Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Plumbing the Depths of Cemeteries

OK, after this post, I will lay off posting about cemeteries for a while. But I did have a few more things to say. There are some important issues that need to be summarized that all genealogists should keep in mind when they think about cemeteries.

First of all, a cemetery is a specific geographic location. This may seem obvious, but when you think of cemeteries,  if you do, you probably have a lot of cultural and social baggage that comes with your thoughts on the subject. But all sentimentality and other cultural artifacts aside, from a genealogical standpoint, a cemetery is a location where some information about our ancestors may be located. I am using the term "cemetery" to include all possible and conceivable burial locations. I suppose the term "grave sites" might be more inclusive, but the word "cemetery" will do.

Aside from the social and cultural ties associated with the burial location of an individual, absent any information that can be obtained from the grave markers or records associated with the cemetery or burial, the most important information about the cemetery is its location. In the event their are multiple burials, the next most important information concerns the arrangement and proximity of the graves. In both cases, the identity of the person buried in each location is also equally as important. So, we are looking primarily for the identity of the individuals buried, the arrangement and proximity of their graves and the overall location of the burial site. Any other information that can be obtained is a bonus.

Now, let's look at the majority of the records you might encounter. We immediately get into a chicken and the egg problem. If I happen to know where my ancestor is buried, I can find burial information. If I don't know have any idea where the ancestor died, how do I find a burial? So what good is it to have huge lists of cemeteries and burials? Searching by my ancestor's name is now much of a help in many cases. I have run across relatives who were buried with names that were either not their birth name or were the name they went by and not their "real" name at all. Having huge online gravesite lists is only partially helpful in these situations.

I think I will start with FindAGrave.com, the most popular and used online cemetery database. Let's see how helpful the program really is to a genealogical researcher. If I search for a cemetery without putting in its location, I will have to know the name of the cemetery. If I search by location, it gives me a long list of cemeteries. For example, if I search for the "St. Johns Cemetery," I get 565 responses. Not helpful. If I put in the state, then I get two choices. If I choose the one I am looking for in Apache County, Arizona, then I am shown the cemetery listing. There is a map of the cemetery location using Google Maps. But now, I have 1,599 interments to review. What it comes down to is that I may be able to find the cemetery, if I know its name, but when I look at the list of burials, unless I know how my ancestor was named at the time of death, I have to guess. In this case, there are 1,597 names in the list. Does this mean there are three unidentified graves? Do I know how many total people are buried in the cemetery? Does the number of interments equal the total number of burials? What if the cemetery has only been partially surveyed? All of these are unanswered questions.

If I start over again and search for a name, how do I know that is the name that was used on the burial marker? Let's suppose I do find my ancestor, I still do not know where he or she is buried and I certainly do not know if any family members are buried close by. In short, FindAGrave.com does not give me any of what I consider to be the crucial information concerning a burial. Now, I could go on and use BillionGraves.com for a comparison. But it would not be fair to FindAGrave.com to do so. Of course, BillionGraves.com gives me all three pieces of information I am seeking. It gives me the location of the cemetery, the exact location of the grave and the identity and proximity of all the surrounding graves. Both programs provide a photo of the grave marker, if there is one. Neither program provides any of the other records associated directly with the cemetery or grave, although BillionGraves.com does link to other websites with additional death information. What about all of the "memorial" information given in FindAGrave.com? This information is usually lacking any source citations or other details and falls into the category of user contributed information with about the same usefulness as online family trees without sources. Helpful, but not too reliable.

For a genealogist, these two programs provide substantial help in locating graves. But what about graves that are not yet recorded in either program? Genealogical researchers are on their own to identify and locate these burials. Granted, there are a huge number of books and other documents concerning burials, but it takes some considerable skill and a lot of map references and perhaps GPS coordinates to ultimately locate the cemetery and further skills to identify and catalog the burials. In some cases, there are narrative descriptions of the cemetery or burial site that aid the researcher. But the trick is finding these additional records.

What it boils down to is that locating burials is still genealogical research. The large online databases simplify the process in many, many cases, but there is still more work to be done even if you have a listing of the burial. There are a multitude of associated records that may be available about the death, the burial and the cemetery. I suggest that finding the grave is only the first of many challenges.

4 comments:

  1. It is wise to emphasize *may* in "a cemetery is a location where some information about our ancestors may be located."

    The majority of my ancestors were not interred in large community / incorporated or religious burial grounds. I can surmise burial in a family farm site, with or without a marker of some sort. But such burials may only have been recalled by near relatives who may never have written references to them (even if able to write). Markers may have been removed by subsequent farm owners. Graves may have been plowed over for cultivation or pasturage or a housing development or a coal/gas extraction.

    So while it is helpful to recommend searching for gravestones, burial records of various types and other documentation, the dear reader should not be told that such records usually exist.

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    1. I think "usually exist" is the correct way to refer to burial records. Your own lines may not conform but burial records for burials may exist even if the actual burial location is no longer recognizable as such. Depending on the dates, check the newspapers for death notices.

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  2. I really disagree with "usually." If a person born in late 20th century is considering only previous 4 or 5 generations, newspapers may well be available and most people were urban-dwellers who probably were interred in cemeteries where markers survive and burial records of some type were kept by cemetery organization, municipality or State.

    Most of my ancestors passed before 1835 where no newspapers noticed deaths other than those of Important Persons, and burials were mostly farmstead-local. I have read that the 1930s was when the majority of US population became urban-dwelling. A hundred years earlier? Not my folks, and they were in the great majority of rural-dwellers. The decedents in the 225 years post-1607 in present America are not all that likely to have been buried with stable stone markers in organized cemeteries. The persons who were likely to have had some kind of actual burial record were unusual compared with the majority population, with exceptions in some parts of (say) Massachusetts, VA, MD, and the Carolinas.

    Much depends on time and place. We should not confuse conditions in the late 19th-century forward with earlier times.

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    1. Your argument is persuasive, I concede.

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