Headstones are often overlooked tools in family history research. Even if you know the birth and death date of your ancestor, their headstone might 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.
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-grandparents headstones in Colorado, I discovered photos on their headstones I hadn't seen before. There were also several tiny headstones for children that died in infancy. Their names 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, and sometimes 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.
With limited space on a headstone, symbols have long been used to represent religious beliefs, military service, relationships, professions, and even secret societies.
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.
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 her grave. The marriage was brief and no one ever spoke about it. 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 gravesite revealed the source of his nickname. "TJ" stood for his first and middle name - Talmadge Jerome.
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.
A couple buried apart can be a clue. Perhaps they were divorced or separated at the time. Or, perhaps their deaths were decades apart and the other had remarried. Check out the nearby headstones and see if they might be related to their neighbors. Once I found a deceased wife buried in a different city than her husband and children. A quick check of the gravesites around led me to discover her father was a prominent man in the community and she was buried in a family plot next to her parents and sisters.
This shared headstone is in a family plot. It includes the mother, father, children, and grandchildren and their dates 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.
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. 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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