People seem to think it is strange that genealogists love cemeteries. As genealogists we study the lives of our ancestors. We might know more about our ancestors than some of our living relatives. It is perfectly natural for us to visit our ancestors. And the only way to visit them is at their final resting place, the cemetery.
Burying the dead and marking the spot where they have been laid to rest has been a part of cultures for thousands of years. The markers or tombstones range from wooden crosses to large structures made of marble and granite. Many tombstones still exist in cemeteries where written records have been lost.
Of course, not all graves are marked. Even within a lot, some of the graves will be marked while others will not. In those cases, written cemetery records need to be used. Written records were covered in last month’s column.
The information found on tombstones is as varied as the types of tombstones. Usually the name and death year will be given. Other information that could be found on a tombstone is exact date of death, date of birth, place of birth, relationships, date of marriage, and military information. Epitaphs, symbols and plaques on the tombstone give clues about the person’s religion, occupation, professional affiliations, fraternal orders, military duty, and beliefs.
Relationships can be revealed on tombstones. There is a tombstone which reads "Ann Dozier, wife of Edward Southgate and of J. M. Smiley, 1819-1884." This small tombstone tells a lot about Ann’s relationships. Dozier was her maiden name and presumed to be her father’s surname. Ann had two husbands. Further research showed that Ann married Edward Southgate in 1835. After Edward’s death in 1852, she married James M. Smiley.
Tombstones can disclose the origins of an ancestor. From census records and his death record, I knew that Samuel Smyrl was born in Ireland. Samuel’s tombstone revealed exactly where in Ireland, "Samuel B. Smyrl, born near Coagh, County Tyrone, Ireland, July 12, 1851- December 2, 1919."
Information about military service may be on tombstones. A story in my husband’s family said that great-great-grandfather, Lyman Webster, had served in the Civil War. His tombstone supplied the specific information about the unit, Company G, 13th New Hampshire Infantry. With the unit information, I was able to send for his military and pension files.
Tombstones of those that lived before civil registration are especially important as they may be the only record of a person’s death. In the case of babies and small children, a tombstone may be the only record of their existence.
When visiting a cemetery take the time to plan ahead. Call the cemetery office for hours and policies regarding decorations. It will be much easier if you arrive during office hours and get a map with the exact location of graves.
While onsite at the cemetery, record what is found. This should include the name and location of the cemetery, exact location of the graves (section, lot, and grave) and the inscription. The grave location can be recorded on the cemetery map if you were able to obtain one, or draw your own map if one is not available from the cemetery.
The inscription should be recorded exactly as it appears on the tombstone. Do not use abbreviations of any kind. Check every side of the tombstone as there may be something written on the back, front, and both sides. The information can be recorded using a notebook and pen, a handheld electronic devise, a tape recorder, or a camera (digital cameras take great tombstone photographs). I recommend that when visiting a cemetery, use at least two of these methods. For example, transcribe the inscriptions in a notebook and also take a digital photo.
While at the cemetery, look for the graves of other relatives. They are often buried in the same cemetery and quite often close to each other. We can obtain clues about family relationships from the tombstones and also from the proximity of graves.
If a cemetery visit is not possible, there is help. USGENWEB has a Tombstone Transcription Project that includes lots of photos but the information varies from location to location. Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness can be helpful and again results differ according to location. There could be volunteers on county USGenWeb web sites that are willing to go to the cemetery and take photos of a tombstone. A professional genealogists can also be hired to go to the cemetery and take photos.
We can learn a lot about our ancestors from their tombstones. But even if the tombstone has very little informaion, there is a connection you feel to an ancestor when visiting their grave. So put on some old shores and a hat and visit an ancestors grave this summer.