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

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Strategies for Locating the Unburied

What do you do to find the burial location of someone who died without being buried? Now, think about this question a little. There is no burial location for someone who wasn't buried. This includes the multitude of people buried "at sea." It also includes the huge number of people who are now and in the past were cremated.  This points out a basic issue with genealogical research: you can't find what is not there. In fact, that is now going to become my second Rule of Genealogy. As I thought about it, I also discovered the Third Rule of Genealogy.

Here we are with the three rules I have so far:

First Rule of Genealogy: When the baby was born, the mother was there.

Second Rule of Genealogy: You can't find what's not there.

Third Rule of Genealogy: Everyone dies.

Over the years, I have talked to lots of people who have been searching for years without success for documentation of a specific event in an ancestor's life, i.e. birth record, death record, marriage record etc. The reality is that there may be no record. Births were not always recorded and likewise marriages and deaths may have never been officially recorded. If you find someone's marriage record, it is evident that they were born. The same conclusion can also be made about their death. It is true that records of these important events are helpful especially in differentiating one person with a similar name from another, but it is unfortunate when a researcher fixates on a particular event at the expense of doing broader research.

The any number of reasons why an ancestors burial location cannot be determined. Here are a few suggested issues:
  • The ancestor died at sea
  • The ancestor was in the military and died in an unexpected location
  • The ancestor war buried in a mass grave
  • The ancestor was too poor to have a grave marker and was buried, if at all, in a paupers grave
  • The ancestor was cremated
  • The ancestor died on the Plains
  • The ancestor wandered off and was lost and died
There are probably many more reasons, but they all add up to the same set of circumstances; a person's burial may not have been recorded.

During the past two or three hundred years, if you are interested in finding a death notice, the very first place to look is in a newspaper. Genealogists have a huge number of online, digitized newspaper websites, both subscription and free, that might contain mention of a death under circumstances where the person's body was never recovered and hence, there was no burial. Here is an example from the "The Scranton tribune., August 10, 1898, Page 7, Image 7:"

The entire article lists well over 100 major shipwrecks. This is only one example of the challenge. But this is the reason for the Third Rule of Genealogy. We can assume that after 110 years or so, that everyone is dead. There are very few reasons why some official mention of the death is crucial to identifying an individual. Do you know if one of your ancestors was or was not on one of the boats that sank at sea listed above? 

The key to solving these types of missing document problems involves expanding your search to a wider selection of documents. Here is a list of alternatives places to look for death records from the Research Wiki with some of my own additions:
This list could go on an list nearly every type of record imaginable. You never really know where a mention of a death may pop up. The more you learn about an individual and their family, the more likely it will be that you will find a record mentioning their death. 


  1. This 'lack of a grave site' for one ancestor is my biggest self-imposed brick wall. I say self-imposed because I have 'good leads' (maybe not full GSP proof, but strong evidence) about ever other 'vital' aspect of one patriarch's life, EXCEPT his grave, and it just bugs me. I just cannot put this aside and go on, not knowing, for 2 reasons. First I cannot hyper-link him to his parents, siblings, wives or children in FindAGrave (which I love to use), and the aspect that a tombstone is the one 'concrete' (or marble or stone) evidence of a person's life. Courthouses get burned, churches 'go out of business', oral traditions seldom last long in a reliable form, family Bibles wind up on EBay, and any good genealogist / family historian quickly gets back to the era before paper records were common, but a tombstone really is 'chiseled in stone'.
    If I could find paper evidence of this one ancestor’s burial with no tombstone, I would pay for his marker, even now, 132 years late.
    I have even considered advertising in the most likely counties (where he died, where his parents are buried, where his 2 wives are buried and where his children are buried), advertising that I would pay a REWARD to 'gravers' for finding his grave!
    I know where Carmen SanDiego is. I can find Waldo. They have finally found the watery grave of Amelia Earhart, the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, and the trail of Virginia Dare… but like that guy perpetual calling for Phillip Morris, I fear I will go to my grave still seeking the grave of
    Drayton Berry Armstrong,
    who died on Dec 22, 1884, in or near Oakland, around the border between Tallahatchie and Yalobusha Counties in Mississippi!

    1. All I can say is good luck and read the newspapers.

  2. For record of death, you could add to your list a narrative in a Deed or Court record. For one ancestor, the sole found notice of his death was notation that his divorce suit was abated by his death; the entry is only ante quem for death, and place of death still unknown.