How to Find Ancestors’ Graves: 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 explains the five steps he takes to add an important and emotional aspect to his genealogy research: visiting the cemeteries and recording the gravesites of his ancestors.

As fans of genealogy and family history, there are some wonderful opportunities we can use to follow up on those tidbits of information we discover in newspaper obituaries.

As a personal example, I had been struggling with the family of one of my ancestors, Elijah Poad. It wasn’t until I found his obituary published in a 1910 Montana newspaper that I was able to move forward with my genealogy research, thanks to the listing of his family members and their hometowns. This obituary reported the locations of three brothers, a sister, and a son—five avenues of future research for me to explore.

Elijah Poad Dead, Anaconda Standard newspaper obituary 16 September 1910

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 16 September 1910, page 9

Certainly the names, dates of the deceased, hometowns, and family members listed in an obituary are important family history clues.  There is another important research path that I urge all genealogists to consider after finding their ancestor’s obituary: what we can do when we discover that often-elusive name of the cemetery where their grave is located.

Many obituaries state the cemetery where the deceased was buried. In the example above, Elijah Poad’s obituary didn’t report the name of his cemetery—but the family clues it provided led me to additional research, and eventually I did discover the location of his final resting place.

Whether you find the name of your ancestor’s cemetery in an obituary or through other ancestry research, the question remains: what do you do next?

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The following are my top five steps for cemetery follow-up from newspaper obituaries:

1) Have a plan to share what you discover. Before you even begin to work on family information from the obituaries you find, I suggest you have a plan for how to make the best use of these genealogy research discoveries. Sharing is always a nice way to multiply your efforts, so have a plan in place for how you want to do this. For me this means sharing my findings on the BillionGraves.com website. Through their partnership with MyHeritage.com, they have a goal to document every cemetery in the world!

2) Visit the cemetery if you can. While we certainly cannot get to every cemetery that holds the memorials for every one of our ancestors, I suggest that you plan a cemetery trip to each of them that you can—it’s well worth the time and effort. There is something very moving about standing at the gravesite of an ancestor when your genealogy research has discovered their history.

3) Document the location of the graves with maps of the cemetery. Fewer and fewer cemeteries have onsite staff, so you’ll probably have to explore for your ancestor’s gravesite on your own. I store our family tree electronically, and one of the things I always do is scan and attach cemetery maps that I have for each ancestor. I scan a map of the full cemetery as well as section maps and sometimes I add explicit instructions for how to find the grave itself.

I discovered how important this can be from personal grave-hunting experience. It had been several years since I had attended the funeral for a grandparent, but finding myself in that town on business, I decided to stop by the cemetery and pay my respects. I was sure I remembered where the graves were, but I found them only after walking around in the rain for a good hour, making several cell phone calls to other relatives to see if they remembered. So now on our family tree are very specific directions on how to locate these graves.

4) Photograph the gravesites of your ancestors and others. We all know the perils that are aligned against cemeteries everywhere. Time, weather, acid rain and, sadly (all-too-often) vandalism are taking their toll on headstones everywhere. You can see from the following examples why photographs are so important. The first photo is the headstone of Vaclav Knechtl, my great-great grandfather. You can see it is in Czech and, unfortunately, the years of acid rains in Cleveland, Ohio, are taking a terrible toll.

photo of the headstone for Vaclav Knechtl

Photo: headstone for Vaclav Knechtl. Credit: Scott Phillips.

This next photograph shows the headstone of my great-great grandmother Karolina Vicha, which is in remarkably good condition.

photo of the headstone for Karolina Vicha

Photo: headstone for Karolina Vicha. Credit: Scott Phillips.

Sadly, the tombstone for her husband Josef has been almost totally destroyed by time, weather, and possibly vandals.

photo of the headstone for Josef Vicha

Photo: headstone for Josef Vicha. Credit: Scott Phillips.

Now whenever I am in a cemetery, I not only take photos of my ancestors’ graves, but I also spend a few extra minutes snapping photos of adjacent graves for the BillionGraves project.

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5) Get involved and help with cemetery restoration and clean-up. My final step is to get involved and help where and how you can with the local cemeteries. It might be through the local nonprofit that supports the cemetery (you can see an example of this at http://www.wcfcle.org), it might be by joining one of the excellent nonprofits that support cemetery history and preservation such as the Association for Gravestone Studies, or it might be by volunteering for clean up, etc., when needed. You can also report any necessary maintenance issues to the owners of the cemetery.

As you can see from the following two photos, your involvement can make a difference. When I went to visit my father’s sister’s grave, this is what I found.

photo of the neglected gravesite of Scott Phillip's ancestor Peggy Phillips

Photo: neglected gravesite of author’s ancestor Peggy Phillips. Credit: Scott Phillips.

This is what the gravesite looks like now after the maintenance folks did their magic. Quite a difference!

photo of the restored gravesite of Scott Phillips' ancestor Peggy Phillips

Photo: restored gravesite of author’s ancestor Peggy Phillips. Credit: Scott Phillips.

From a newspaper obituary or other family history documents, you can enhance your genealogy experiences many fold simply by locating your ancestor’s gravesite, having a follow-up plan, and helping out those who came before us!
Do you visit any of your ancestors’ cemeteries? I’d enjoy reading about your ancestor grave-hunting experiences through your comments here.

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Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 4: BillionGraves Smartphone App for Finding Graves

I recently wrote the article Top Genealogy Websites, Pt. 3: Burial & Cemetery Records, which included a discussion of BillionGraves.com. This handy website provides an app that can be used to find the burial site of a relative.

Let’s look into this a little more.

BillionGraves is a free Internet site that encourages genealogists, Boy Scouts and local cemetery buffs to take photographs of the tombstones in their local cemetery and upload the pictures online using the free BillionGraves app.

This is really easy to do.

Remember—you’ll need a Smartphone to take these cemetery photos or find a gravesite already photographed.

Why? Because BillionGraves not only adds the photo of each tombstone, it includes the GPS coordinates to the spot where that person is buried. It has harnessed technology to make it easy to permanently record the photograph—linked to the GPS data used by Smartphones—so that anyone can quickly find the tombstone. This nifty app makes it so much easier to find what cemetery—or where in that cemetery—someone is buried.

How does this work?

Watch this short video clip of Tom Hester showing how easy it is to do this.

How do you find a grave using BillionGraves?

What if you’re looking for a particular grave and there is no cemetery office? No sexton available? No map to cemetery burials?

We’ve all walked cemeteries for hours searching for our deceased relatives’ graves.

BillionGraves is changing that.

With BillionGraves you can quickly find out if someone has uploaded a photo of your ancestor’s grave. With its GPS feature, your Smartphone can lead you right to it.

Watch how “Casey and Jake” found the grave of their 8th-great-grandmother using the Smartphone app.

Harness the information in both BillionGraves and GenealogyBank and you can fill in the details of your family tree.

collage of records about Lionel Starbird from GenealogyBank and BillionGraves

Credit: GenealogyBank and BillionGraves

For example, let’s say you are researching your ancestor Lionel Starbird.

On GenealogyBank you can quickly find the core genealogical information about Lionel Starbird—his name, date of birth and date/place of death—and by searching for him on BillionGraves you can see a photo of his grave. Notice that BillionGraves links all of the photos in a family plot to his record.

It’s a great day for genealogy!

Read these other articles about top genealogy websites:

Top Genealogy Websites Pt. 1: Google

Top Genealogy Websites Pt. 2: Google Books & Internet Archive

Top Genealogy Websites Pt. 3: Burial & Cemetery Records