Genealogy Tip: What Does a Gravestone Tell Us?

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about the family history information and clues gravestones provide. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

It’s always a great feeling to find an ancestor’s burial site. It provides us with information to verify an important fact in our quest to document our family history: we expect to find at the very least a name and death date or age on a gravestone. But what other genealogically relevant clues can that gravestone provide?

Before we look at some specific markers, it’s important to consider a few things about researching gravestones. First, you have no idea who provided the information for that marker unless you have seen the receipt for the purchase or some other record. So, it is undetermined who the informant is, which means that the person who provided the information could have been incorrect. We don’t know how much they knew and how they knew it. In addition to that, the person who carved the marker could have made a mistake. Ultimately, we need to verify all of the information we find on a gravestone. We do that with original records such as a birth or death certificate.

Also, it’s not a given that a gravestone was added shortly after death. The grave could have been unmarked for some time. And I have seen cases where the grave was marked twice due to the destruction of the original stone, the stone being stolen, or someone decided to remark the grave.

There’s no doubt that gravestones can provide additional clues about our ancestor’s life beyond their birth and death date. We should carefully study them and analyze what they tell us (or not tell us).

The following are just a few categories of information you might find on a gravestone.

Family Members

A gravestone may include much more than one name. You’ve probably seen gravestones that list a husband and wife. A child may be listed on a gravestone with his or her parents. A gravestone may also include the names of several generations of family members.

Photo: gravestone with multiple generations, from Oakwood Cemetery, Denton, Texas
Photo: gravestone with multiple generations, from Oakwood Cemetery, Denton, Texas. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

Don’t forget to also look at nearby markers for other family members. In some cases, you might find a married couple’s parents or siblings. A family may have bought a plot with a number of graves and offered them to other family members.

On some gravestones, family relationships are obvious because they are literally spelled out – and in others, it might take more detective work because of differences in surnames.

Fraternal Order Membership

A fraternal order membership might be information provided on a stone. Fraternal order symbols and initials might give a hint to organizational membership that should be further researched. Not all records may be available, but at the very least look into the history of that order in that place and time. Local history books and historical newspapers can help with that research.

Photo: gravestone with fraternal order symbols, from Oakwood Cemetery, Denton, Texas
Photo: gravestone with fraternal order symbols, from Oakwood Cemetery, Denton, Texas. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

You probably know that a compass and square or a compass and square with the letter “G” indicates Masonic membership. But there are other symbols to be aware of. Consult reference books or Google to find answers.

One example that you may come across is a stone that looks like a tree trunk. This might indicate membership in the Woodmen of the World fraternal society. Not all Woodmen of the World gravestones look like a tree; they can be much simpler and perhaps just indicate membership with the letters WOW.

Photo: gravestone for a member of the Woodmen of the World fraternal society, from Oakwood Cemetery, Denton, Texas
Photo: gravestone for a member of the Woodmen of the World fraternal society, from Oakwood Cemetery, Denton, Texas. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

Religious Affiliation

Religious affiliation might be ascertained from a gravestone, whether it be a scriptural verse that gives clues to a Christian affiliation, symbols found on the gravestone, or the shape of the gravestone itself.

Consider this marker with the initials IHS. What does IHS mean? According to online dictionaries, it is a Christian symbol for Jesus Christ. The Collins Dictionary states: “a contraction derived from the Greek word ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, Jesus, used as a symbol or monogram.”* One would want to consider Christian church records in their genealogy research plan.

Photo: gravestone from Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, California
Photo: gravestone from Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, California. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

Prior Residence or Birthplace

A researcher can count themselves lucky when they find a gravestone that provides the place an ancestor is from. “Native of…” might be included. In this example from the Eastern Sierra area of California, the marker indicates that William Lafayette Moore is from North Carolina.

Be careful about who you assume erected this marker. Although it says “Our Beloved Brother,” it also has a Masonic symbol, so this marker could have been erected not by family, but by those in his Masonic lodge.

Photo: gravestone from “Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra” by David Ortega
Photo: gravestone from “Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra” by David Ortega. Used with permission.

Sometimes, the clue might be very general, like this gravestone that states the deceased is a native of Ireland – but as genealogists we know that even small clues can help.

Photo: gravestone from “Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra” by David Ortega
Photo: gravestone from “Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra” by David Ortega. Used with permission.

Have You Analyzed a Gravestone Lately?

Finding an ancestral burial site is more than just verifying a name and death date. The stone itself can tell you so much more. It’s important to take the time to study the front and back of the stone for symbols, words, and even the shape of the stone itself in order to learn more about your ancestor’s life.

* “IHS,” Collins Dictionary (https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/ihs: accessed 7 June 2021).

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8 thoughts on “Genealogy Tip: What Does a Gravestone Tell Us?

  1. It is interesting to see the person’s name as H. C. Bell where there is plenty of space for the full name spelled out. Perhaps “everyone” at the time knew him as “H. C.” but it is not what genealogists one hundred years later are looking for!

    1. James, that is so true. It’s so much easier to research when a name is spelled out. But we don’t always find that. Thanks for your comment!

  2. I would add: when looking at a stone note the style, color, and cut — you may find other stones from the same monument maker.
    This could point to previously unknown family members.

  3. Gena Philibert-Ortega,
    You are JUST what I was looking for today! Your articles are both educational and very entertaining! I am finding myself becoming a Taphophile! I, as a child, used to rub gravestones in older cemeteries. I loved the engravings I found there, and some strange or famous names. That was all lost to me, as my first husband burned them all. But now, as I’m finding both sides of my birth family heritage, I am again looking at things differently. THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU for this look into gravestones, cemeteries, epitaphs, and names. I am indebted to you! Wondering if you’ve written a book on these subjects? I’d love to be able to afford it if I could find one! Please advise! I’m an old, disabled gal, seeking “enlightenment” in your manner! Thanks again!

    1. Libby, you’ve made my day! Thank you so much for your kind words.

      I do have a cemetery book but it’s specific to the Eastern Sierra region of California. However, there are more cemetery articles to be published here on the GenealogyBank blog, so make sure to check back.

      Good luck in your cemetery searches! –Gena

    1. Thanks for sharing that Joyce. I would caution, however, that that is not always the case. So you’ll want to double-check that with any stone you encounter. I have seen a stone for a child (no other family member listed) that included two cut-off limbs.

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