Don't Whistle Past that Graveyard!
There's History Buried in those Cemetery Records
By Margaret Hewitt
When you think about cemeteries, does your mind conjure up creepy mists and zombies? You’re probably not alone (after all, we are in Western PA, home of the Night of the Living Dead!)
Well if you’re into family history, I say when you think cemetery, you should think research! Here are my best tips for finding cemeteries and using burials to learn more about your ancestors.
Finding a Cemetery
Death certificates almost always list a place and date of interment. For deaths from 1893-1905, each Pennsylvania county kept their own records. After 1906, the state centralized the recordkeeping, and those death records can be requested via any Vital Records Office.
Pennsylvania residents can view PA death records from 1906-1968 for free via the state archives’ Ancestry portal. Check out this link for access: https://www.phmc.pa.gov/Archives/Research-Online/Pages/Ancestry-PA.aspx
Obituaries are also handy leads for cemetery research. Search historic newspapers at a library or historical society to find obituaries and funeral announcements for your ancestors.
If the cemetery is large and has an office, check with the staff for burial registers. These documents will reveal who purchased each burial plot, tell you the right section of the cemetery, and show who is buried there. Registers can also reveal unmarked graves! Some cemeteries in more metropolitan areas even have searchable databases of burials on their websites.
For records of smaller cemeteries, you may need to do a little more investigative leg work. If the cemetery is associated with a church (either obviously by name or because it is close geographically to the church building), contact that church directly to ask about surviving cemetery records.
If you’re really struggling to get in touch with a cemetery caretaker, try asking a township office or a funeral home for contact info.
Ask your local library or historical society if they have copies of church records or headstone transcriptions for these smaller cemeteries - many books have been published that document gravestones. These books can also be a huge help if the stones you want to research are damaged or worn down! For example, if a historic headstone is hard to read today because of damage or acid rain erosion, it could have been transcribed in the 1970s when it was still easy to read.
Learning from Headstones
What does the inscription tell you? Here in Pennsylvania, with very few exceptions you can’t find an official birth or death record before 1893. This makes it really tough to determine exact birthdays and dates of death. This is where headstones can be a lifesafer!
Check stones for full dates of birth and death. In the 19th century, you may find stones that write out dates as “died aged 82 years, 3 months, 22 days.” Use that info to count backward to a birth date. Need help doing that calendar math? Check out this site where you can plug in death date and the year/month/day inscription, and it will generate the birth date for you: http://www.genealogybuff.com/birthcalc.htm
Check if the inscription provides any clues to family relationships - wording like “mother, “father,” son of…” “wife of…” all point you in the direction of more family members, and will help you confirm the burial matches in your previous research.
Next, check to see if there are any literal or symbolic clues to a burial that can tell you more about a person. Do they have a military marker? Is the stone a giant obelisk that indicates status and wealth? Is it a tiny flat stone (or even no stone at all?) Are there religious symbols?
Are there abbreviations that point to social or civic organizations? Is the stone decorated with a lamb, carvings of flowers, or even shaped like a log? All these have meaning!
Here is a list of tombstone abbreviations: https://us.msghn.org/abbreviations.html
And a reference list of tombstone symbols and imagery: https://us.msghn.org/symbols.html
When walking a cemetery, look at neighboring headstones in the same way you’d check out the names of neighbors on a census record for clues. You may find that you are looking at a larger family group plot, or that in-laws or multiple generations are buried together.
Find a Grave
Find a Grave (findagrave.com) is an amazing crowd-sourced site for cemetery research that grows every day. If you need to look into a cemetery across the country, this should be your first stop. On the site, volunteers upload pictures of headstones and birth/death dates on memorial pages.
I often find users who have uploaded pictures of the deceased or copied the full text of their obituary to a memorial - super helpful if a newspaper isn’t available online or close by! Users can even link family burials by relationships, so you can sometimes find multiple generations connected.
Want to help out other genealogists? Sign up for a free Find a Grave account and start uploading info from a cemetery near you.
Margaret Hewitt is Special Collections Librarian for the Butler Area Public Library, where she manages the Weir Genealogy Room and archival collections. She has an MA in Public History and is a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists. Hewitt also serves on the board of the Slippery Rock University Stone House Center for Public Humanities. When not climbing the branches of various family trees, she enjoys working on embroidery projects during Netflix binges, and hiking National Parks.