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Monday, February 8, 2016

Why are Vital Records Vital to Genealogists? Part Six -- More About Death, Interment and Burial

This post is a continuation of a series on vital records. You can see the other posts in the series at the end of this post. has a database of over 400,000 cemeteries in 200 countries around the world. is a newer website with the goal to have over 1,000,000,000 graves in their database. It is a good idea to search both websites. For military graves, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration maintains a Nationwide Gravesite Locator. Here are some additional websites with information about graves and cemeteries.
Event with all the cemetery records online, sometimes there is no substitute for actually visiting an ancestor's burial site. The information gained from finding and exploring the cemetery may be just a perspective on the ancestor's life, but in some cases serious genealogical issues may be resolved by the placement of the graves and the information gained from adjacent gravestones. I hear a lot of accounts of genealogists tramping around looking for and examining cemeteries sometimes with surprising results. Gaining access to a cemetery can be an adventure and searching a cemetery can lead to encounters with dogs, angry bulls, snakes and other hazards. Almost every dedicated genealogical researcher can relate a few good cemetery stories.

If you are going to go graveyard hunting, it is good idea to know a little bit about the best practices for preserving the gravestones and the cemeteries themselves. Many well meaning researchers damage the cemeteries in their zeal to find their ancestors' graves. Here is a selection of books on graveyard or cemetery preservation.

Association for Gravestone Studies, and Association for Gravestone Studies. AGS Field Guide ... Greenfield, Mass.: Association for Gravestone Studies, 2003.

Baker, F. Joanne, Daniel L Farber, Anne G Giesecke, and Association for Gravestone Studies. Recording Cemetery Data. Greenfield, MA: Association for Gravestone Studies, 2003.

Carter, Thomas A, Jason Ferber, Dale Moore, Leslie Wyman, Jeff Michel, Jim Baker, Ozarks Public Television, and Missouri State University. Graveyard Restoration and Preservation. [Springfield, Mo.]: Ozarks Public Television, Missouri State University, 2010.

Chicora Foundation. Grave Matters: The Preservation of African-American Cemeteries. Columbia, S.C.: Chicora Foundation, 1996.

Maxwell, Ingval, Ratish Nanda, Dennis Urquhart, Historic Scotland, and Technical Conservation Research and Education Division. Conservation of Historic Graveyards. Edinburgh: Historic Scotland, 2001.

Strangstad, Lynette, and Association for Gravestone Studies. A Graveyard Preservation Primer. Nashville, TN: AASLH Press in cooperation with the Association for Gravestone Studies, 1988.

One of the first places to look for information about the death of a relative or ancestor is in the local newspapers. If your ancestor was a prominent citizen or died in a particularly unusual way, you might also search newspapers of more general circulation. In some cases, accounts of your ancestor's death may be found in newspapers scattered across the entire country. Obviously, obituaries are a good source of death information and usually contain more about the family of the deceased. But if your ancestor died as a result of an illness, accident or violence there may also be a news account of the incident. There are hundreds of newspaper archives and online repositories from huge sources such as, and the Library of Congress' Chronicling America to local websites with one newspaper series. You can do a search for newspapers by using the search terms "digital newspaper collections online" and find many websites. Some of these websites are subscription websites that charge a fee, but others, such as the Library of Congress are free. Some of the large online genealogical database companies, such as and have very large collections of newspapers included in their subscriptions. In some cases, the newspaper collections may be an add-on at an addition subscription price.

Finding mortuary records can be a challenge. It is not unusual for funeral parlors or mortuaries to keep detailed records. In the event the mortuary or funeral home goes out of business, the records were commonly transferred to another local, similar business. Some of these presently operating businesses have records dating back over a hundred years or more. Unfortunately, few of these records have made it online. The only way to find the records may be to call or pay a visit to every local mortuary in the area where your ancestor may have died.

Military records that include death records are maintained primarily by the National Archives or Very few records are available on the website, but large numbers of records are located on the website owned by

It is also possible, if your ancestor died in a work related accident, that information concerning the death could be preserved in the company records. This is more likely to be true for a railroad or mining or other heavy industry accident. Many of the trade magazines of the various industries also tend to publish accounts of serious accidents resulting in death. Likewise, if your ancestor was a sailor or merchant marine, you may be able to find a record from the newspaper or the ancestor's employer.

As we go back in time the job of researching death records becomes more difficult. The key to finding more records is determining your ancestors' church affiliation. Many denominations kept a record of burials and a some of those records even mention the date of death. The most complete and available of these church records come from the parish registers maintained by the Catholic and Protestant churches of Europe and to some extent in the Catholic portions of the United States. In some countries, such as those in Latin America, Catholic Church records are the primary source of vital record information. In the United States the availability and coverage of any such records that have survived depends on the denomination. It may take some considerable searching to find the records. If you can't determine your ancestors' church affiliation, it is a good idea to search all of the denominations' records in the area where the ancestor may have died.

Here are the previous installments of this series.


  1. I believe you mean interment, not internment. The former is burial, the latter is imprisonment (as in the internment camps in WWII). So the burial-listing site is