Finding the Stone

Anna Trautvetter tombstone (Michael's great grand-aunt)by Michael John Neill 

Our ancestors may have moved a great deal while they were alive. Fortunately they usually don’t move after they are dead. Still in many cases it is difficult to even find this fixed target. Despite these problems, there are several approaches we can take to finding that buried ancestor.

The Death Certificate
The death certificate is an obvious place to look for a burial. The only problem is that in many cases our burial questions are from the era before death certificates.

The Obituary or Death Notice
Obituaries are another excellent place to begin looking. Again the problem here is that in most cases our problems are in an era where these records are not of assistance.

Look at the Probate
Does your ancestor’s probate settlement indicate any payments that may provide clues as to his burial location? More recent estate accountings may spell out the name of the cemetery and go so far as to provide a precise location of interment. Earlier records, if they provide any information at all, may only go so far as to indicate a payment for a casket or digging a grave. Still it may be worth a look.

Look at Their Residence
Chances are your ancestor is buried relatively close to where he or she died. This becomes truer as one’s research extends back in time, because the transportation of dead bodies was less likely than it is today. Determine what cemeteries are located nearest to your ancestor’s place of death. If the date and place of death are not known, use the ancestor’s last known residence as the place to center your search for a burial location. Census records may provide this information, but other records providing residential details such as city directories and land records should also be utilized when available to better approximate the likely location of the death.

Locating cemeteries close to your ancestor’s last known residence requires searching in several locations, including the United States Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System
( This site has a significant number of cemetery names in its database. It does not include every cemetery in the United States (small rural cemeteries are the most likely to be omitted) and does not have transcriptions of any stones, but this site will provide the specific location of the cemetery.

Those wishing to learn names of more cemeteries in their county of interest should continue their search at the appropriate county Web page on the USGenWeb project ( and search for published transcriptions as mentioned later in the article.

Military Service
If your ancestor served in the military, there may be special finding aids to assist you in your search for his or her burial location. An article I wrote a few years ago, “Final Resting Place,” ( contains information on locating these records.

Look at Their Religion
If your ancestor was a member of a specific denomination, you may find him or her resting in a cemetery adjacent to the church they attended. The church cemetery might not have been the nearest cemetery, so broaden your geographic area slightly particularly in urban areas where a cemetery of the “right” denomination may still be within a reasonable distance. Do not ignore a cemetery of the “wrong” denomination as an ancestor may be buried with a spouse for whom the cemetery was of the “right” denomination. A cemetery that started out as a church cemetery may no longer be owned or maintained by the church and today may include many burials of individuals who are not church members.

Look at Their Ethnicity
Is there a nearby cemetery that has burials from a particular ethnic group? Many of these cemeteries were affiliated with a church (at least originally) but a few were not. It may be worth a look.

Look for Their Relatives
If the burial location of great-grandma is elusive, determine the burial location of all her children and her siblings. While this approach is not always successful, there are many times where family members are buried in adjacent plots. Records on another family member may be detailed enough to allow the location of the desired individual. And remember, after Grandma died in 1875, Grandpa may have moved three states west to be near his children. Chances are when he died he was buried there and not taken back to be buried next to his wife.

Determine What Cemeteries Have Been Transcribed
In many cases, it is possible to search the stones of a cemetery without ever traveling or making an actual visit. A significant number of cemeteries have had their tombstones transcribed, and in some cases, published either online or in print form. There are several ways to find these transcriptions.

  • Library card catalogs. Search the subject headings of national, regional, and local libraries in the area of interest for cemeteries in the desired county and town.
  • Local Historical/Genealogical Societies. These organizations may have transcriptions in their vertical files or actually published transcriptions in book form.
  • USGenWeb sites ( These volunteer online research sites may have transcriptions of cemeteries on their website for the county of interest. Be certain to check out the specific county page for links to other sites containing cemetery transcriptions for the county in which you are searching.

Is It Complete and Is It a Transcription?
Some online listings of cemetery interments are only those that have been submitted by site users. While this can make finding some ancestors easier, bear in mind that such collections may be incomplete and that other searches may be necessary. Some sites will indicate that their listings of burials in a cemetery are those submitted by volunteers. Also determine if the database you are using contains an actual transcription of the stone or is a listing of who is in the cemetery. Listings of burials are helpful, but a transcription may provide additional information.

Once you have located the tombstone of your ancestor, determine if there are additional records. Other information may consist of paper records created by the cemetery or the caretaker, deeds to cemetery lots (which many times are not recorded in the local courthouse), and the actual tombstone. In some areas, locating records of the cemetery may be as easy as making a phone call. In others, contacting local libraries, historical/genealogical societies, and county officials may be necessary to locate the appropriate contact person. If those approaches do not work, in rural areas a call to a local mortuary may provide the answer. Keep in mind though when calling a local business that they have other work to do besides answering genealogical queries.

Was There Even a Stone?
Of course, there is always the chance that the stone had fallen away by the time someone transcribed the cemetery. And your family might never have put up a stone in the first place. In cases such as these, if the cemetery doesn’t have any records, you may never determine where your ancestor is buried.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) ( He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine. You can e-mail him at [email protected] or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

5 thoughts on “Finding the Stone

  1. While the article was informative, a check of Tuscola County, Michigan, showed at least five currently active cemeteries not even mentioned.

  2. People should be aware when using geonames.usgs that the cemetery name listed on the usgs map may not be how the cemetery is known locally or even how it appears on town maps. Also, if you search by town (ie: list all cemeteries in town X), be aware that the usgs map on which a particular cemetery appears may not be indexed under the name of the town where the cemetery is located.
    For example, the cemetery in Rockport, ME locally known as Glen Cove Cemetery appears on the town map as Warrenton Street Cemetery and on the Rockland usgs map with the name Seaview Cemetery. This is particularly confusing because there is a Seaview Cemetery in Rockport, but it is about 5 miles north of Glen Cove and is, if fact, almost completely surrounded by the town of Camden.

  3. In the Canadian census of the 1871 or 1881 at the end of the
    census there was a list of persons who died in the year and
    the cause of death. This was many years ago when we only had
    hard copies to look at (before the computization of information) and the reason I remember is the cause of death
    was shown as cancer. I do not remember at the moment which
    census it was and only came across it by accident. This info
    probably was not transcribed into on the on line census. Just a
    thought for your article.

  4. There is also The Tombstone Project where volunteers can submit photos of headstones by county. Since it’s voluntary it is hit or miss, but some counties are covered quite well. Our local county Benzie in Michigan is completely covered as a local couple took on this as a project, for which I’m very grateful. This is found through Rootsweb or Genweb sites.
    I found a photo of my 4th great grandmother & grandfather in Ohio.

  5. Some people will not have tombstones, like my parents whose bodies were donated to science/medical centers. These things need to be documented, so desendants don’t search for something not there.

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