Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Frequently Asked Question : Why Can't I Find Where My Ancestor is Buried?

One of the most common family history research challenges is locating the burial location and tombstone of our ancestors.  When asked this question in the Local History department, my first question to the researcher always is, "What Have You Tried So Far?"

Many times we think we are up against a brick wall when in fact all we need to do is to take a moment to review what we know so far, how we know it, and expand our search to include other resources.  For instance, perhaps we know from the census that our subject, John Smith, lived in a particular township for at least 25 years before his death.  The death record indicates that he died in that same township, so certainly he must be buried there.  However, a walk through the nearest cemetery to his farm showed no tombstone for a John Smith.  What are some of the reasons this might be the case:

  1. There are other cemeteries in the vicinity
  2. John may be buried in said cemetery, but without a legible tombstone or in an unmarked grave
  3. John might be buried with his first wife who died and was buried before he moved to the area
  4. John might have been buried in an unexpected cemetery in an extra lot in the family plot of one of his children, parents, siblings
  5. Did John serve in the military anytime during or since the Civil War?  Perhaps he is buried in a National Cemetery.  Did Veterans Affairs pay for his tombstone, burial?
  6. Perhaps John was buried on the farm before state law required burial in an established cemetery
  7. Perhaps John was cremated
  8. What was John's economic status?  Was he buried in a pauper's grave or at the poorhouse?
  9. Do you know enough about John's background?  Could his birth name actually of been Johann Smyth and that's the name that's on his tombstone?
  10. Do you have reliable death information, date & location?
  11. Have you checked religious cemeteries in the area, i.e., Catholic or Jewish?
So, with all of these variables what can be done to make a thorough search for John's burial location?
  1. Obtain all versions of the death certificate.  In Michigan, there were three:  county, state & local.   State & local versions of the death certificate gave burial information as early as 1900 whereas county records didn't provide that information until about 1935.
  2. Obtain all versions of the obituary/death notice in the newspaper.  Brief mention may be made in one issue while the more complete obituary may be published a week or two later.  Obituaries may have been published in more than one newspaper - and they may be entirely different.
  3. Check for a probate file.  In the receipts/expenses portion of the file may be notations of the purchase of a burial plot.
  4. If a military person, obtain copies of the military and/or pension files that may make mention of final disposition of the body; check the National Gravesite Locator published by the Department of Veterans Affairs
  5. Burial permits filed at the local level
  6. Canvas a wider area of cemetery records
  7. Locate burial records for the original cemetery to check for an unmarked burial
  8. Try FindAGrave, one of the largest online sources of burial information
  9. Connect with other living descendants who may have personal knowledge of John's burial
  10. Check with existing funeral homes in the vicinity
 Always consult libraries with local history collections in the immediate area.  They may have indexes or publications that will aid you in your search.  For example, the Van Buren District Library has published a checklist of all of the cemeteries in Southwest Michigan (Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph & Van Buren counties).  The list includes the name of the cemetery, the township & county, identifies tombstone readings & burial records and whether the records are included in their collection.  They have also begun adding these records to their Local History Master Index (LHMI) which will ultimately index all burials in the region.