 1865, placed the stone on the grave and left Maine forever. Leaving all trace of his origins behind him. He never spoke of this family. Please compare the 1870 census in New York City (Manhattan), for the only family he had–one surviving daughter–
We bowed our heads a moment and wept. Arlene Eakle and Ruth Messick, Bath Maine, 27 Apr 1999.
Allied sources: for burials where no stone is found–
__Stone carvers ledgers or card file
(See FHL film #383063 for example, Reading, Berks, PA
__Carpenters account books
__Society or business memorial
with names of members
__Local funeral directors–they always have a
Cemetery Map of their area. And some will
index maps to each cemetery showing where
people and families are located. Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle http://www.arleneeakle.com
PS I have been updating and revising my book How to Search a Cemetery, first published in 1974, and over 8,000 copies sold! Watch for Table of Contents to appear on my website. $15.00 plus postage.