Cemetery Research

Church and headstones

Cemetery research may seem like an unlikely activity to obtain genealogy information. It is, however, an important way to obtain birth dates, death dates, and general family data.

Information Found by Cemetery Research

Burial and tombstone information may contain a variety of useful information about the deceased and the family. You may find details on the following:

  • Birth date and place
  • Death date and place
  • Maiden name for women
  • Marriage information
  • Military service information
  • Parents' names
  • Family relationships
  • Religious affiliation
  • Fraternal organization memberships
  • Personal details
  • Financial status
  • Occupation
  • Cause of death

Using Burial Records

Many cemeteries maintain records of all burials in the location. These records can be very helpful, particularly if the grave is unmarked or the tombstone has been broken or lost. Modern day cemeteries will often include an obituary and death certificate in the file. An obituary may offer other important details:

  • Birth information
  • A brief biography of the individual
  • Parents' names
  • Marriage dates
  • Spouse and family members
  • Military service and occupation

A death certificate may have useful information as well:

  • Cause of death
  • Birthplace and date of birth
  • Parents' names
  • Military service information
  • Length of residence
  • Occupation

There may also be information in the cemetery files regarding the funeral home or undertaker. If you can locate the funeral home records, they often have information regarding the type and cost of the funeral and who paid for the funeral. This can give insight into other family relationships and the financial status of the family.

Tombstones

A grave marker can tell a great deal about a person. The briefest of markers can still reveal something about the deceased.

Name

Genealogy revolves around names. A headstone can tell a researcher important details about the individual, such a middle name or initial. Most importantly, they may reveal a woman's maiden name, which is often a stumbling block for genealogists.

Dates

Almost every tombstone has the date of death, and most include the date of birth. These dates on the tombstone are considered primary sources for these facts.

Relationships

A headstone shared by two people denotes a close relationship between them. A shared tombstone is common for married couples, but tombstones may also be shared by siblings or a parent and child.

Insignias

Some grave markers will have an insignia of a fraternal organization or some other affiliation. Religious affiliation may also be noted by an emblem of belief, such as a cross or the Star of David. Types of insignias you may see include the following:

  • Woodmen of the World
  • Masons
  • Elks
  • Oddfellows
  • Municipal or state government seals for officials
  • Star of David
  • Cross

There is also a symbol language to tombstone art. Crossed swords, for example represents an officer in the military. A broken column means the loss of the head of the family.

Military Service

A headstone can also reveal information about military service. The United States Veterans Administration will supply a tombstone or medallion for veterans, which usually includes the following information:

  • Name of the veteran
  • Dates of birth and death
  • Rank
  • Branch of service
  • Unit

The marker will also include which war the decedent fought in, if applicable.

Epitaphs

An epitaph is a word or phrase that is inscribed on the tombstone. Epitaphs can reveal something about the individual. Some tombstones will be inscribed with "Mother" or "Beloved wife of" and the name of the husband. Others will have a relevant Bible passage. Some individuals will have the last word with a joke or amusing poem, such as this for an attorney: "The defense rests."

Finding Cemetery Information

There are several Internet sites with information on cemeteries. Find-A-Grave and Interment.net are two of the larger sites. The USGenWeb has sites for individual states and counties, which almost always include tombstone transcriptions. Local historical and genealogical societies also may have cemetery transcriptions for their locale.

If you are able to visit the cemetery, be sure and check with the office during business hours for the cemetery records which are available. If there is no cemetery office, check with local churches or funeral homes to find the cemetery officials or caretakers. Many cemeteries will also respond to phone or written requests.


Cemetery research is an excellent activity for genealogists. Cemetery records may contain many important facts as well as insight into the life of the deceased.

Cemetery Research