Cemetery Clues

Cemetery research is an important part of genealogy and family history. Cemeteries can also be used in researching the changes in the culture of the region and of the changes in the attitudes toward death over time. Early cemeteries in New England were often only a field and graves were marked with only a field stone. Churchyard cemeteries are near a church or where a church had been. Some families had private burial grounds on the farm which may have long been forgotten.

In 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts became the first of the “Garden Cemeteries.” Looking more like parks, garden cemeteries have pathways, trees, other foliage and some have water features and benches along the pathways. The names reflect the changes in attitude toward death as the names reflect nature and beauty including Jamestown’s Lake View Cemetery dedicated in 1859. By the 20th century, urban-type cemeteries came into use often looking like a field with rows and rows of tombstones, straight roads and few or no trees. Similar are the memorial park cemeteries that are flat, grassy expanses with flat headstones with little information beyond name and birth and death years on each stone.

Many cemeteries, especially ones operated by a municipality include a potter’s field where the poor, the unknown and the “unwanted” are buried usually at city expense. Veterans’ cemeteries began in the United States in 1862 and today there are more than 120 national cemeteries. Today “green” cemeteries can be found in some locations.

Even within a large cemetery, one can see changes in the types of tombstones used as the cemetery expanded and times dictated changes. Marble, sandstone, limestone and granite are familiar materials for tombstones, while metal and wood have been used at different times. Types of stones and the carvings and epitaphs used can vary from region to region and religious and ethic customs can dictate what is recorded on a tombstone. Government issued stones for veterans have changed over the years.

The carvings and symbols used on tombstones over the years have changed, reflecting the attitudes and beliefs about death. Early New England stones may include the “winged death heads,” a skull or skeleton while tombstones in from the early 1800s include weeping willows, urns and other symbols of mourning. Today we often see carvings of the hobbies or favorite pursuits that the deceased enjoyed during life. Sometimes there were pictures of the deceased added to the tombstones. Today one can add a QR code to the stone so that someone with the correct type of smartphone can scan it and listen to a recording about the deceased.

Today there are many books and an increasing number of websites on the Internet that can help the family historian sort out all this information. For many decades now, people and organizations, especially the Daughters of the American Revolution, have been transcribing the tombstones in many cemeteries for the use of family historians. This is handy if you know where ancestors are buried and if the ancestor had a tombstone that still existed at the time the transcriptions was made. Newer cemeteries and ones still in use today most often have records in the “office” that include burials where tombstones may not be present now.

One book to help family historians is “Your Guide to Cemetery Research” by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. This book is in the collection in Fenton’s Research Center. One popular website for trying to locate a grave is www.findagrave.com.

To learn more about our city cemetery, Lake View Cemetery, the Fenton’s annual Saints and Sinners Walking Tours are this Saturday from 3-6 p.m.