Genealogy Immigration/Migration: Using cemeteries in researching immigrant ancestors

Using cemeteries in researching immigrant ancestorsBy Barry J. Ewell

The following are records and resources that genealogists find extremely helpful and full of clues to find immigrant ancestors. The information is designed to provide a quick reference and direction of where to find and search for records as probable places to find information.

Cemetery records have their own limitations as sources for immigration information. While it is not common for a foreign birth town to appear on a cemetery headstone, there are literally thousands of cases where such is the case. Such circumstances seem to be more common where there are many immigrants in a cemetery, such as in Pennsylvania German communities or the cemeteries near the Catholic missions in California.

While locating a burial site can be difficult, people are usually buried where they die. Begin your search for a cemetery where your ancestor “drops out” of the records.

In any given area, there are usually many cemeteries, which include all or most of the types listed below. The records of these various cemeteries are often in many different places and not easily accessible. The records are often organized in chronological order or by plot, and therefore, not alphabetical. If public records exist for your ancestor, they will usually denote where the burial occurred. For deaths occurring after 1870, the community may have required a burial permit from the local health department. These are not death certificates, but they do identify the cemetery.

Many directories are available to assist you in locating a specific cemetery or even a list of all possible cemeteries in a certain locality. In large cities, begin with the city directory for the time period when the immigrant died. Directories include the following:

  • Cemeteries of the United States
  • United States Cemetery Address Book
  • The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS)—The nation’s official repository of domestic geographic names information, including cemeteries.

If you still have trouble locating the cemetery, you may want to check current directories of mortuaries (available from your local mortician). A local mortuary in the area where an immigrant died will at least be aware of the active cemeteries and may be able to refer you to a local cemetery association. Once you have located the cemetery, you will seek the following information:

The inscription on the stone. Tombstone inscriptions are as different as the individuals they commemorate. In most cases you will find some element of value. For example, a tombstone can show a relationship with an inscription: “Beloved wife of . . .”. You will find logos or markers that indicate service in the military or organization. Depending on the time period and the area of the country (such as in an immigrant-rich community), you might find a birthplace. Some tombstones contain photos, favorite saying, writings, music, or images that relate to a hobby or profession. Tombstones can also carry lineage, such as names of the children or “Daughter of . . .”. You will most likely find the true given name of the person or even a nickname that can help you find information.

The Records of the Sexton
Note: Many cemeteries have paper records of persons who are buried there. These records are kept with the sexton and come in many formats. They usually include the name of the person buried, death date, and owner of the cemetery plot. The first place to find sexton’s records is the cemetery itself. If you come across a cemetery that is “inactive” or “full” because there is no more room for additional burials, contact the local sexton to begin your search to see if they have records.

When you combine the tombstone and sexton’s record, you can build a profile that unusually includes the name of the deceased (from tombstone and sexton record), years of birth and death (from tombstone), and date of burial (sexton record).
Your profile may also include any or all of the following information:

  • Address of deceased (sexton record)
  • Age of death (tombstone and sexton record)
  • Birthplace (tombstone)
  • Cause of death (tombstone and sexton record)
  • Cost of the plot or burial (sexton record)
  • Date of death (tombstone and sexton record)
  • Full name, including maiden name for women (tombstone and sexton record)
  • Full dates of birth and death (tombstone and sexton record)
  • Information linking the plot owner to other plots, such as disinterment, reburial, and so forth (sexton record)
  • Information about military service, such as unit (tombstone)
  • Inscription (a poem or Bible quote, for example) providing insight into the ancestor or those left behind (tombstone)
  • Logo of organization that the deceased belonged to (ethnic, religious, military, and so on) (tombstone)
  • Name of doctor and hospital (sexton record)
  • Name of officiating minister (sexton record)
  • Names of other people or institutions involved—funeral home, officiating clergyman, memorial company (sexton record)
  • Owner of the plot (sexton record)
  • Relationship clues (“Beloved wife of . . .) or who else is buried in the plot (tombstone and sexton record)
  • Marriage date (rare) (tombstone and sexton record)
  • Where the deceased died, if other than where he or she lived (sexton record)

Types of Cemeteries
The four types of cemeteries are religious, community, private, and commercial. A brief overview of each type is given below.

Religious Cemeteries. Religiously devout immigrant ancestors were most often buried in religious cemeteries. These cemeteries are usually located next to the group’s church or synagogue. Qualification for burial was often reserved for burial of the faithful (and sometimes the not-so-faithful, as well). In some religions, such as

Roman Catholic, burial in sacred, consecrated ground was vital for salvation. Other religions consider burial to be a sacrament and it needed to be conducted by a spiritual leader. If a burial was conducted by the church, the local church was the most likely place for it to occur. Records for the religious cemeteries are usually found at the church and not with the sexton.

Community Cemeteries. Most of our immigrant ancestors during the 1800s were buried in cemeteries established by a local community (a city, town, township, or county). Community cemeteries attracted immigrants whose devotion to their religion had waned during their years in North America. If there was not a local church in the area for a deceased person, they were usually buried in the community cemetery. If you suspect your ancestor was buried in a community cemetery, contact the sexton who is responsible to keep the records of burials in that cemetery. The sexton’s job is to coordinate, and often actually handle, the burial duties, usually in concert with an undertaker (mortuary) and often a church as well.

Private Cemeteries. In early America, many families established private, family cemeteries. These are most often found in New England and the Southern states, but really can be anywhere. Fraternal or social groups, such as the Masons and Odd Fellows, created private cemeteries. Private cemeteries are usually found in rural areas.

Commercial Cemeteries. Commercial cemeteries, usually run by a local mortuary or company, are common and have replaced community cemeteries. You won’t find your ancestor in this type of cemetery unless they lived after 1900.

How to Use Tombstones and Sexton Records
Use tombstones and sexton records to learn the following information about your ancestor:

  • dates of life events for further research
  • names of family members, neighbors, and others who are buried in the same plot and are therefore likely connected to your ancestor
  • maiden name for female ancestors
  • organizations to which your ancestor belonged
  • cause of death
  • military service
  • insight into the personality of your ancestor
  • a sense of the economic standing of the family

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