Making the Cemetery Rounds

Aha! Seminarsby George G. Morgan

Cemeteries can differ from location to location, depending on the geographical area, the population of the surrounding communities, ethnic and religious affiliations, and the purpose of the cemetery. For example, a church cemetery will be very different from a military cemetery in purpose, types of records maintained, physical layout, and the types of markers or monuments.

Before visiting a cemetery for genealogical research, try to determine what type of cemetery it is. You can sometimes accomplish this by searching for a website on the Internet for the cemetery itself, or the municipality or organization responsible for maintaining the facility. You may find information about cemeteries in an area by visiting the USGenWeb Project sites for states and counties () or for different countries at the WorldGenWeb Project site.

If you are trying to learn about military cemeteries in the U.S., visit the Veterans Administration website. For U.S. veterans buried overseas, visit the American Battle Monuments Commission. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission site provides information about military cemeteries, interments, and memorials for more than 1.7 million men and women from the UK, Canada, Australia, and other members of the Commonwealth.

Before visiting a cemetery, it is advisable to make contact with the administrator or sexton. He or she can tell you what is and what is not available in the way of records about each burial and where to locate the graves of your ancestors and family members. You can also make an appointment to visit the administrative office to meet, to obtain copies of records, and to learn about other resources in the community. These might include stonecutters, funeral homes and mortuaries, crematoria, and government offices that handle the issuance of death certificates, burial permits, and who may handle deeds for the cemetery lots and/or plots.

Rural cemeteries and especially family cemeteries may be more difficult to locate, as may be the administrators or sextons. Local funeral homes will usually be able to supply their contact name and information for a rural cemetery to you. The government agency that issues burial permits also may be able to help. However, don’t overlook the resources of the local public library reference personnel and the local genealogical and historical societies. All of these people may have contact with the cemetery owners or administration personnel in the area.

Make yourself familiar in advance of your visit with local histories. These can sometimes provide insights into the various national, ethnic, or religious groups in the vicinity, as well as any burial customs that may be different from those you have previously encountered. You might also study something about cemetery iconography so that you better understand the meanings of symbols and characters inscribed on markers.

If you plan to visit a military cemetery, learn something about the branches of the military and the time period of battles and burials encompassed by the graves. If you understand the basic military organizational structure and the ranks of the servicemen and women, you may gain a better understanding of the cemetery occupants’ lives and experiences.

Your advance preparation for your cemetery research trip will increase your ability to anticipate what you will find and your understanding of the available records and of the lives of the people interred there. Good luck!

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George has written
English Genealogical Research in the Major London Repositories to help researchers who are planning a research trip to England better organize their research time onsite, and to help those researchers working from home to locate the most appropriate repositories to begin their overseas research about British Isles ancestors. The book was published in conjunction with Lulu ( You can learn more about it at:

Visit George’s all-new website at for information about his company, speaking engagements, and presentation topics. You can also listen to George and Drew Smith’s Genealogy Guys podcast.

3 thoughts on “Making the Cemetery Rounds

  1. Just a suggestion to add to George’s great article: Whenever visiting ANY cemetery, always leave it in better condition than when you arrived.

    Pick up any trash you see, or pick off dead leaves from the plants. Even if it is not your relative/ancestor’s graves, spruce up the area so it has the appearance of someone caring. Be the policeman.

    I have even watered other flowers near my family stones. Of course, then I stand and talk with them for a moment, too.

    And I leave the cemetery and my folks feeling much better that day. Try it, you may really enjoy yourselves. 🙂 Peg

  2. Dear George,
    I have done research in Washington, Francois and Ste Genevieve counties in MO south of St Louis. There are many cemetery lists in the MO gen site so I found Toussaint Charboneau in the Richwoods Cemetery at a Roman Catholic Church in Washington County. I also found his granddaughter Mary Louise Charboneau’s grave in another Washington CO cemetery, but I haven’t been able to find her husband Andrew J Smith’s grave in the Smith Cemetery (probably on a farm) although I found out about it in a list of cemetery lists for Ste Genevieve County which I found in a local Library in the town of Ste Genevieve. I also found a store at a bed *& Breakfast place with many historical books and things and books of cemetery lists for various townships in Ste G County. I talked with the county assessor (or clerk} and told him of the library list. He showed me on an assessor’s map where he thought the Smith farm had been and said he had taken a picture of the graves once. When I went out the road that was on his map and trespassed down a dirt path/road I didn’t come to a cemetery and returned to my rental car vowing to try again another year.
    So I discovered several sources to help me, the internet, the local library and the County clerk or assessor.
    Peace, Rosemary Mixon Snow

  3. Just last year we found the severely overgrown rural Davis cemetery in Lewis Co, MO, that contained my grgrandmother’s grave & stone and her young dtr. We found them on list in the local library and located the cemetery on records at the County Clerk’s office. The road approach has been plowed over but the overgrowth has protected the 55 gravesites and stones.
    After cutting our way into the site Dec. 23, we were rewarded with about 1/2 of the stones still visible and some still standing. We took pictures of all we found and will share the info with the local library.
    Now, since the Co Clerk doesn’t know who owns the site any longer and the last internment was 1918, how do we go about getting this site protected and cleaned up. Some of my cousins are willing to travel and help this next fall but it will be a huge job — not to mention the ticks, poison ivy and snakes to avoid.
    We contacted the local historical society and they are doing a good job of maintaining info as it comes in but are not able to physically assist in any clean up.
    We want to protect the headstones and record the info. Where do we start? Any suggestions and thoughts? Help?

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