Graveyards in Genealogy: unearthing your roots
Cemeteries are important resources in family history research. The purpose of a cemetery is to memorialize and honor those in the community who have passed on. For some people, the idea of a graveyard conjures up feeling of fear or morbidity, but there’s no denying the valuable information cemeteries provide. A typical gravestone can include a full name, maiden name, birth date, marriage date, death date, relationships, birthplace, organizational affiliation, military service, or even occupation. The location of the grave in the cemetery and even the history of the cemetery itself can provide insight into class, religion, and kinship. The information may not always be correct, but it is still very useful and unique. For example, my great-great-great grandmother Caledonia Jones Brown’s stone in Old New Canaan Cemetery in Morgan County, Alabama lists her death as 1915, but her husband is widowed in the 1900 census. Isn’t genealogy fun?
Memorial Day began as Decoration Day. People went out and tended to cemeteries to help preserve the memory of loved ones. In addition to boating and grilling, many people still use this special day to clean-up cemeteries and reflect on their past. This Memorial Day, I visited five local cemeteries where my wife has ancestors buried. (My kinfolks are farther away.) While placing flowers, I actually met distant cousins of my wife in two cemeteries and was invited to a cookout. The experience was much better than the time I lost my keys in a rural cemetery at nightfall…
I attended a few sessions of a conference last month put on by the Preservation of African-American Cemeteries (PAAC) organization here in Arkansas. They shared some great information about cemetery preservation and restoration. If you’re lucky, all of your ancestors will be buried in cemeteries maintained by a city, perpetual care agreement, or active church. They grass will always be mowed, and the stones will be polished. Unfortunately, many cemeteries I’ve encountered are in desperate need of attention. Here are a few problems in cemeteries:
- Abandoned Cemeteries– Once the church closes or the community moves away, it only takes a couple of generations for a cemetery to fall into despair. The smaller the cemetery, the less people there will be with a compelling reason to keep it up. I am amazed by the number of rural landowners who have graves out in the woods behind their house that no one seems to remember. I have seen cemeteries completely overgrown with broken and buried stones. We’ve lost whatever information they provided.
- Unmarked/Unknown Graves– Many of the older cemeteries in my county have field stones with no writing that mark burial spots. Over time, the people who know the identity of these rocks die off, and the markers themselves are moved. My wife and I both have ancestors who are buried in unknown graves. I have seen some cemeteries with as many as 200 rocks for nameless burials. Of course, more recent burials will at least have a funeral home marker which is only as good as the person driving the lawnmower.
- Faded Glory– Stones don’t last forever, and over time, the writing may fade or disappear.
- Wildlife– If your cemetery is not cared for, other creatures will move in. I have bumped into snakes, ticks, wasps, bees, and howling dogs in our local graveyards. Those can be much worse than a ghost!
If you’re interested in cemetery preservation or how cemeteries play a huge role in genealogy, check out Silent Storytellers. This is a great documentary by the Arkansas Educational Televison Network.