Genealogy Tip: What to Do When There Is No Gravestone

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips for when you’re researching an ancestor’s burial site but cannot find a gravestone. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Have you found the burial place, or think you know the burial place, for an ancestor – only to discover there is no gravestone? This can happen for any number of reasons, and there is no doubt that it is frustrating for family historians looking to confirm information about their ancestors.

Photo: graveyard at St. Nahi’s Church, a very old church in Dundrum, Dublin, Ireland
Photo: graveyard at St. Nahi’s Church, a very old church in Dundrum, Dublin, Ireland. Many of the gravestones are illegible, and other graves lack a gravestone at all. Credit: William Murphy; Wikimedia Commons.

So, what do you do when you can’t find a marker for an ancestor? When do you call off the search because you’ve “looked everywhere”?

Why Is There No Marker?

Before we explore why an ancestor may not have a grave marker, let’s briefly discuss why you may not find a burial for them. There are various reasons why an ancestor is not found in a location or cemetery you expect to find them. For example:

  • That cemetery doesn’t exist anymore.
  • The deceased died in an institution.
  • The deceased was cremated.
  • The person died in a place where their body was not recovered or they were buried where they died (for example, at sea or on an emigrant trail).
  • They died as an “unknown” because their body was not identified.

Knowing the reasons why a burial might not be found can help as you search, and it may explain why you can’t find the marker. Now, assuming you think you know where they were buried due to a genealogically relevant record or family lore, what are the reasons their grave may not be marked? Let me preface this with the point that even if a death certificate says a person was buried in a particular cemetery, it doesn’t mean it’s correct. I’ve seen death certificates that gave the wrong information about the final resting place of the deceased.

  • Marker was destroyed over time (wear from weather, sinking into grave, breaks into pieces, wooden marker).
  • Marker is no longer readable.
  • Marker was stolen.
  • Grave was never marked.
  • Grave was marked with a temporary marker and never replaced (paper or small metal marker).
  • Grave was never marked because person was buried in a mass grave, potter’s field, or an institution.
  • Marker was removed by a government entity (this happens when graves are moved for land use or other reasons).
  • Cemetery and/or marker is on private property.
Photo: wooden grave marker in Denton, Texas, with inscription worn away
Photo: wooden grave marker in Denton, Texas, with inscription worn away. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

If you’ve visited the cemetery, it might be obvious where a marker once was. Maybe there’s a family plot or there are the remnants of a stone, or there is a fence or other type of border where there are unmarked burials. But over time, the elements, weather, “progress,” good intentions, or maleficence can result in an unmarked grave.

Now What?

So, what do you do if you’re pretty sure your ancestor is in a particular cemetery but the burial is not marked?

You’ll want to exhaust everything you can to determine if the ancestor is buried there. This can mean exploring:

  • Historical newspapers for articles (including an obituary or articles about the cemetery).
  • Cemetery records.
  • Funeral home records.
  • Family sources, including receipts for burial and endowment care. Photos of funeral, burial, or gravestone. Diaries, journals, correspondence, and funeral cards.
  • Local and cemetery histories (a local history might shed light on the cemetery and its burials).
  • Cemetery transcriptions. Earlier transcriptions and lists may be a clue to a marker that was stolen or has deteriorated over time. The FamilySearch Catalog is a great place to look for these.

The Works Progress Administration’s Historical Records Survey created cemetery indexes in the 1930s as part of the New Deal. These cemetery indexes can be found in libraries and online. You can read more about these on the Interment.net website.

Finding the burial may take a lot of research in online and in-person sources, and unfortunately the answer may be that you never find the answer. In my own family history, I have ancestors whose burials are now underwater due to local projects, ancestors who are buried underneath a golf course, ancestors who were laid to rest (presumably) on their homestead land that is now private property and overrun with trees. There’s also the ancestor for whom I know what cemetery she is buried in but the stone is no longer there (if it ever existed). A fire in the early 1900s destroyed the records and I would need to scour miles of a large cemetery to find her (and still may not). Unfortunately, sometimes there is no answer.

Sometimes There Is No Answer but We Still Try

In genealogy we do our best to connect parents to children and uncover the facts of our ancestors, but sometimes we are left with even more questions. In some cases, the best you can do is an exhaustive search and then write up what you know and don’t know. In time an answer might surface but, in some cases, you will not know some important details about every ancestor in your family tree.

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30 thoughts on “Genealogy Tip: What to Do When There Is No Gravestone

  1. I have some Great Aunts who died as children. The family moved a lot but remained in the same general county in Iowa. One of their sisters told my Mom that she had no idea where her sisters were buried. Her father was a miller and they moved from one mill to another. The children were buried wherever they lived at the time, generally a small farm as part of his employment. She thought they all died due to gripe. Sad for sure.

  2. Thanks for sharing that Charolette. There are so many factors that go into where a person is buried and with whom (if any family at all). Your example is a good one for us to remember. Sometimes a loved one was buried and the family moved on, never to see that burial place again.

  3. I have an ancestor that was killed in a coal mine cave-in in northeast PA in 1853. His name was Isaiah. Some records say he was buried in the same cemetery as his widow many years later. However, that cemetery has no record of his grave. Another cemetery near their home let me know they have a record of an Ira buried there in 1853 with the same last name. It was a public cemetery where miners killed in the mine or family members without the funds for a marker just found a place in the field, dug a hole and put the deceased in it. I am hoping to be able to return to northeast PA some time to investigate this further. The town historical society was unable to furnish me with a picture of the grave for Ira. I cannot express my thanks to the volunteers that work with these societies. They are very helpful.

    1. Volunteers are great! When we don’t live in the area of our ancestors we definitely depend on their expertise and help. I hope you will be able to see that burial in the near future, James. Good luck!

  4. I was lucky enough to attend a “family reunion” of all strangers to me in Indiana many years ago. The town historian led a small group of us to plots just discovered on land deep in the woods. They were determined to be directly related to my family. Checking land records led to the discovery. I never would have known or found them without this gentleman’s expertise.

    1. Local expertise definitely helps. I’m so glad you found that “lost” family history. Thanks for sharing that Claudia!

  5. Your article describes my current research! Thank you. Major clue was found in a published obituary of another family member who was buried in the same cemetery as my target ancestor. That obituary named many family members (siblings and children) but did not mention the name of her father (my target ancestor). The obituary stated that she was buried “…next to her father.” The Eureka moment! In June 2021 I visited the cemetery and found the grave (complete with gravestone) of the subject of the obituary and, sure enough, there appeared to be an unmarked grave adjacent. Am now actively researching all the named survivors to offer as evidence that she is the daughter of my target ancestor. In June I learned that local lore holds that in the distant past many headstones were damaged/destroyed by trees and/or tree limbs felled by major storms; thus creating many “unmarked graves.” Research continues… wish me luck.

    1. Obituaries are so important! They are filled with clues and Camille your example is perfect. Good luck with your continued research!

  6. 1. I have an example of a once-“missing” gravestone of a fairly prominent person. The American composer Randall Thompson (my 8th cousin, twice removed; common ancestor Samuel Packard) died in 1984 and is buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, along with many other prominent New Englanders. When I visited the cemetery in 2014, I knew from Find-a-Grave where in the cemetery his grave is located. I went to the spot – no marker, just grass. A clerk at the cemetery office told me there was no marker, apparently because the family had never had one installed. Fast forward to 2021: Find-a-Grave now has photos of a marker for him. It is a plaque flush on the ground, not a standing stone. I wonder if my inquiry prompted some action. History: In college in the early ’60s, I sang in the university chorus. One of our concerts was entirely of his music – conducted by him! What a thrill. At the time I did not know we were cousins; I wish I had known then.
    2. Missing grave marker for my immigrant ancestor, Edward Larkin, who died about 1688 in Rhode Island. We know where his family lived; he was a farmer, but the property is now just wild woods. He was certainly buried on the property, but whatever marker may have existed is now completely gone. I have searched without success.
    3. Found gravestone: One set of my third great-grandparents, and other ancestors, are buried in a family cemetery in Rhode Island. I have a photo, taken by my grandfather in 1932, of their stones standing side-by-side. A visit to the cemetery in the 1980s found one of their stones but not the other. A little digging revealed the “missing” stone – right where it was supposed to be – but it had fallen over and been covered with dirt and leaves.

    1. Richard, thanks for those wonderful examples. I especially like the “missing” stone. Great idea to look closer because stones can be covered with grass or mud, or have toppled over. Thank you so much for your comments.

  7. We have found cases in Luxembourg and Belgium were the graveyard was potentially destroyed by tanks during the Battle of the Bulge.

    1. That’s something I hadn’t considered, cemetery destruction due to war. Thanks for providing that example Stephen. I appreciate it.

  8. There are cases in Denmark and other parts of Europe where after 20 years the grave is subject to reuse by others and then the stone will be removed also and replaced by the new occupant’s marker.

    1. Very true Stephen. That is also the case for some other places, such as island nations, where the burial space is limited.

      Thank you for that important reminder.

  9. Very good article with excellent advice for “when there is no gravestone.” When searching for the cemetery for a 3rd great grandfather (who had died in 1860), I checked at a museum in the area of Oregon where he had a Donation Land Claim and asked if the museum had any records. I found out that his original burial site on his Donation Land Claim, along with his wife and 2 daughters, had been moved during World War II, to make room for a military base. Also, his headstone was found in a person’s garage when they bought the house, with no idea how it got there and why it was there! Luckily, the people contacted this museum and the staff took the time to find a great uncle and tell him about the stone. He then went to the museum, retrieved the headstone and placed it in the cemetery my grandfather and his family were relocated to. When I then went to the cemetery, I was taking photos of all 4 gravestones and happened to walk over in the field right next to these graves and cemetery. I looked down and saw a piece of marble that matched my gr. grandfather’s headstone and saw initials on it of D.D.D. which my gr. grandfather’s name was David Daniel Davis! I realized it was a foot stone which should be with my gr. grandfather’s grave! Someone probably tossed it over there, not wanting to hit it with the lawn mower. I retrieved the stone and buried it flat at the foot of my gr. grandfather’s grave, so the mower could go over the top of it. After 150 years, my gr. grandfather finally had his gravesite all as it should be! He had traveled to Oregon in a wagon train in 1847.

    1. Wow! What a story Louise! Thanks for sharing that. I’ve known of other instances where a headstone is not at the cemetery including one that involves a family member. That’s amazing you found the footstone! It’s so important to do a thorough search. You never know what you’ll find!

  10. I was told by someone that worked in the Church office that a reason why I might not be able to find them is that they were buried with someone else, due to a possibility of a lack of money. But she could not give an idea of how to find the friend. 🙁

    1. Judy, so I’m assuming their records weren’t of any help or couldn’t be searched by name. It’s possible you could look at your ancestor’s FAN club (Friends, Associates, and Neighbors) and inquire about those burials. You can identify a FAN club by looking at plat maps, directories, and the census (depending on year).

      Was there a will or probate action that might give clues? What about an obituary or funeral notice?

  11. A couple things stood out to me about your article. One was that I know the basic location of my grandfather, who was buried on his farm property back in 1935, but it’s now private property and the grave stone is missing. Two, the cemetery where my grandmother is supposed to be buried has no record of her burial and no grave or stone was found — but her death record says she is there. The funeral home is long gone and the county and historical societies don’t know where the funeral home records are. Lastly, my great grandfather was hit by a train and I’ve not been able to find a death record. Luckily I found an article describing the event. However, I haven’t been able to find an obituary or where he’s buried. ‍♀️

    1. Debby, your experience is one many of us have had. Unfortunately, there can be issues with records. And sometimes a cemetery is now private property which limits our ability to access information.

      It sounds like you’ve looked in quite a few places for records. I wonder if there is an archival collection that might include the local gravemarker business that might have records that a marker was ordered and set in a specific place. At this point, archival records might be your best bet.

      Good luck!

  12. I had looked all over for a 3X gr-grandmother’s burial place. She didn’t seem to be buried with all the family, and there was no record or stone for the burial. I felt that she must there but I couldn’t find her. Turns out she was visiting a daughter an hour and a half away when she died! It was winter time and she, and her children, were getting up in age so the daughter had her buried at a cemetery close by her. She, her daughter, and son-in-law are the only family members buried in that area. I hadn’t checked the cemeteries near her various children because so many other of her immediate and extended family were all together in one area. My own mindset on where she “should be” was the problem. It’s genealogy. I should have known better!

    1. Thanks for that example, Cindy! Sometimes we do get in our way of finding the answer. Assumptions are something that stands between us and the answer oftentimes. I appreciate you sharing this.

  13. I find it amazing you didn’t recommend they file for a veteran’s marker if they were a veteran. If you have the DD214 you have the information right there. If you don’t have that, search for the proper military information and send to get it. The application for both is available online, just complete it and file for it.

    1. Cindy, thanks for this information. This is one way to ensure a military burial has the marker it deserves. This article focused on finding the marker so I didn’t get into the subject of replacement markers. That will be the subject of another article.

  14. My mother told me about her younger brother: 1913, stillborn, mother died a week later. Family poor, baby was put in small box (soap or something like that) and buried out beyond the house -– then country. Now suburbs and probably under concrete. The mother was cremated and is interred in a beautiful building.

    1. Linda, I have heard a similar story from a friend, that a stillborn baby was buried in the backyard. It does make sense since burying that baby in the cemetery would have cost the family and they just didn’t have the resources.

      Thank you so much for providing that example. I appreciate it.

  15. So, in San Francisco my ggrandparents were buried in the Masonic Cemetery. Later, it was thought the land was more important, so if the relatives didn’t claim the remains they were all put in one hole in Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, CA, with one stone on top. In going East, I found a library on top of where my ancestors should have been buried, a bridge over another family cemetery, and a man whose wife inherited the land, but he decided he did not want to be bothered with people coming to ask if they could visit the family burial plot so he cemented over the whole thing.

    1. Yes, San Francisco is one place where land was deemed too important to bury the dead in and so many of the cemeteries (but not all) were repurposed. The dead were exhumed and reburied in Colma. This is probably one of the most famous examples but not the only one. It’s not unusual to find that a city park was once a cemetery or has burials but all of the tombstones were removed. That’s why learning more about the place and the history of the cemeteries is so important when we consider where our ancestors could be buried.

      Thanks for this example, Lee.

  16. My husband’s great grandfather was on the cemetery records and there was a stone for his wife. There was no stone for him. The cemetery tried to locate the exact location–right or left of the wife–but only did an educated guess. He was buried in 1918. So I “passed the hat” with my husband’s siblings and cousins and received enough money to get a matching (small) stone engraved and placed on a foundation next to his wife. Now he has recognition!! We think the reason he didn’t get a stone was that it was when the Spanish flu was rampant, and when it died down his kids just forgot.

    1. Mary, you might be right about why there was no stone. It also could have been a cost factor. I’m so glad that you and the family remedied that. Thanks for sharing that!

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