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

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Unmarked Graves

During the past years I have participated in several activities to record gravemarkers at the City of Mesa Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona. In a recent effort, I helped my daughter and son-in-law with a very modest effort on my part, while they and their children photographed all of the gravemarkers in the entire cemetery for But in the midst of that tremendous effort on the part of their family, I came to realize the numbers of people buried in that one cemetery who did not have the benefit of a gravemarker. This was brought home to me again in answering a query from to take a photograph of a gravemarker.

After a few minutes of research in the Cemetery's website, I found the cemetery record in the form of a PDF document of the gravesites with those without markers clearly indicated. This over 1100 page document contains thousands of names and has approximately 31 burials on every page. I could see that almost every page had a number of burials where the existence of a gravemarker was marked "no."

It is abundantly evident that websites such as and are extraordinarily useful to genealogists. But we should remember that not all of our ancestors had the opportunity to have their graves marked and that it is important to search the cemetery records recording internments, not just lists of gravemarkers. In this regard, I recently finished a project to scan the burial permits for the City of Mesa Cemetery. These records are now on the Historical Record Collection. I am certain that this type of record exists in many, many other cemeteries across our country and around the world. I would suggest that those interested in cemetery preservation concentrate on preserving, indexing and where possible, digitizing these records so that those graves without gravemarkers may also be preserved.


  1. This is a very good point, including "But we should remember that not all of our ancestors had the opportunity to have their graves marked and that it is important to search the cemetery records recording internments, not just lists of gravemarkers."

    The vast majority of burials were not accompanied by any record at all, in old farm cemeteries rather than in church burial grounds where there may have been surviving burial records kept, or in modern incorporated ones. Interments before there were local newspapers that published death data, before death records that might mention burials, before there were local funeral homes and before modern permitting procedures may have been recorded nowhere.

    This does not mean that continued digging might not turn up a local business or personal journal that could mention deaths or funerals, or a family Bible record that could mention such items. But the cemetery interment records you found are relatively rare treasures.

  2. Hi James-

    In a future post, would you be able to tell us more about the pilot program that you participated in to digitize the Mesa Cemetery records for FamilySearch and how people can get involved it in? I know of many cemetery records around where I live that I know haven't been microfilmed or digitized by FamilySearch. I also know of one cemetery record ledger in private possession. I would like to participate in this digitization effort, if possible.


  3. James, thanks for mentioning Billion Graves. I am a Find A Grave member but never heard of Billion Graves before.

    There are certainly many, many who have no markers or who once had a wooden marker that no longer exists. Any way to remember them is great.

  4. Comparing cemetery records to tombstones inscriptions for a large public cemetery here in Rochester, NY, it becomes clear that about a third of the burials don't have tombstones. Family plots are the best for having tombstones. Then there are "single grave" lots that only have one tombstone for every 20 graves. Luckily the cemetery burial records go back to 1837 and all but the last 20 years are online thanks to a local University.