Tips from the Pros: Read the Back of the Tombstone, from George G. Morgan

When conducting on-site cemetery research, be sure to read the entire tombstone. Not everything on a tombstone is carved on the front. It is not unusual to find inscriptions on both the front and back of a stone and even on the edges. You may find the name and vital date on the face, an epitaph or poem on the back, the names of spouse, parents, children, and other information carved elsewhere. Look for initials, names, and/or the company name of the stonemason on the stone. Often the carver chiseled his initials or mark into a stone as a form of advertisement. His family may have been engaged in the stonecutting industry for generations and may have retained many or all of the family’s work or account files. You may be able to research the carver and therefore locate other records concerning the person who ordered and paid for the tombstone, its date of installation, and other data.

What have you found on the back of a tombstone? Share your story in the comments section.

23 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Read the Back of the Tombstone, from George G. Morgan

  1. I’ve found that the way plots are laid out and tombstones are positioned and carved varies in different parts of the country. Cemeteries here in Ohio are different from those in New England where I grew up. Don’t take your assumptions with you when you travel to new areas.

  2. When our parents died we had all their childrens names added to the back of the stone, all 12 of us!

  3. I am the unofficial historian of my hometown and spend time in the cemetery there whenever I’m back for a visit. One newer section is about 4 rows deep and the upright stones are easily visable from the road. I’m not as steady on rough ground as I used to be so it’s easier to sit in the car and write down the information I need, especially if the weather is bad.

    One newly placed stone was flat and after walking out to read it, I turned and discovered that one of the familiar upright stones had the family’s genealogy inscribed on the back! I learned my lesson… even with stones you think you’re familiar with, always check the back!

  4. yes, this is so true…I had been looking for my uncle and cousin who I knew were near my great grandfather’s stone… he and his wives and children were listed on the front of the stone. But as my brother and I are leaning up against the back of the stone looking around the cemetery, my brother noticed that there was info etched into the back of the stone… it was my uncle and cousin…apparently the plot was big enough for them as well.

  5. I once found the “in-laws” on the back side of the very large & tall tombstone! What a gift & surprise that was!

  6. Sometimes there are clues to a ‘bigger’ story etched into the tombstone. One was of a young husband who died of consumption. On the back was an inscription, “Erected by his wife.” She was also young and apparently not well liked by his parents. There was a probate to his will that was written days before his death which the parents tried to get as much as they could from the insurance policy he had. It seems like the tombstone was her victory over them.

  7. The first visit I made to a cemetery in search of family headstones, I found a small infant’s tombstone off it’s base. My grandfather’s infant sister was buried there. When I went back a second time, I rolled it over and found the other side had the missing infant brother of my Grandfather.

  8. This is precisely how I found my husband’s grandmother. Living family members knew nothing about her, and her name is not inscribed on the face of the upright tombstone with those of her husband and several children. Although she predeceased all of them, for some reason her information appears on the back of the stone, which I discovered by accident during a visit to the cemetery.

  9. While my husband was pencil rubbing his great grandmother’s headstone that was badly weathered, she died in 1887. I idly rubbed my hand down the back of the headstone and discovered more letters. After pencil rubbing the backside we found another child who died at a young age. We didn’t know of this child because he was born and died between the census, and there is no other record of him.

  10. While perusing a cemetery in my home town in Kentucky, I came across a stone with the following inscription on the back: “She done what she could”. This has become a classic saying in our family, sometimes bringing smiles. We could just picture this stalwart pioneer lady “doing what she could”.

  11. A good article; our ggg grandfather’s stone in Jessamine Co., KY had a lot of writing on one side and the friend who copied for me the first time did not take a picture of the other side then a few years later we were there and we accidentally looked at the other side and there was his name, when born and when died.

    In Tennessee in a very old cemetery you can find the stonemason’s name at the bottom of the stone and these people died way back in mid 1800′s.

  12. I recently requested a photo of my great-grandfather’s tombstone through Findagrave.com. As it turns out, he and his wife share a headstone. I was delighted to find that the volunteer who took the picture had also photographed the back of the stone, because all 12 of their children’s names were listed – along with birth and death years. Information for the whole family ended up being listed on one stone – a real bonus!

  13. After I found my GreatGrandfathers Thomas R. Horton, b.20 Nov 1844 Tombstone in Bethleham Cemt., Douglas Al.-who died on 9 Mar. 1884. The vandels had knocked the stone over (a heavy spear type) Well I did get the infirmation off the front & sides. I had heard that his young daughter was buried by him, and assumed that she had no marker. On about my third trip to the cemt. I got up enough strength to roll the stone over and there was her info. Mary M. Horton b.6 Apr 1876 & d. 27 Aug 1889, this info had been missing, in most records. She died a few years after him at age 13. I am in the process of trying to locate a stone mason to rehang the stone in it proper place. Tom M. Horton, Jr. 12-14-2008

  14. I’ve seen a stone carved to resemble a brick wall, and another with a train — clues to possible occupations. During a cemetery reading by our society, one stone had totally different names on the back. We’d need to research the family to determine if this was a married daughter.

    My g-g-grandfather’s small stone was laid flat to make it easier for lawn mowers. While I’m glad that the stone is safer, laying stones flat will obscure any writing that may be on the sides or back. This will be a problem for cemeteries that are not transcribed, or for which the transcriptions are in alphabetical order only.

  15. This is so important in the case of upright military headstones — which will often have the spouse’s or first deceased child’s information on the reverse of the military person’s headstone.

  16. My grandfather died at age 29 in a town in Chester Co., PA. I paid a professional genealogist to find which Philadelhia cemetery he was buried in.

    I called the cemetery he identified, but they denied that he was there. I hired a second professional, who said the same thing as the first.

    It turns out this cemetery is well-know in Philadelphia for being difficult to deal with.

    A second-cousin from up-state New York was visiting Philadelhia and went to the cemetery to visit our mutual great-grandmother’s grave site. She looked for my grandfather’s stone, “just in case” but did not spot it at first. As she was leaving, she turned back and, to her surprise, on the back of a stone two away from our great-grandmother was my grandfather’s full name in English. [The front was only
    Hebrew.]

    She stopped at the cemetery office to report this, but they still denied he was there.

    I called and spoke to the clerk again. Their records show a “Sigmund SAGEL” interred there. His death certificate clearly and correctly shows his name as “Sigmund SEGAL” and that is the name on his stone, but the cemetery has refused to change their records after so many years of having it wrong.

    If my cousin had not turned back for one last look at the back of the stone, I would not know for certain where he is buried.

  17. As mentioned earlier, check all sides of a headstone. One day while searching for relatives of one of my maternal great-grandfathers I turned what appeared to be a flat stone over and discovered that it was that of one of my great-grandfather’s nieces.

  18. I searched for years for my gggrandfather’s resting place. His wife’s stone had been overturned in an old family cemetary I visited, but was faceup and included her husband’s and childrens’ names. Someone eventually turned the stone over and discovered that my gggrandfather’s name and dates of birth and death were on the opposite side. He had been there all along. What a thrill it was when we had the stone and others in the cemetary restored.

  19. I came across a family gravestone in Dublin, In. that was two-sided. My grandfather’s brother and wife on one side. This mans daughter and husband on the other side. Frugality??? or Togetherness!!

  20. My husband’s grandparents, Thomas & Margaret Mulford were buried in the town’s “Catholic” cemetary. When their son, Uncle Joe died, we lived out of state and weren’t able to attend funeral. When we went home for a visit, we went to find his stone. We searched & searched the area of the family plots. No luck. Finally, we called Aunt Carrie, his wife, to tell us exactly where he was buried. Aunt Carrie, 85 at the time, said, “He was so damned cheap, he’s on the backside of his parents’ stone!” A final note: Aunt Carrie later purchased a stone for the two of them, but now Joe is on both stones! Confusing!

  21. On a recent visit to Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain (Boston), we visited a family plot to photograph the stones for http://www.findagrave.com. We had old photos (1980′s) but wanted clearer images on the website. We noticed a very worn stone that looked like it read “NELLIE”, and this was written into the pedigree as an unknown family member. Nobody ever noticed that on the back of the stone it said HELEN GREY RANDALL with DATES which helped us discover her parents! Another family mystery solved! See http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=24284339

  22. As a side note, PLEASE join Find-a-Grave and add your family members for future genealogists. It’s free and a great resource, as well as a wonderful online tribute. If you’re not living in the area where they are buried, you can request a photograph from a local volunteer~

    http://www.findagrave.com

    Thank you!

  23. My grandfather died in California in 1928 and was cremated. His ashes were later buried at his mother’s gravesite in South Carolina. His name and his year of birth and death were added to the back of her stone, 21 years after her death.

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