Digging Up Your Ancestors: Cemetery Research with Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches old newspapers to find out more about Woodland Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio where many of his relatives are buried.

Historical newspapers are incredibly helpful in our genealogy research, especially obituaries that provide information on our ancestors and, often, their extended family. But what else can we learn from other types of newspaper articles? Let me just answer that with one word: Plenty!

I happen to have over 150 family members interred at a cemetery by the name of Woodland Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.

Tombstone of Karolina Porkony, Cleveland OH

1895 headstone (in Czech) for Karolina Porkony Vicha, one of the author’s ancestors, from Cleveland’s Woodland Cemetery. Image Credit: from the author’s collection.

I decided recently to research this cemetery in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives—and I was not disappointed at what I learned!

The first discovery I made in my cemetery research was an article in an 1853 newspaper. It reported on the dedication of the Woodland Cemetery—and I was happy to learn when burials began in this cemetery. I also could not help but smile at these lines:

“The Ode was read by the Rev. Mr. Hawkins, and sung by the Choir. The singing was only tolerable, we thought.”

City Facts and Fancies Woodland Cemetery Dedication Article

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 June 1853, page 3

Shortly after this, I read an item in an 1854 newspaper. This old news article recounted a visit to Woodland Cemetery by some member of the newspaper staff. It gives us a very interesting look not only at the cemetery as a whole, but how they interred the indigent and poor citizens of the city as well as the children. My heart sank though when I read:

“Two long rows of graves stretch from one side of the enclosure to the other, containing the remains of 200 deceased persons, nearly all of whom fell before the epidemic.”

Visit to Woodland Cemetery Cleveland Article Excerpt

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 2 October 1854, page 3

I decided to take a look further and see what “epidemic” the newspaper article was referring to.

It wasn’t long before I came across an 1854 article with the headline “The Dread Epidemic,” which begins with:

“The cholera this year comes with dread punctuality.”

1854 Cholera Dread Epidemic Newspaper Article

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 June 1854, page 2

I picked up my Ohio history book and discovered that, beginning in the 1830s: cholera epidemics killed thousands; Cleveland was the first Ohio city to experience a cholera epidemic; and it was cholera that killed former United States President James K. Polk.

Next I found an article in a 1900 newspaper about a burial in Woodland Cemetery. It gives us a very intimate view of the celebration of a Chinese funeral at this time. Plus there was an interesting final sentence in this article, which reads:

“The body of Huie will be removed by and by and taken to China for final interment.”

Burial of Huie Gimm 1900 Newspaper Article

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 February 1900, page 5

While furthering my cemetery research I spoke with Michelle Day, the director of the Woodland Cemetery Foundation of Cleveland. She told me that, while there were hundreds of Chinese immigrants interred in Woodland Cemetery, nearly every single one was later disinterred and removed to China for final burial.

I then came across an interesting article from an 1892 newspaper. This somewhat humorous article gives us a nice view of just how reporters used to gather information for obituaries, and how some of the more “interesting” items get included that we often while doing genealogy research!

Facts for An Obituary Reporting Newspaper Article

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 20 May 1892, page 7

I closed out my cemetery research by finding an article from a 1984 newspaper. The columnist, Bob Greene, takes an interesting look at the fact that so many folks move, in their later years, to a Southern climate and makes note:

“…it must be strange to know one’s obituary is destined to appear in a newspaper that was never read in the house of one’s most vital years.”

A Story of Death and Life Newspaper Article

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 25 April 1984, page 17A

This made me think: I had better be sure to cast my geographical net wide when I am searching for an obituary for one of my elusive ancestors!

Good luck with your family history research, and comment here to let me know some of the intriguing facts you have discovered about your ancestral cemeteries and obituaries.