If you are looking for cemetery records, you should remember that a cemetery is a physical location and that cemeteries can be both publicly and privately created and maintained (or not maintained, as the case may be). They can also be abandoned and be destroyed. Cemeteries may also be located in rather strange or unexpected places. For example, there is a cemetery called the Neptune Memorial Reef, an under water cemetery that is located off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida.
Finding the burial records and locating the cemetery of an ancestor can be a challenge. I have an uncle, Henry Victor Overson, (b. 1899, d. 1986) whose death is well documented but for whom I have yet to find a burial record. In fact, I have not found an obituary or any other mention of his funeral or burial. The reason is likely that the largest cemetery in Phoenix, Arizona with tens of thousands of graves, where he is likely buried, has only been 77% photographed for FindAGrave.com and barely photographed by BillionGraves.com.
Of course, you can always begin a cemetery search using both FindAGrave.com and BillionGraves.com and an additional large online source, Interment.net. But you will soon discover, as my own example shows, that not all burials are listed in these large online cemetery database websites. In addition, searching online can be frustrating if you do not know the exact name of the cemetery. The words "grove," "garden," "memorial," and many other similar words are used repeatedly. As an example, there are approximately 490 cemeteries listed in FindAGrave.com that use the word "memorial" as part of their name and the same search on BillionGraves.com also produces a long list of results.
Some of the other online sources for cemetery searches include the USGenWeb and you can also search in local cemetery lists that may appear online in a Google search. There is also the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, Nationwide Gravesite Locator. If you live in country other than the United States, such as the U.K., you may wish to search for your own local cemetery lists online. By the way, one large website in the U.K. is deceasedonline.com. Another resource in New Zealand is a list made by the Christchurch City Libraries, Cemeteries and Cemetery Records. There are also online lists such as the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry. In short, online searches for cemeteries can be productive if you are persistent.
It may seem obvious to search for an obituary. However, if you search directly for an online obituary, you will soon find that most of the existing obituary searches include listings for currently published obituaries or for only a few very recent years. Some of the earliest listings on the obituary websites only have listings that date back into the 1970s and 1960s. Large websites such as Ancestry.com have indexed records of older obituaries, but the coverage of the United States is very spotty. It is a good practice to search the larger websites for death information, but don't necessarily expect to find an obituary. At the same time, there are probably billions of pages of digitized newspapers available across the United States on hundreds of digital newspaper websites. Of course these online website include the obituaries. So rather than specifically focus on obituary indexes, expand your search to include all newspapers available in any given area. To see a list of available newspapers in the United States, you can refer to the Library of Congress' U.S. Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present.
Finding an obituary that mentions the burial location in an online digital newspaper website is a good example of how all types of records work together to provide valuable genealogical information. Another example is of a way to find burial information and thereby locate the cemetery where an ancestor is buried using an online database such as Ancestry.com is searching for U.S. veterans gravesites or veterans' headstone applications. Usually, the burial information in these indexes identify the cemetery. Because of these interrelated records, it is impossible to list all of the online sources that could identify a cemetery.
It should be obvious that locating and searching a cemetery is facilitated by knowing the deceased's last residence. In may parts of the world, if you know where your ancestor died and his or her religious preference, you can begin to guess where that person was buried. In the older and more settled parts of the United States, burial grounds are commonly associated with a particular church. This is particularly true along the East Coast in states such as Pennsylvania. In these cases, locating the church online will give you an idea of where the cemetery may be located and who to contact for information about the burials. Both churches and cemeteries are shown on a variety of maps including the United States Geologic Survey's huge online collection in the Historical Topographic Map Explorer. Here is an example of a portion of a map showing a church and a cemetery near Harleysville, Pennsylvania.
The church and cemetery are near the middle of the map where you can see a red crosshair and it says Salford Ch. Once located on a topographical map, you can use Google Maps to see the exact location in a street view. Here is a screenshot of the Google Maps view of the same location.
Here is a screenshot of the satellite view of the Church and cemetery.
Before driving to any suspected location, it is a very good idea to do extensive online investigation of the roads and the possible access to the cemetery. You may also wish to contact the church or other responsible parties to determine any access restrictions. The records you are seeking for the cemetery, as in this example, may be maintained by the church. You might note that neither of the Google Maps identify the area as a cemetery, unlike the information contained on the topographical map.
To summarize some of the strategies for locating and searching a cemetery online, I suggest the following:
- Search the online cemetery indexing programs such as BillionGraves.com and FindAGrave.com
- Make a concerted effort to locate the death place and circumstances of the target person and investigate all associated records
- Do an extensive newspaper search for an online obituary
- Identify the religious preference of the deceased
- Search topographical maps for cemeteries in the area where the ancestor died
This is an area where the search can seem endless. There are so many types of records that could contain the crucial information from diaries and letters to large online database programs. The key here is to keep searching.