Surprising Genealogy Clues Carved in Stone

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Headstones are often overlooked tools in family history research. If you already know the date of birth and death from vital records, why visit the cemetery? But headstones sometimes contain surprising information not recorded anywhere else. These details can fill in the gaps in your ancestor’s family history, give you a sense of their personality, and provide further clues for research.

In order to locate a headstone or grave marker, you first need to find the cemetery location.  Read my blog post "Tombstone Tools - How to Locate Your Ancestors in Cemeteries" for a step-by-step guide.

Clues Carved in Stone

Hunting for the headstone has paid off.  Hopefully you are able to visit and document it in person. Give yourself plenty of time for exploring and be sure to take photos of the cemetery itself, the full headstone (front, back, up close, and at a distance). Examine and take photos of the neighboring plots as well. They could be relatives or provide additional clues about the area. 

When I located my great-grandmother's headstone in Colorado, I discovered it was in a family plot. There were several tiny headstones for children that died in infancy. Their names and dates of birth and death were not recorded anywhere else.

Headstones often contain more than just a birth and death date. Often they have valuable information such as full legal names (and nicknames), places they’ve lived, occupations, spouses, children, beliefs, and perhaps details not recorded anywhere else. An ancestor’s headstone can reveal new details about their life and potential clues for further research. Examine it carefully and you might make these discoveries.

Date of Birth and Death

Often headstones contain the date of birth and death. Theses dates can be information confirming evidence you already have located. In some cases what you knew was incomplete. Perhaps you only had a year, or just a birth or death date. The headstone might provide missing information to be used as clues for further research.  In some cases, it might provide different information, in which case you have to resolve the conflicting evidence.

Symbols

With limited space on a headstone, symbols have long been used to represent religious beliefs, military service, relationships, professions, and even secret societies.

 Mortar and Pestle – Pharmacists or Medical Doctor

Mortar and Pestle – Pharmacists or Medical Doctor

 Star of David - International Sign of Judiaism

Star of David - International Sign of Judiaism

 Masons

Masons

 Wings with a crest - U.S. Airforce Pilot

Wings with a crest - U.S. Airforce Pilot

Tip: If your ancestor is in a military cemetery, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs currently has 70 approved emblems of belief they will put on government headstones and markers.

Names

You don't get to choose the name you come into the world with, but you can choose the one you take to the grave. When you locate your ancestor, you might discover their full legal name, maiden name, and even nicknames.

Sometimes it's only on a headstone where you make a discovery. I learned my great aunt's married name was  "Davis" while visiting the cemetery. Her's was a brief marriage that no one ever spoke about and the additional name helped me locate more records about her life. I also recently worked with a veteran who was looking for a long lost shipmate that he only knew as "TJ."  We found him in military records, but only by first name "Talmadge." Sadly I discovered he had passed away. His full name was only on his headstone and explained his initials. "TJ" stood for his first and middle name - Talmadge Jerome. 

Nicknames on headstones can also give you a sense of someone's appearance or personality.

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Relationships - Together Forever... or not

If being buried next to each other isn't close enough, you might find family buried together and sharing a headstone. This can help support evidence of kinship, marriage, and symbolic feelings.  Or, perhaps frugality of not wanting to purchase two headstones or plots. 

Being buried apart can be indicative of the life they lived as well. Sometimes loved ones are buried apart due to war. During one genealogical research project, I discovered a husband and wife that were buried in separate cemeteries next door to each other. The wife with a beautiful headstone and the husband who had outlived the wife by a number of years in an unmarked grave. Further research uncovered that their son had chosen the burial locations and supported the paper evidence I had found of a deep estrangement between his father and the family.

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This shared headstone is in a family plot. It includes the mother, father, children, and grandchildren and their dates of death. 

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Cause of Death

Well into the 18th century, inscriptions might include the cause of death. Perhaps to memorialize the family member lost, or to serve as a warning.

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Immigration 

Occasionally the location of birth or death is included on a headstone. When tracing immigration history, the location of birth on a headstone can be a big discovery and clue. This detail can help support what you locate in immigration and naturalization records or be a new clue of where to focus your research. 

This is my great uncle and aunt's headstone. It provided a clue when I first began my family history search 20 years ago. As a child I recalled hearing the word "Grimaldi" mentioned frequently during our large Sunday gatherings. They had achieved the American dream of coming to this country, becoming citizens, starting a successful business and raising a large family. From a tiny village in Italy to America, that's what they proudly wanted on their headstone. The U.S. census records recorded their place of birth as "Italy." Having a specific village name was one of the clues that led me all the way to Italy to discover long lost relatives in Grimaldi. 

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A Lasting Impression

Photos on headstones memorialize lost loved ones. Also, because they tie a photograph to a name they can also be used to identify family ancestors in photos.  They might be the only photo in existence, as was the case in my family. My great grandparents Roseria and Gasper Guerrieri passed away long before I was born. After researching them for years, I knew a lot about this hard working couple who immigrated to America and struggled raising ten children. Discovering their photos on their headstones made the story of their lives more real. 

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Famous Last Words - Epitaphs

Whether long or short, epitaphs can be clues to someone's core beliefs, principles, profession, and personality. 

Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich was a Vietnam War veteran and the recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. He was one of the first gay service members to openly fight the military's ban on gays.

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The Reverend Martin Luther King's headstone contains a line from one of his most famous speeches, "Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I'm Free at last."

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The headstones and memorial markers of the famous often pay tribute to the careers and talents. 

 Frank Sinatra's epitaph "The Best is Yet to Come" is the title of one of his best known songs.

Frank Sinatra's epitaph "The Best is Yet to Come" is the title of one of his best known songs.

 Sammy Davis Jr. was honored by his family with this simple epitaph "The Entertainer - He did it all"

Sammy Davis Jr. was honored by his family with this simple epitaph "The Entertainer - He did it all"

 The final sign-off - Television talk show host Merv Griffin's epitaph is a play on a phrase he was well known for - "I'll be right back after this message."

The final sign-off - Television talk show host Merv Griffin's epitaph is a play on a phrase he was well known for - "I'll be right back after this message."

 His final punchline - Comedian Rodney Dangerfield's epitaph, "There Goes the Neighborhood."

His final punchline - Comedian Rodney Dangerfield's epitaph, "There Goes the Neighborhood."

Part of my job is solving family mysteries. Recently, I was working with a family trying to locate an old family recipe. I was doing genealogical research to locate relatives to whom the recipe might have been passed down to. Here's an epitaph idea to make sure that family recipe never get's lost. Wade Huff Andrews, Ph.D., 83, passed away at home, May 22, 2000. According to his obituary, he married his sweetheart, Kathryn Kirkham, Dec. 18, 1944, in the Salt Lake Temple by President David O. McKay. Not only was he sweet on her, he loved her fudge so much his wife's fudge recipe is on his tombstone. 

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Now that you know more about the clues carved in stone, what family history discoveries will you make on your next trip to the cemetery?

Kimberlie Guerrieri