Cemetery Information

Researching a cemetery can be lots of work but very informative and entertaining. The shape and material of the stone, its design, and the inscription are all clues to history. Use this outline as a guide.


Clues from the cemetery:

How old is the cemetery? What is the oldest recorded tombstone? What type of cemetery is it? What people are buried at this location? Talk to the caretaker about the records that they keep.

Clues from tombstones: 

  • Log shaped - Member of Woodmen of the World
  • Badge on it - Civil War Veteran
  • Religious markings may indicate religious preference or church membership
  • Markings may indicate person's occupation, interest or hobby
  • Inscriptions - dates, names, sex, marriage status


Reading the Hard-to-Read tombstone

  • Just putting water on a tombstone will often make it more readable.
  • Cleaning the tombstone to bring out words or images with shaving cream is preferable to many other cleaning agents. However, even shaving cream can be acidic and detrimental to the stone.
  • Making a rubbing of the tomb is an excellent way to study inscriptions, however even chalk may be damaging to a stone. Taking a photograph of the tomb may suffice. Photographs will be better on overcast days. Tip: a friend can hold a mirror to light up the stone. The added light may make your picture come out better.


Different types of cemeteries

  • The church cemetery - Often located near the church and is private church property.
  • The public cemetery - Owned by a town, city or county and open to the public.
  • The private cemetery - Owners and/or caretakers are usually listed at the cemetery entrance. This restrictive cemetery could be owned and operated by a lodge, a community organization, the military, or a specific family.
  • The ethnic cemetery - Could be private or public and overlap one of the other types but owned and operated to support one religion.
  • The mass grave - A common grave for a group of people, often victims of a disaster.
  • Commercial cemetery - These are for profit and are nondenominational.


Cemetery Records

  • Family Bibles are considered a primary source.
  • Cemetery Deeds are given to the purchasers of the plot.
  • Church Burial Records must keep a recording of burials.
  • Cemetery information is considered a secondary source because the information has been drawn from another source. The records where this information originated are the primary sources. Most cemeteries create at least three basic records: a chronological record of burials, a ledger that shows the identity and date of the plots, and a deed to the lot. Funeral homes may have helpful documents.
  • Check Historical Society
  • Visit computer Web sites like Find-A-Grave (http://www.findagrave.com)
  • Interview senior members of the community
  • Visit land offices


Locating a grave
Late 19th century or later

  • Locate the cemetery using a county map with cemetery locations.
  • Uncover oral history through relatives or friends
  • Use death certificates and obituaries
  • Check for funeral Home records
  • Visit a local or state historical society
  • Check with local genealogical organizations
  • Visit a local public library

Early 19th Century or before

  • Find out where they died
  • Do an online search at Family Search (www.familysearch.org)


After locating the cemetery

  • Copy the dates of the marker
  • What is the location of the grave from the entrance?
  • Is there any artwork?
  • Be aware of any mistakes that may exist on the marker
  • Note the placement of graves in relation to each other

Organize your documents or records


As Artifacts

  • Treat the headstone with respect
  • Don't do anything to the stone (some compounds may be harmful)
  • Take photographs to study later
  • Take notes - sketch the location
  • Stones may not be present before the mid 1800s; inscribed stones were initially limited to affluent families
  • Late 1850s cemeteries used deeds, records, and agreements
  • Look for multiple graves with the same surname indicative of family members
  • Make note of any symbols, images, inscriptions or epitaphs


Taking a field trip to a cemetery (visit the classroom lesson Taking a Field Trip for more information.

  • Always check with a cemetery's caretaker to make sure that it is permissible for the entire class to visit. Inquire about the possibility of your class doing rubbings of the stones, if you are planning for your class to participate in this activity.
  • Proper Conduct for cemeteries
  • Be generally respectful and unobtrusive
  • Avoid loud talk and behavior that might be disturbing to those in mourning
  • Notice there are different rituals for different cultures, but be sure students don't interrupt any ceremonies
  • Follow posted rules
  • Never enter a closed cemetery
  • Don't bring pets into the cemeteries
  • Don't walk directly on the graves. Many traditions interpret this as disrespectful
  • Never disturb the soil
  • Don't run in the cemetery and watch where you are going
  • Watch and listen (wildlife, snakes, and insects may be problems)
  • Don't eat or drink in the cemetery. You want to leave it as you found it

    *A note to students: Do not investigate a cemetery or any other private setting alone. Remember that there is safety in numbers.

    Go to PBS Teachers for more than 3000+ lesson plans and activities.