Using Cemetery Records to Uncover Unknown Ancestors

Cemetery records, particularly burial records, are invaluable genealogical resources for discovering unknown ancestors. Here’s how to find and use them.

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Cemetery records, when they exist and you can find them, can reveal a lot about your family history that you never knew. The person who originally purchased a cemetery plot or plots, the trail of ownership of the plot from the original purchaser to the present, and the people buried in the plots (including where they were placed relative to other people in the same plot) can reveal a lot about your ancestors and their lives and relationships with one another.

You may even discover ancestors who were previously unknown to you through this type of research if you can track down the burial records for a particular cemetery. Remember, there are often unmarked graves in cemetery plots, and you may have no idea anyone is there, much less who they are, until you find the written burial records for that plot. If you’ve been looking for the burial place of a particular ancestor and haven’t been able to find it, it could be that it is unmarked, and the burial records of a cemetery will finally reveal its location to you.

Most cemeteries that have offices will have a list of burials there, as well as records of who owns and originally purchased particular plots. If you’re lucky, the records won’t merely be alphabetized cards listing the people who are there and when they were put there. They will be in the form of a map showing the location of burials and the names of people in each space in a burial plot. Not every cemetery office has such a map, but if you can find one that does, it is pure genealogical gold.

Those burial maps will show you exactly who is in a plot. If you come across the name of an ancestor whose burial place you have long sought, it is a huge genealogical victory. If you see names you don’t recognize in places that have no markers, you can often figure out who they are with a little additional research. Their name, age, and placement next to or near a certain person in the plot are all clues as to their identity. Using your genealogical research skills and other record sources (like census records, obituaries, old photographs, city directories, and written histories of the city or county where the cemetery is located), you will usually be able to identify the person, and in the process discover previously unknown children of an ancestor (usually ones who died as babies or young children), siblings, aunts, uncles, husbands, wives, and even parents.

If there is no cemetery office, or if the office does not have a burial map, you may still be able to find this information. Check with the local town hall, the town historian (if there is one), the local archives, and the local public library. All may be repositories for this information or may have people there who can direct you to the location of the burial records and maps you seek.

Don’t just look for headstones when you do cemetery research as a genealogist. Look at the actual ownership records of the plots and the burial records of who is in them. While this information may not be available for very ancient cemeteries, it is usually available for those that were established within the past 150 to 200 years… particularly large, municipal ones. Do the extra digging to get this information, and you may be rewarded with amazing new genealogical discoveries to add to your family history narrative.