How to Use Cemeteries to Find Your Ancestors
Cemeteries are an exceptional resource for discovering details about your ancestors to add to your family tree. Whether you’re searching for birth information, maiden names, or additional family members, gravesites can enlighten you to an abundance of facts about your family’s past.
But if you don’t know where to begin when conducting genealogy research in a cemetery, it can be more than overwhelming! Thankfully, we’ve compiled the following basic steps to help you get acquainted with your first ancestral quest through a cemetery.
Steps for Conducting Cemetery Research for Genealogy
Step 1: Plan and Prep Before You Search
If you don’t know which family member you’re searching for, then you can’t conduct genealogy research in a cemetery! Rather than taking to a cemetery and wandering around aimlessly, it’s important to create a solid plan of attack beforehand. Here’s how:
- List out all of the ancestors you’re searching for.
- Search death certificates or obituaries and record your ancestors’ death dates by location. You can also use these records to find out where your ancestor is buried.
- If you can’t readily find where your ancestor is buried, consider contacting funeral homes in the area where your ancestor died. Funeral directors can be valuable sources of information when it comes to local cemeteries and burial locations.
- Ask family members if they have death records or burial information on particular ancestors’ deaths.
Once you know where your ancestors are buried, you should contact each cemetery you plan to visit as they can assist you with plot records, plat maps and other helpful research tools.
Tip! Check out these links on Cyndi’s List that can aid in your search for death records.
Step 2: Locate the Gravesite of Your Ancestor
If your ancestor is buried in a large cemetery, you should be able to access grave locations and cemetery maps in order to find a gravesite easily. Most cemeteries are also typically divided by section, row and plot, so keep this in mind before you start searching. If you’re visiting a more rural or older cemetery, it’s good to know that burials either started near the road or even in the back. If you know your ancestor’s date of death, then it can be a good clue whether they were buried near the middle, back or front of the cemetery. Once you figure out where your ancestor’s gravesite is located, look for additional family gravestones near it as you could potentially find even more information on additional family members.
Tip! These essential sites can help you locate your ancestors’ gravestones online.
Step 3: Take Accurate Notes & Record Your Sources Correctly
Finding the gravesite of a long-lost ancestor can certainly be exciting, but don’t allow your achievement to distract you from recording your source of information and jotting down important notes. Keep a notebook handy and scribble down your ancestor’s name, date of death, how long they lived and other written or decorative information found on the gravestone (front and back). It’s also important to make note of the gravestone’s condition, how large it is, the width and any other information that may be helpful to you or other researchers later.
Next, try using the following general citation template for offline genealogy records:
- Name of the record source
- The exact location where you found the source
- The type of source (gravestone)
- Who the source may belong to (if anyone)
Tip! For more information on citing genealogical sources, including death records, check out our helpful source citation guide.
Step 4: Snap a Picture
While handwritten notes and source citations are invaluable when it comes to recording your fascinating family finds, taking pictures of ancestors’ gravesites are also important for record-keeping purposes. Think about adding digital photos of your ancestors’ headstones or footstones to your online family tree to create instant backups of your pictures that your other family members can also access. Then add pictures of the stones to cemetery records search sites like Find A Grave which may be helpful to other genealogists who are conducting their own research.
Tip! In addition to taking photos of your ancestor’s gravestone, think about snapping panoramic pictures of the cemetery itself, or even of the entrance so you can further document your discovery.