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| Vital Records
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|Overview of Vital Records|
|Births and Deaths in Public Records|
|List of Useful Vital Record References|
Cemetery records and headstone inscriptions are also sources of birth and death information. The custom of burying the dead in areas set aside for that purpose goes back thousands of years, but the genealogist’s interest focuses mainly on historic periods in Jewish and Christian communities. The records of this type most commonly found are church burial registers, sextons’ records, cemetery deed and plot registers, burial permit records, grave opening orders, and monument (gravestone) inscriptions.
Such records usually supplement standard sources of genealogical information, but sometimes they represent the only information that can be found pertaining to the birth and death of an ancestor. Using these records effectively requires specific knowledge of their content, availability, and location. The following section, based on Arlene Eakle’s How to Search a Cemetery, appeared in the first edition of The Source. It has since undergone extensive revision by Jeanne Gentry, president of the Oregon Historic Cemeteries Association, and Lynette Strangstad, a consultant on burial ground preservation and author of A Graveyard Preservation Primer. Johni Cerny and Sandra Luebking added the new material in this edition and the updated Reference list.
Searching in cemeteries compensates for the effort it requires if only for the information cemeteries provide about children under the age of twenty-one. In the twenty-first century, where the death rate for children is fewer than eight per one thousand live births, we often fail to realize that the local cemetery may contain the only evidence of some young nineteenth-century lives.
The cemetery is also, sadly enough, sometimes the only place to find real evidence of some women’s lives. A woman, hidden in her father’s household during her growing years and recorded in pre-1850 censuses as “female 5–10 years of age,” who dies before 1850, may be located under her given name for the first time on her headstone.
For example, James Bell, born in 1773, was married three times and lost two wives in childbirth. His first wife, twenty-five-year-old Sarah, died four hours after giving birth to twins, both of whom survived. His second wife, also named Sarah, died at age seventeen, thirty-five days after giving birth to a namesake daughter who also died thirty-one days later. The third wife, Margaret, died at age sixty-eight. Their son James is buried between his parents in the cemetery of the old Stone Church in Fort Defiance, Virginia. The family Bible and the cemetery plot are the only records of the existence of these women.
Even though colonial gravestones are often long-since gone or illegible, the surviving gravestones in a cemetery are important sources of information for immigrants. Sometimes the only recording of the original surname is on a gravestone, overlooked by a genealogist who was unaware that the family name had been Americanized and thus missed the original spelling in the alphabetical list. Had the grave plot itself been checked, the person’s juxtaposition to known family members would have drawn attention to the difference in the name. The period of time when the largest number of immigrants arrived—1820 to 1920—coincides with gravestones that have survived.
Types of Cemeteries
The Church Burial Yard
Most churches, until around World War II, were constructed on lots large enough to provide their members with burial grounds. Even churches in large cities had adjacent burial yards. Some of these still exist; however, as cities grew, church membership increased, and real estate values rose, the need for larger burial facilities developed. Burial grounds were established in the suburbs while the old plots were used as building sites. Sometimes the graves were moved; sometimes they were not.
Most local civil jurisdictions in the United States have some sort of public burial ground. Some are maintained by the counties; however, most of them are village, town, township, or city burial sites. Some national and state jurisdictions maintain burial facilities for veterans and their families.
Family Burial Plots
Family burial grounds are still common in rural areas of the United States. With the enforcement of health codes that require burial permits, the use of licensed morticians, and regulations governing health hazards, such private plots are disappearing. In the nineteenth century or earlier, most rural families had family burial sites; usually the site was on the farm first settled by the family in the area. These cemeteries are the most difficult to locate, but obviously they are most valuable for establishing family identity. Today properties on which those cemeteries are located are often in the hands of unrelated persons. Fences are left in disrepair and gravestones are often overturned, broken, buried, carried away, or otherwise lost. Some, however, are still well preserved and cared for by descendants or local historical societies.
Commercial Memorial Parks
Since World War II, with the development of large, highly transient city populations, a new sort of burial institution has come into being: the commercially owned and operated nonsectarian facility.
Types of Records
Entries in burial registers are chronological as the funerals occurred. If the registrar noted which plot the person was buried in, you can sometimes deduce relationships, a valuable clue because gravestones may have been destroyed or never placed on the grave, women’s maiden names are often not recorded, and children may not have been mentioned in previous records.
Church Burial Registers
Churches that have affiliated burial grounds usually maintain records of interments in their burial registers. These records sometimes include the names of other family members, as the following register from Killinger’s Church shows.
- (62) 1826. Jan. 7, Buried Isaac Lotch, son of Johannes & Elisabeth Lotch. b. May 20, 1822; bapt. May 10, 1823, by Rev. Hemping. d. Jan. 6, 1826, cause: Gichtern. age: 3 yrs. 8 most less 4 days.
- Jan. 10, Buried Daniel Deiwler, in the David’s cong. son of Albrecht & Catharina Deiwler. b. Febr. 16, 1771, in Upper Paxton twp. Dauphin county. bapt. by Rev. Mr. Enderlein. married in 1795 to Anna Maria Fissler. They had 11 children, 5 sons & 6 daughters. d. Jan. 9, 1826, Cause: Hitziges Fieber. age 54 yrs. 10 most 24 days.
- Jan. 11, buried in Hoffman’s congr. Margaretha Hoffman, da. of Johannes & Catharina Herman. b. Nov. 7, 1753 in Heidelberg twp. Berks county. bapt. & confirmed in Lutheran religion. married Apr. 22, 1772, Johann Nicolaus Hoffman. They had 12 children, 6 sons & 6 daughters. 2 daughters preceded her as also her husband, d. Apr. 28, ’14; cause of death: Pilger’s Fieber. d. Jan 9, 1826, survived by 84 grandchildren & 21 great-grandchildren. Age: 72 yrs, 2 most 2 days.
Finding such registers today presents a problem. Some have been placed in central church archives or church-affiliated university libraries; some have descended through the heirs of ministers or clerks along with other personal effects; some are stored in the original meetinghouses. In short, you may have to hunt for them.
All municipal cemeteries, many large denominational facilities shared by two or more churches in a community, all commercially operated memorial parks, and a few large family burial grounds have offices or official caretakers where you can expect to find a registry of burials called the sexton’s book (figure 13-15). Such records also list the plots available—occupied, owned, or not owned—described in sufficient detail for sale and resale. The sexton’s record is thus an accurate record of cemetery deeds and plats.
The original cemetery deeds, like the deeds to any real estate, are given to the owner of the plat; however, recorded copies are retained by the sexton in separate cemetery deed books. Sales, transfers, and bequests of title to this property are duly recorded also.
In areas before local governments were functioning effectively, graves were dug where convenient with no concept of plots; often, the burial wasn’t recorded. With the platting of cemeteries, selling of plots, and registering of deeds, attempts were made to record earlier burials. In many instances, the names and burial dates could be obtained, but the actual location of the grave was lost. Figure 13-16 is a plat record that was reconstructed after burials in the last four decades of the nineteenth century; for that reason, it is incomplete.
Burial Permit Records
Since around 1920, state health departments have regulated burials. Today, very few jurisdictions permit burials except by licensed morticians, who either obtain or determine that someone else has obtained a certified burial permit from the city or county authority. These records constitute another valuable source of burial information.
Grave Opening Orders===
Most cemeteries preserve records of all grave openings, whether for burial, postmortem exhumation, or transfer of body. These records are known as grave opening orders and usually begin around the time of state registration of deaths. The order shown in figure 13-17 is for a new grave. We can deduce that Matilda Bennion was an adult because children are buried in graves less than five feet in length. Amy Fowler was probably a relative. A researcher would be able to find the death certificate rapidly because its number is given.
While family Bible records are more appropriately classified as home sources, they are also a primary source—sometimes the only source—for private burials. Usually, such Bibles are still in family hands; however, it has become increasingly popular for local and regional historical societies and other agencies to acquire the personal effects of original settlers and early families of their areas. The National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., also have collections of Bible records sent as evidence in various claims against the United States government. These pages have been removed from their case files and arranged in alphabetical order. Lists of the Bible records are available upon request.
Monuments and Memorials
Few experiences in family history offer more intrigue, interest, and even recreation than searching for monuments and their inscriptions. Even when written records are available and seemingly complete, these sources should always be used.
Prominent, influential, and affluent families often present special gifts—stained glass windows, altar pieces, sacramental services, confessionals, ornaments, statues—in the name and memory of their deceased relatives. Plaques or inscriptions give names, dates, and relationships of those involved with such gifts.
Sometimes the family may make contributions in lieu of flowers toward a special trust fund, organization, or project in the memory of a deceased loved one. Records are often maintained of all who contribute, the amount of the contribution, and the date made. Indications of this type of memorial will be found in newspaper accounts, court records, home sources, and the records of the person or institution responsible for the fund or project.
The burial of a loved one in a tomb or raised vault rather than a grave is customary among some ethnic groups and is the practice of some families. These tombs are normally in a special part of the cemetery or in mausoleums created expressly for this purpose. The inscriptions found on the tombs themselves are similar to regular monument inscriptions. The decoration of the tomb is an important part of the memorial. Burial registers may be stored in a special cupboard inside the tomb.
The ashes of the cremated are usually placed in urns and preserved in vaults at the crematory itself, at the cemetery where the other family members are interred, or in the home of a family member. Inscriptions may be etched on a plaque or other label.
Monuments with inscriptions are extremely varied, ranging from wooden crosses rotted into illegibility to long marble slabs with paragraphs of biography inscribed upon them. Dates of birth and death, places of birth and death (especially when far removed from the place of burial), names of parents, names of spouses, occupation, brothers and sisters, and special circumstances of life can be found. Some typical inscriptions follow.
From a cemetery in Manchester, Vermont:
- In Memory of Rufus Munson, who Died Sept. 13th, 1797 in the 35th year of his Age & left a Widow & four children of the first two letters of thare names is thus:
- C.M: G.M: B.M: P.M:
From Old Burying Ground, Newport, Rhode Island:
|Wait daughtr of||Also William|
|William and||their son|
|Desire Tripp||died March|
|died April 24||7th 1784 Aged|
|1780 aged 10||22 mo|
|mo 10 days|
- Also his Wife’s Arm
- Amputated Feby 20th 1786
From a cemetery in Norton, Massachusetts:
- In Memory of
- Mr Joseph Hill
- Who Died
- Dec 6, 1826
- Aged 66 years
- My sledge & Hammer ly reclined
- My Bellows too have lost their wind.
- My fire’s extinct My forge decayed
- And [in] the dust my vice is laid;
- My iron’s spent my coals are gone
- My nail are drove My work is done.
From a cemetery in Mottville, Michigan:
- Ransom Beardsley
- Died Jan 24 1850
- Aged 56 yr. 7 mot 21 days
- A Vol. in the War of 1812
- No Pension!
Genealogists should also be aware of indirect evidence that can be found in monument decorations. Decorations can express occupations, age, sex, interests, cause of death, religious affiliation, membership in ethnic and fraternal organizations, and philosophies of life.A useful list, titled "Gravestone Art, Symbols, Emblems, and Attributes," is in appendix A of Sharon DeBartolo Carmack</ref> Such details are rarely recorded by transcribers, but sketches and photographs can preserve these symbolic messages.
The date when the stone was placed on the grave is very important. Obviously, one placed two days after the funeral is usually more reliable than one placed fifty years later, although there are exceptions. Gravestones, like cars, have distinctive styles and materials depending upon the year they were made that can provide clues about the time of placement. The attached image provides some typical examples.
By carefully studying the vintage of the gravestone, the researcher can more accurately determine the validity of its inscription. Modern gravestones with ancient dates indicate replacement of an earlier gravestone or considerable time lapse between death and grave marker.
Most older and some new graves sink, leaving a slightly depressed area outlining the dimensions of the grave. If no age or birth date is given, you can determine which graves are of children and which are of adults by measuring which are more than five feet in length.
When you search a cemetery, you should arrive with as many clues as you can: surname variants, people who married into your family, maiden names of women on your pedigree, and dates of settlement and migration into and out of the area. Be sure to check land records and county or town histories to learn precisely when and where the first family member settled in the area, when and from where subsequent members of the family arrived in the area, precise property descriptions for graveyards located on family land or nearby farms, land reserved for burial grounds or conveyed to church or township authorities, bequests in wills to maintain a graveyard, location of families in relationship to churches in the area, church affiliations of family members, and the location of families in relationship to cities and villages in the county.
Check death certificates for the names of all cemeteries in which family members are buried. Usually, family members are buried in clusters. Even where surnames are familiar, consider the probability that persons buried nearby are related to you. Acquire death certificates for all children of the pedigree ancestor you are seeking.
Cemetery Research Projects
Investigate the possibility of cemetery research projects in the area of your ancestry. Some are one-person operations and some are large-scale projects carried out under the supervision of a project director. Some projects index names of those buried in a particular cemetery, township, or county; others build databases of tombstone inscriptions. The results of these efforts may be online at personal, organizational, or commercial websites.
An international project of the Jewish Genealogical Society is JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR). This is a database of names and other identifying information from cemeteries and burial records worldwide, from the earliest records to the present. The master index is at http://www.jewishgen.org/databases/cemetery.
Another ongoing project is the USGenWeb Tombstone Transcription Project. This has a very large collection of cemetery records contributed by vollunteers, as well as an index to nearly 8 million obituaries, which generally tell where interment took place. The Cemetery Transcription Library currently has 3.5 million records from 7,500 cemeteries around the world and adds new information daily. You can search millions of cemetery records (and find photographs of many tombstones) at Find A Grave. Both sites encourage users to submit records and have downloadable software available for that purpose. The attached chart features some excellent websites related to cemeteries, tombstone inscriptions, and obituaries.
Check printed compilations of cemetery inscriptions. Earning the gratitude of all researchers, county and state genealogical societies, in cooperation with Boy Scout troops, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, university and college units, and other interested parties have restored, copied, indexed, and otherwise preserved the information from gravestones. The results are printed in scattered volumes of local proceedings, newsletters, and journals. The inscriptions are copied by people who know local surnames and who may know where persons are buried for whom there are no gravestones. The volume is usually indexed and will have a location map showing where cemeteries are in relation to modern roads.
Consult card indexes to inscriptions of cemetery associations (where they exist) for locations of cemeteries and plots. These indexes can save you hours of searching time and provide evidence of family members unknown to you who may be buried nearby. Some cemetery associations active in the United States today are shown in the attached chart. Most associations publish newsletters and hints on how to copy gravestone data or how to preserve cemeteries, including funding resources and work assignments. Some publish maps showing locations of cemeteries or display the sites on their Web pages, along with cemetery databases and links to cemetery-related sites.
If the cemetery name is not known, a county-wide search can be conducted. Procure a detailed county or city map with churches and cemeteries marked on it. County road maps are usually available through county or state highway departments, assessors’ offices, or registrars of deeds. In rural areas, it is also helpful to have a U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle map for the area you are researching, because some inactive cemeteries may not be indicated on the current county map. Mark the cemeteries nearest the land holdings or residences of family members directly on your map.
If the name of a cemetery is known, try searching for its location at the U.S. Bureau on Geographic Names website. If a cemetery is located, the response will identify the correct USGS 7.5 series map and give the latitude and longitude of the property. A link is offered to http://www.topozone.com where the cemetery will be shown on a USGS series map. Another option is to link to TerraServer for a contemporary aerial photograph of the terrain.
Many cemetery and tombstone inscription projects are including Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates in their data files. Coordinates are also available from the search at the U.S. Board on Geographical Names described previously. Having the GPS location makes finding the cemetery easy. Graves also may be identified with GPS and adding the coordinates to transcription notes will mark the grave’s location despite heavy snow or changes in terrain. For example, Samuel J. Kitterman, 1874–1968, is buried in the Kitterman Cemetery, Wapello County, Iowa. The grave’s coordinate is 41° 02’ 31” N 92° 20’ 34” W.
If these processes seem elaborate, consider that a county may cover more than six hundred square miles. You could spend hours driving and asking local residents, who may know less than you do about the area, without ever locating the cemetery where your ancestors are buried.
When searching for family burial plots, you are dependent upon your own keen observation and the help of local residents once you are within half a mile of the cemetery’s location. Since the 1930s, increasingly large acreages left unattended have succumbed to weeds, brambles, and trees. Some of this land is in the federal land bank. Some has been left by owners who now work in industry. It is not uncommon to find a property owner who is unaware of a burial plot in his or her woods. The best help may come from older residents who have lived in the area for years or young boys who enjoy rabbit and grouse hunting.
In areas where land use has changed from agricultural to urban or industrial, few local people actually know where cemeteries have been relocated, but local historical societies have done much to preserve records of them.
When a dam is built, with subsequent flooding of local areas, or a freeway planned or an energy reservation set aside, surveys of local cemeteries are made to determine if any will be disturbed and, if so, where the bodies will be reinterred. These reinterment projects produce generally accurate records of all graves and inscriptions. Efforts are made to identify the occupants of unmarked graves using family records, the memories of local residents, and public documents.
These interments are usually recorded on file cards that are arranged alphabetically within geographic areas. They are open to the public through mail, e-mail, or telephone requests and the information is usually available without charge or for a minimal copying fee. A good example is the Tennessee Valley Authority, with its thousands of maps, cemetery inscriptions, and other valuable materials all along the Tennessee River. Some maps and cemetery inscriptions are available through the TVA Map Store, 1101 Market Street, Chattanooga, TN 37402-2801. A full list of maps is available at their website.
Military facilities sometimes relocate graves as well. Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell, Nebraska, opened in 1873 to consolidate twenty-two cemeteries in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Idaho, and Nebraska. By 1947, the project had been completed. The cemetery is carefully plotted and indexed with control markers throughout the grounds; even so, there are 584 “unknown” graves. Copies of these records are in the National Archives, at Fort McPherson in Maxwell, Nebraska, or online at http://www.interment.net.
Churches that were moved during the years of their existence usually have more than one burial ground. For example, the old cemetery of the Augusta Stone Church in Fort Defiance, Augusta County, Virginia, is walled and stands behind a screen of trees. On a hillside within the walls is the grave of Rachel (Crawford) Berry, who was born on 18 April 1812 and died on 23 May 1832, wife of Thornton Berry. One hundred yards away in the Crawford family plot lies her ten-year-old son, James. Across the main highway lies another portion of the cemetery. This adjoins the new Augusta Stone Church. There lies Thornton Berry, who died on 11 December 1882 at age seventy-two, and his second wife, Nancy, who died in April (year illegible) at age eighty-one, and other members of his family. Had the old portion, which is not visible from the road, been overlooked, the graves of Thornton’s first wife and son would not have been found.
It was fairly common for congregations to split during controversies and for the dissenting unit to build separate facilities—meetinghouse and cemetery—a few miles away. An example is found in Virginia. New Providence congregation broke with Old Providence over the procedure of singing hymns in meetings in the early nineteenth century. As a result, there are two churches and two cemeteries located only two miles apart. Sometimes the two congregations reunite at a later time and build a third meetinghouse, closing down the previous two. Furthermore, because it is common for members of the same family to have belonged to different churches, you should plan to search all cemeteries in the immediate vicinity of the family home, regardless of religious affiliations.
The procedure to follow in locating graves differs somewhat depending upon the size of the cemetery. The sexton’s records, when they exist, should be searched first regardless of the size or type of gravestone. By looking at the names, you can locate females with surnames of interest who are buried under married names in the plots of other relatives who have surnames unknown to you.
Family cemeteries are usually very small and without sexton’s records. You should, therefore, read every gravestone to determine which graves are those of ancestral families. For very large public, church, and private cemeteries, consult the various kinds of sexton’s records to determine when family members were buried and the exact locations of each one. Then check the master plat or map showing the individual cemetery plats and their smaller subdivisions (sections, blocks, tiers, etc.) to determine the locations of graves for the period of time in which you are interested. Some cemeteries provide smaller map reproductions on which you can mark the gravesites in which you are particularly interested.
Searching in Cemeteries
It is best to explore cemeteries with one or more companions rather than conducting a search alone. Drive through or walk around the cemetery before examining individual gravestones. Absorb some of the atmosphere of the setting. Consider the location, the upkeep and condition, size, presence of above-ground burials, fenced-off or enclosed sections, plantings, artwork and statuary, presence of the graves of prominent citizens, positioning of gravestones and their relationship to others, and color and material of the stones. These elements provide evidence of ethnic graveyards, the economic base of the community, historical events, lifestyle and outlook of local residents, and other details.
Next, focus on individual gravestones, looking for naming patterns in the plots. A large name stone in the center with smaller stones around it bearing only given names may indicate Swedish origins. If the smaller gravestones have relationships or initials only, it may indicate German origins.
Note the dates of death. Many gravestones with proximate death dates can indicate an epidemic, a weather disaster, a mine accident, or the close of a generation. For example, in the Darling, Minnesota, Swedish cemetery, burials took place starting about 1870. They were the children of the immigrant generation who arrived in Minnesota just before the turn of the century with their parents or were born shortly after their arrival in America.
A Swedish cemetery will have gravestones in gray, sand, pink, and other warm, soft colors. The setting will be uncluttered, with open spaces around the plots and scanty data on the stones. Polish graves have large, heavy black or red gravestones in rows, with precise dates and frequently the original spelling of the surname. Early New England and Virginia origins show up in ornate carvings of winged death heads, weeping willows, and all-seeing eyes on gravestones large enough to include the essential facts and a scriptural verse. These gravestones are liberally interspersed with flat, biographical gravestones giving full details of family relationships. Quaker gravestones were exactly twelve inches high until well into the nineteenth century. Quaker stones with incomplete or missing inscriptions may have been “oversize” monuments that Quaker leaders ordered trimmed to customary size.
Many cemeteries have special sections set aside for specific kinds of burials. The sexton’s records for the paupers’ section will be found among poor relief or workhouse records; African American, Asians, and Native Americans may be buried in “colored” sections; religious sections may contain Catholics, Jews, or Muslims. Those who died without the sacraments of a church may be found in an unconsecrated section of a religious cemetery. In Masonic sections, burials are in crypts or wall vaults. Watch for other sections as well.
The best time of year to conduct cemetery searches is in the early spring, after winter has killed the weeds and before spring briars and grasses begin growing or snakes come out of hibernation. Snow and winter rain will have removed some of the moss from the faces of the gravestones.
Many cemeteries, especially abandoned ones, harbor snakes, chiggers, poison ivy, thorns, and other natural hazards. Wear protective clothing, including gloves and sturdy shoes. Be alert for animals, uneven ground, and other hazards. A can of Mace or another eye-stinging mist may deter dogs. Again, knowledgeable cemetery searchers advise never going to a cemetery alone.
Reading and Photographing Gravestones
Whether an “expedition” to read cemetery stones is a personal or group project, make every effort to secure permission from the proper authorities in advance. Explain the nature of your work and be specific about how you intend to approach the reading or photography. Become familiar with the proper methods of care for these valuable and irreplaceable artifacts. Be aware that in some states practices deemed detrimental to tombstones are against the law.
The popular stones for markers in years gone by were often soft. Often, old inscriptions are so weathered they can hardly be deciphered. Furthermore, there may be an accumulation of moss or lichen on the gravestones. It is improper to use harsh abrasives or wire brushes to remove such growth because these measures further damage the inscriptions and are of questionable value even to the immediate user. Chalking is not a good practice; it can actually stain porous stone. If a gravestone must be cleaned, preservationists recommend gently brushing away loose material with a natural bristle brush, then wetting the gravestone with clean water. Carefully remove organic growth with a natural bristle brush, using a smaller brush to clean incised areas. Thoroughly rinse the stone with clean water and pat the surface dry with a soft towel.
For details on how to make a documentary photograph (as opposed to an artistically pleasing photograph), some good references are available. In Digitizing Your Family History, Rhonda McClure gives suggestions for using the special features of a digital camera to photograph gravestones. The chapter “An Introduction to Digital Photography” is a must-read for those contemplating the purchase of a digital camera. And her advice to those who buy is to become thoroughly familiar with your camera before you enter the cemetery.
Online, Steve Paul Johnson’s “Recording Cemeteries with Digital Photography” at http://www.interment.net/column/records/digital/digital.htm is instructive. Society leaders planning a cemetery recording project will note the increase in productivity with a camera. By hand this avid recorder could transcribe from 250 to 300 tombstones daily. Using a Palm II (handheld computer) he was able to do 75 to 100 tombstones per hour. After perfecting his technique with a digital camera, he can photograph 100 tombstones in 30 minutes without fatigue.
Photographers who prefer a thirty-five millimeter camera may consult, see Daniel and Jessie Lie Farber’s Making Photographic Records of Gravestones. The Farbers advise that documentary photographs be made only in brilliant sunlight. The light should fall across the face of the gravestone at an angle of approximately thirty degrees. If necessary, a mirror can be positioned to reflect sunlight across the stone. Never attempt to straighten a leaning or fallen gravestone. Doing so could result in permanent damage to the marker. Instead, tilt the camera to correspond with the lean of the stone. A thirty-five millimeter camera is recommended. For black-and-white photographs, tri-X film shot at a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second produces good results. Using a tripod and light meter can further enhance results.
While photographing produces an exact copy of the gravestone, it may not give you a legible reproduction of the text on the stone. Always copy the inscription in your notes in case the photograph does not turn out. And remember, the best preservation method of all is to share the information with others. Duplicate the results of a cemetery photography session and send copies to other family members. Or place the pictures online, perhaps at the USGenWeb Tombstone Transcription Project site. Search the Internet for collections by others, such as the Farber Gravestone Collection of over 13,500 images documenting the sculpture on more than 9,000 gravestones. Most of these stones date prior to 1800 and are in the Northeastern part of the United States. A website and online image database has been created by David Rumsey Cartography Association with the sponsorship of the American Antiquity Society.
Special Problems Encountered When Recording Gravestone Data
Making Gravestone Rubbings
The practice of making impressions by laying paper or fabric onto a tombstone and rubbing it with chalk or charcoal is viewed as potentially destructive by professional preservationists. The following caution, from cemetery conservation activist and author Lynette Strangstad, is worth repeating: “Gravestone rubbing should be strongly curtailed or eliminated due to potential damage to markers. Irreparable and significant damage has been done by people who thought they were careful and knowledgeable. In addition to the damage caused by pigment residue, most visitors are not able to accurately distinguish between sound gravestones and unstable ones. Because of the potential damage, rubbing is best avoided altogether.”
Markers frequently fall and are buried under an accumulation of undergrowth and topsoil. When working in poorly kept cemeteries, carry a probe long enough to gently check the ground eight to ten inches deep. Carefully check fence lines and hedgerows. Fallen markers that could not be easily replaced may have been carried to the side and propped against a fence or left on the ground. Though they cannot be readily identified with the appropriate plot, the inscriptions are still valuable. Notify the proper authorities of the locations of fallen markers; do not attempt to replace or repair them yourself.
When a new gravestone is prepared for a grave, there is always the possibility that the stonecutter will leave the original stone in place; you may thus find two gravestones for the same person. In very old cemeteries, you may also discover some apparent duplicates that are really a head-stone and a footstone. A gravestone for the same person may appear in a family cemetery or plot with a second gravestone in the cemetery where the person is actually buried.
Recording Cemetery Data
The more times you copy an inscription, the greater the chance of error. Therefore, take an ample supply of family group worksheets or research notepaper with you and transcribe the data directly on the worksheet or notepaper.
Most researchers copy only the direct genealogical data: dates and places of birth and death, parents, husband, and wife. Such a practice, however, can cause you to overlook the clues indicated in the selection of epitaphs: church affiliation, survivors, occupations, military service, cause of death, physical description, citizenship, and migration patterns.
Another reason for recording all that you find is the fragility of the site. Once you leave the site, the information may no longer be available to you. Many cemeteries are destroyed through vandalism, development, or other circumstances, and what you record on your visit may soon thereafter prove to be the only information available. Consider the potential needs of those working in related fields—landscape historians, archaeologists, folklorists, and preservationists, as well as future family historians who could benefit from your data. Always reread your notes for accuracy and completeness before leaving the cemetery, comparing them to the gravestones.
One manner of insuring a complete recording of data is to plot the site. Because people are usually buried in family units, drawing a diagram of each plot enables you to analyze graves in their relationships to others: size, location, gravestones, and so on. On the backs of your worksheets, sketch the gravestones as they appear in the plot; number each one, then list the inscription and description of the stone by the same number on the worksheets. Where family units are definite, record them on the same worksheet as a family; but where there is any question, list each one on a separate sheet and refer by number back to the plot you have drawn for the relationship of each individual grave to the entire plot. Figure 13-20 is an example taken from the Lexington Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Lexington, Virginia. The numbers refer to the inscription notes, which made it possible to analyze some family relationships.
- Unit 1
- 1. Margaret McDowell, wife of Robert McDowell, died 14 Feb. 1830, age 70.
- 2. Robert McDowell, born 10 Mar. 1767, died 2 Aug. 1838. Both stones were identical (despite the difference in the sketch).
- Unit 2
- 3. Zachariah Johnston, died 7 Jan. 1800, age 57.
- 4. Ann Johnston, died 25 Aug. 1818, age 77.
- Unit 3
- 5. Sally W. Johnston, wife of Alexander Johnston, born 29 Jan, 1776, died 30 Apr. 1818, age 43.
- 6. Zechariah G. Johnston, born 18 June 1807, died 28 June 1815, age 6. This inscription was rather hard to read.
- 7. A.J., no date, child’s grave with no other inscription, probably part of the Johnston family and a grandchild of Zachariah and Ann.
- Unit 4
- 8. Ann, daughter of Susan and Thomas Johnston, born 10 Apr. 1803, died 7 oct. 1834.
- 9. William G. Johnston, son of Susan and Thomas Johnston, born 27 Jan. 1819.
- 10. Susan, daughter of Susan and Thomas Johnston, died 10 April 1832, age 22.
- 11. Susan Johnston, wife of Thomas Johnston, died 19 Nov. 1857, age 81.
- 12. Thomas Johnston, born 10 Jan. 1773, died 27 Dec. 1847.
- Individual Burials
- 13. Elizabeth McDowell, “Our Loving Aunt,” born 28 Sept. 1796, died 29 May 1861.
- 14. Rebecca (Our Sister), wife of William C. Lewis, died 2 April 1857, age 57.
In this plat, family groupings are clear in most cases, and certain hypotheses can be made and tested with evidence from other sources.
Although compiled records cannot fully replace a personal search, historical, genealogical, and patriotic societies have performed a valuable and commendable service in preparing compilations of gravestone inscriptions, especially in view of the annual toll taken on grave markers through neglect, highway construction, suburban development, and reclamation projects. Beware, however, that compiled sources obscure family relationships because the entries are artificially arranged in an alphabetical sequence. The value of such works is dramatically increased when the inscriptions are listed as found in the graveyard, cross-referenced to their specific locations on a map of the cemetery, and indexed by surname on separate pages.
Another weakness of these compilations comes from including only the names, dates of birth and death, and relationships. Indirect evidence and clues are omitted because they are too voluminous. In a printed compilation of gravestones in Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Cemetery in Fisherville, Augusta County, Virginia, the alphabetical sequence reads:
- Cynthia Johnson
- Born 19 Dec 1799
- Died 15 Aug 1887
- Aged 87 years 7 months and 26 days
- Wife of Thomas Johnson
- Thomas Johnson
- died 19 Dec 1865
- Age 75 years, 4 months and 25 days
In the cemetery itself, in a lovely, wrought-iron fenced enclosure, the graves of Cynthia and Thomas lie surrounded by Cynthia’s family: her parents, James and Martha Black; and several of her brothers, sisters, and their families. However, nothing in the printed volume connects Cynthia with the Black family.
Preservation of Cemeteries
All researchers need to be concerned about and supportive of the ongoing efforts of cemetery preservation organizations and genealogical and historical societies seeking to bring conservation procedures to the attention of cemetery officials. Individuals and groups interested in familiarizing themselves with this process (which certainly should be done before any cemetery projects are undertaken) would benefit from a study of Lynette Strangstad, A Graveyard Preservation Primer. This work was published in cooperation with the Association for Gravestone Studies and is a landmark in the field. Their website has a current list of the association’s publications.
Funeral Homes and Burial Customs
The records of funeral homes may provide personal information about the deceased, such as full name, age, dates of birth, death, and burial, cause of death, former address and occupation of the deceased and place of death and burial. There may also be notes regarding the funeral services, the name of the person who officiated, and the identity and relationship of whomever made the arrangements. If the body was shipped from or to another city, there may be a copy of the transportation of corpse form that accompanied the remains.
The name of a funeral home may appear in family records or on the death certificate, cemetery office record, or the obituary. A search online by name, city, and state should provide contact information if the business is still in operation or, if the business has closed but the records have been indexed in a database, a website might be given. A search for the J. F. Bell Funeral Home in central Virginia, yielded information on the history of the funeral home, which was established in 1917, and the family that now manages it, descendants of John Ferris Bell (1890–1959). A database to information from the Bell registers is at http://www.virginia.edu/woodson/projects/bell.
Funeral homes are often family owned for two or more generations and records are usually meticulously preserved. Because a funeral home is a privately-owned business, its staff is not obligated to provide information from their registers. Fortunately, most directors will share information in response to a brief and courteous inquiry. To find records of funeral homes that are no longer operating, see chapter 4, “Business, Institution, and Organization Records.”
Funeral and burial customs have varied over the centuries but throughout history, it is location, ethnicity, and religion that determine how the dead will be laid to rest. For example, cremation is required in the faiths of Buddhism and Hinduism yet prohibited for members of the Free Presbyterian Church and the Islamic religion. Many customs, some of which are still followed, date directly from the Victorian period in England, when first upper society and then more commonly-situated folk adopted the fashions and practices of their Queen. Black dress, mourning jewelry, and postmortem photographs or etchings were founded in the nineteenth century. In larger urban areas, mourners’ coaches came into being. These were the equivalent of a limousine today; examples may be viewed at http://www.hearse.com.
Many of these objects, including an early hearse, are preserved in the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Illinois, and some may be viewed on virtual tour at http://www.funeralmuseum.org. An excellent discussion of customs and folkways used by Americans and by certain ethnic and religious groups is featured in Sharon Carmack’s Your Guide to Cemetery Research.
In the original edition of The Source, Arlene Eakle closed this section with words that are still apt. “I confess to a weakness for the emotional impact of searching a graveyard, but the wealth of direct and circumstantial evidence a cemetery can provide would still justify a search on the least sentimental of grounds. Although the extra time, expense, and inconvenience of on-site searches may deter a genealogist, examining these sources with the same care and thoroughness you would bring to library research pays off.”
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