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Visiting Cemeteries

Some of you may have an aversion to graveyards. Try putting aside these fears, because there is so much to gain from a visit, from both the standpoints of factual discovery and inspiration. How is it inspiring to look at an old headstone in an even older cemetery? When I was just starting my family research, a newly found cousin told me where to find the grave of an ancestor we shared. After a bit of walking around in a small, country cemetery, I found her. There was a weathered sandstone marker that was just barely readable. Julia had died in 1885 and I had never heard of her until a few months before, but I was standing over my great-great-great grandmother's grave. I felt connected and part of a grander scheme. It was awesome and I was hooked! My only disappointment that day was that I could not find her husband, (my g-g-g grandfather) who was buried in another cemetery. So get out there and find the rest of your family!

As mentioned, cemetery visits can be factual discoveries. Many families buried their members in the same cemetery, so while you may be looking for one particular relative, keep your eyes peeled for the same surname. You'll undoubtedly discover new ancestors that you were not aware of. Look for markers that might have other names in your family line, too. People tended to marry, and bury, within the same community; the husband's & wife's families could be in the same cemetery. When I found my great grandparents' grave, I noticed a grave next to it with the same last name as my great grandma's from her first marriage. It turned out he was her son who died of pneumonia and was buried next to his mom. I might not have uncovered him (no pun intended) had I not been paying attention to who was near her.

You might face two challenges in visiting your ancestor's grave. The first is locating the cemetery. If its not the main town cemetery, you could spend a lot of time driving around looking for it. To save time, first try the local library. They may have books in their genealogy or local history section that give cemetery histories, along with grave and cemetery locations. These are usually done by local genealogy societies. Other sources include local funeral homes, church records, courthouse, or local governments (town hall or township trustees) depending on the cemetery owner. Or try the USGS Mapping information site at:

Once you're at the cemetery, your second challenge could be locating the grave itself. Small cemeteries are no problem; just walk around until you find it. Finding graves in larger cemeteries can be difficult. See the caretaker or the cemetery office if there is one. If not, the sources listed above are helpful.

Once you're there, you will want to record the information on the marker. By far the easiest way is photography. That's right, take a picture. Believe me, it beats writing, especially in poor weather. The people at the one hour developing center won't look at you strangely either. Afterward, record the cemetery name and visit date on the back. Don't forget to take a picture of the church if there is one. Some of them are very quaint and the pictures will add warmth to your heritage album. By the way, don't always believe the information on the headstone. It could be wrong. Sometimes the stones are placed long after the burial and people's memories make mistakes. Rely on death certificates, obituaries and the like.

And if you're up to it, pull a few weeds or leave a flower. You'll discover that most of our ancestors' graves have not been visited in a very long time. I'm sure they would appreciate it.

Some related sources:
Online database with the largest directory of active and retired cemeteries:

Some great tips for photographing markers, plus a site for requesting a volunteer in another area to take a picture of a marker for you:

Saving Graves: a site dedicated to preserving America's endangered cemeteries:

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