If your drive the back roads of the United States, and many other countries, and stay off the freeways, you are likely to see cemeteries every few miles. Even in areas with small towns, far apart, each of those small settlements is likely to have an associated cemetery. In older, more settled areas of the country, you might see cemeteries scattered throughout the burroughs and towns. In one area of Pennsylvania that I am familiar with, I pass at least a dozen cemeteries in a 45 minute drive. But how do you find out who is buried in all these cemeteries? Can you assume your ancestors were buried where they died? Was your ancestor buried in a churchyard or in a private family plot. There are these and a lot more questions that arise when you start researching cemeteries.
In our recent tour of the Mormon Trail in Nebraska with Family History Expos, we visited and passed by several cemeteries. But in the course of hearing Ronnie O'Brien tell us about the history, we learned of several individuals who were buried on the property where they died, outside of any sort-of formal cemetery. One burial was said to now be reportedly located in a cow pasture next to the farmhouse.
Unmarked graves obviously pose the greatest challenge to genealogists, but sometimes formal burials can be equally as puzzling. I have mentioned previously that one of my great-great-grandfather's grave was moved two times and he wasn't finally buried until almost thirty years after he died. Because of ethic or religious reasons an individual may be buried in a cemetery that is relatively far from the location of his or her death. Several of my relatives died far from their burial plot because they choose to be buried in the "family" plot in their traditional home town. In the Mesa City Cemetery, for example, there are people whose bodies were shipped from other states. One of my grandfathers was killed in an accident in New Mexico, but his body was returned to Arizona for burial. Finding his death certificate was complicated by the fact that the location where he was killed was in one county at the time and presently is in an entirely different county.
What may not be evident is that in many cases there is a trail of documents that followed the corpse from the time of death until its internment in its final resting place. Researchers have a tendency to think in terms of obituaries, death certificates and cemetery records but in most cases there are other records of the burial process that have been largely ignored. For example, if the body was transported, there are usually document associated with the transportation, authorizing the body to be carried to a different state or a different location within the state for burial. These transportation records may contain much of the same information that is contained on the death certificate and may survive the death certificate. The trick is finding where in the state archives these records are maintained. Many times they are kept by the local cemetery and the sexton or other individuals running the cemetery, may not even suspect that they exist. That was the situation with the Mesa Cemetery. Those records were sitting in the cemetery office and the employees of the city, in charge of the cemetery, did not know what they were or what they contained. They maintained the records, because they always had done so, but did not refer to them.
So, how do you find these records? The key here is to always ask if there are any more records. One type of record commonly maintained is the record of the purchase of the burial plot. Of course, this does not pertain to a burial in a private cemetery or to a situation where the grave is in a yard or on a farm, but in more recent burials, the person requesting the burial would likely have purchased the gravesite or the deceased may have purchased the plot before death occurred. Even years before the event. If you ask, you may find that a cemetery has preserved these records also. Tracing who purchase the burial plot may give valuable information about near relatives.
The point is that from the last illness to the the burial to the disposition of the grave site, there is a paper trail that can yield valuable records at ever level, if you ask for them or search for them. You will quickly find that few of these records have made it online as yet. They are still tied up in the cemeteries of the world.