A Primer on Cemetery Research to Find Ancestors

A Primer on Cemetery Research to Find Ancestors

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Cemetery research absolutely is one of the most valuable tools for genealogy research.
Although I’m pretty much housebound and don’t get out much now, there was a time when I did venture out and do research in places such as cemeteries. As a matter of fact, I previously wrote about one experience at an old Catholic cemetery in Nova Scotia where I and my family spent the better portion of a day checking out the burial sites of our ancestors – and there were bunches of ’em.

By Jillynn Stevens, Ph.D., MSW

Grave Tombstone of Marguerite Melanson.
Cemetery research led to the discovery of Marguerite Melanson’s burial site.

When you’re working on researching distant generations of ancestors, cemetery research is one of the most satisfying, hands on forms of genealogical exploration you can do. It’s one way to connect with a tangible reminder of particular ancestors, which is often an elusive feeling. Finding a tombstone or other sign of the resting place of an ancestor can give you insights into who they were. Is their tombstone humble or grand? Does it contain an inscription that speaks of a simple life, of one that hints at a great love story, or a somber and religious disposition? What dates are inscribed? The information source is rich, yet locating cemeteries and navigating the research process isn’t always straightforward. Here’s how to get started with genealogical cemetery research.

What can I expect to learn from a cemetery?

It’s important to note that cemeteries and grave markers can be excellent sources of information about the deceased. While they are not primary information sources, they can clarify details such as:

An ancestor’s name, including obscure details like maiden names and middle names or even occasionally pet names, but most often:

  • date of birth
  • date of death
  • the names of family members including parents, spouses, and children
  • religion
  • military service
  • fraternal order membership

Cemeteries are a wonderful source of information that can confirm what you’ve learned from earlier research. In other cases, you’ll garner information that you didn’t know. For example, there may be symbolism on a tombstone suggesting that your ancestor was a member of the Masonic Lodge or perhaps they are buried in a Catholic burial ground. Each of these small clues can open up new avenues for research and exploration.


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