Cemeteries and Cemetery Rcords
by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.
As morbid as it may sound, searching cemeteries can be one of the most fascinating, and even exciting, aspects of family history research. The awe and inspiration that you feel when you visit the grave and see and feel the tombstone of an ancestor is beyond description.
Cemeteries are not simply only where your ancestors were laid to rest. They are also where you will find monuments to them as ordinary people. As well as providing you with vitals and other details about your ancestors, these individual memorials also give you an understanding of who your ancestors were, and how family, friends and neighbors felt about them.
Cemeteries provide more than just basic vital statistics. The information found on tombstones is rich and unpredictable. If your ancestors were themselves the immigrants to America, tombstones may be the only record of the original spelling of their surname. Additionally, clues for maiden names, minor children, military service, occupation, religious and fraternal affiliations, and places of origin are other bonuses found in cemeteries. The tombstones of the Scottish in America or Canada could potentially identify the county or town of birth in Scotland. They are also particularly noted for identifying maiden names of women.
Cemeteries can be categorized into five different types: Churchyard (on-site church cemetery); Church owned (off-site church cemetery); Government or Civil (national, state, city, military); Private or Commercial (organization or business); and the Family Cemetery (on the old family homestead). Related to cemeteries are the records that are kept. In addition to the information provided on the gravestone itself, there are also the burial records kept by the cemetery caretakers, and various records kept by morticians and funeral homes.
Cemetery records and tombstones have long been an integral part of genealogy. As far back as the ‘Great Depression’ entire cemeteries have been transcribed and published. For researchers who cannot visit the cemeteries, this provides a great service. These book or manuscript publications can be found in the various special historical collections, genealogy libraries, archives and more. Meanwhile, the internet has become a new significant source for providing cemetery transcriptions with such websites as Find-A-Grave and BillionGraves and more; covering both the United States and many international locales.
However, there is always the possibility these transcriptions can contain errors, and even be misleading. For example, only in visiting the cemeteries can the researcher observe an ancestor’s placement in respect to other individuals in the cemetery. In this way you may discover family members with different last names buried nearby. Also, various symbols and markings identifying military service, fraternal associations, and other significant factors that may not be included in transcriptions.
As well as the tombstones, cemeteries can provide additional information through written record sources such as Church Burial Registers, Sextons’ Records, Cemetery Deeds and Plats, Burial Permits, Funeral Directors’ Records, and Grave Opening Orders. Like tombstones, these records will vary in content. While some of these written records may be on microfilm and available through libraries or archives, or maybe in online resources, most records are still only available by going to, or contacting, the cemetery’s records holding facility.
The care and condition of cemeteries will, naturally, be an important factor in the amount of information that you may find. Newer cemeteries and tombstones will be in better condition, but not necessarily provide more information. This is due to the cost of tombstones and carving them, and to cemetery restrictions limiting the style, size and shapes of tombstones. Thus, modern cemeteries and tombstones have a very limited amount of information.
The cemeteries and tombstones from after the Civil War through the 1930s is the best period for providing the greater wealth of information. Not only are the tombstones still in good legible condition, but being the height of the Victorian era, the tombstones of this period are extravagant and ornate in design and extensive in the amount of information carved on them. This is also during the height of immigration to America—1820-1920—and thus the tombstones of many of these immigrants have the potential to provide genealogists with important information, most significantly including the place of origin.
Cemeteries and tombstones from colonial America through the Civil War are more likely to be destroyed or lost, or the stones may be mostly or completely illegible, and paper records are less likely. Also, those that do exist are far less extravagant and informative. Yet, despite these possibilities, it is still worth the effort to locate the cemeteries from during this era, as even the most limited information can be most significant.
The great thing about cemeteries and cemetery records is the research consistency. While different cultures around the western world may have noticeably different practices, overall the cemeteries and records are consistent. In America, cemetery practices are carried over from the old world. Thus, researching cemeteries in Scotland, England, Ireland, Canada, etc., are consistent with American practices. Therefore, there are not a lot of added factors, or extra learning, to take into account when transitioning research strategies from America to the British Isles.
In Scotland, historically the population rarely had tombstones erected in their memory. Meanwhile, many tombstones have been worn down by the weather to the point of being unreadable. However, if a tombstone is found for an ancestor, as well as birth and death information, townships of residence, maiden names, and relationships may be given.
Photo: Kilmichael Parish Church, Argyll, by Mark Pelletier (Click to enlarge)
With regard to Scotland burials, some of the unique records to be aware of include Kirk Session records, which may include plot maps, M.I. (monumental inscriptions) books in libraries and societies in Scotland covering local Kirkyards, and Lair (burial plot) registers. Lair registers are records of burial plot purchases.
Scotland cemeteries more often than not will have good written records. The associated church, or Kirk, may have kept burial registers, particularly Church of Scotland parishes. Regardless of actual religious affiliation of the ancestor, Church of Scotland cemeteries and burial registers should always be searched as it was the state church. In addition, town or city cemeteries may have sexton’s records of burials.
When you are unable to visit the cemetery or the office where the records are kept, you can contact the church or office directly for assistance. Sometimes they will send you transcriptions of the stones requested, and copies of the records. Or, you can contact the local genealogy society, or find someone in the area to visit the cemetery and copy records for you. Sometimes, they may even provide photographs of the tombstones. Through the USGenWeb site, or in WorldGenWeb, specifically the Ireland and United Kingdom GenWeb site, you can find information regarding local societies and researchers, and possibly even information on the local cemeteries and records office.
This is the latest in the continuing series of articles on searching for your family history, using family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally. Previous articles are available on the Genealogy Section of this website. See Genealogy in the menu options at the top of the web page.