Tombstone Tools - How to Find Your Ancestors in Cemeteries
Headstones are often overlooked tools in family history research. If you already know your ancestor's date of birth and death, why visit the cemetery? Besides visiting them to honor them in their final resting place, searching for their headstone can sometimes provide 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.
Step #1 – Find the Cemetery
In order to locate a headstone or grave marker, you first need to find the cemetery location. Death certificates and obituaries are great places to look for clues. They often include the name of the cemetery, funeral home, or city where you can begin your search.
If you don’t have the death certificate or obituary, the following websites are useful for locating those documents. Before you begin your online search gather what you know about the individual, such as date of birth, date of death, and where they lived.
A great place to find death certificates, death notices, and obituaries. Also, the Social Security Death Index – 1937-2014 can be useful in locating death dates, birth dates, spouses, locations, and first & last names.
Search over 250 million U.S. obituaries from 1977 through today.
If you are looking for an obituary pre-1977, Newspapers.com is a good resource. They have 8,800+ historical newspapers from the 1700s–2000s.
Includes more than 200 million obituaries from more than 900 newspapers from all over the world.
Perform an exhaustive search and look for your deceased ancestor on as many websites as possible, noting your findings in your research log. Don't stop your search if you locate the name of the cemetery right away. Websites do not always have access to same information. Another website might have additional information surrounding the death of your ancestor that can support your findings, provide additional information, or clues for further research. Use a combination of these sites to locate all records relating to the death and final resting place of your ancestor.
If you are having difficulty finding your ancestor, try using alternative names and nicknames. Search for obituaries in the local papers of city where the death took place and also where they were born or spent most of their life. If you can't find the cemetery, it might because the ancestor was cremated. If only the funeral home or mortuary is noted, you can contact them for further information.
Here is a search example using the tools above for an Edna Wallace. I knew the year of her birth, that she lived in Indianapolis, and she likely deceased sometime in 2008.
Starting on Ancestry.com, I searched for her in the Birth, Marriage & Death Records.
The search on ancestry.com turned up two results. One in the Indiana Death Certificates, 1899-2011 and the other in the Web: Obituary Daily Times Index, 1995-2012.
Examining her death certificate, I first confirm with known facts that this is indeed the same Edna Wallace I am looking for. While not all death certificates have the cemetery cited, this one does - Washington Park North Cemetery.
We might be tempted to end our search here, but a good researcher checks their sources and performs an extensive search of all records available. Turning to the next search result, The Obituary Collection, 1930-2018, we find it is only an index showing the date and newspaper where the obituary was published. The birth date is a year off and there is no link to the obituary.
Using the information in the index, I turned to the The Indianapolis Star's website and located Edna M. Wallace's obituary . Here we find confirmation of the name of the cemetery where she is buried as Washington Park North Cemetery. More importantly, we find several more details about her life including her maiden name, where she worked, worshiped, socialized, names of her children and grandchildren, and a photo. If we had stopped at the death certificate, and not continued our search for her obituary, we would've missed out on these important details about her life that could be clues for further research.
A search on Legacy.com resulted in two items. A death announcement and the same obituary, both published in The Indianapolis Star. No new additional information was found.
Step #2 - Headstone Hunting
If you found the cemetery you have two choices, either visit in person or look for the headstone online. Visiting in person is ideal because it allows you time to explore the area, take your own pictures, look at headstones near your relatives, all of which could lead to more information and clues to help fill out your family tree.
If you can’t visit in person, you might be able to locate an image of the headstone online at these websites:
This website compiles user-contributed gravestone photos, inscriptions, and other data. If you know where your relative is buried and can’t visit yourself, you can make a request on findagrave.com for a volunteer to visit the grave and upload a photo and information. There is an app for iOS and and Android.
A free website to look-up headstones from around the world. Users take photos and upload them with GPS data. Volunteers transcribe the headstones for indexing.
Nationwide Gravesite Locator
If the ancestor you are in search of was in the military, they might be buried in a veteran cemetery. Search her for burial locations of veterans and their family members in VA National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, various other military and Department of Interior cemeteries, and for veterans buried in private cemeteries when the grave is marked with a government grave marker.
Many cemeteries have their own websites with searchable databases. If they don’t, you can call or email the cemetery with a request, providing as much information as you know. Most cemeteries will research your request for free. Some charge a small research fee.
Always be sure to verify information on the headstone with other records you have located to make sure it is the correct ancestor. These websites are maintained by volunteers who upload photos and transcribe headstones. Mistakes happen.
We know from Edna Wallace's death certificate, death announcement, and published obituary that she is buried in Washington Park North Cemetery.
No results were located on BillionGraves.com Using FindaGrave.com, a search was performed and a gravesite was located.
Seeing the gravesite brought a new discovery to light that was not mentioned in the obituary or death certificate, the name of her husband William F. Wallace.
Now that you have located the headstone, what's next? Read my blog post Surprising Genealogy Clues Carved in Stone to know what to look for and what it means.