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Tantalizing tombstone tidbits offer intriguing clues

Jul 06, 2017 10:50AM
We all visit cemeteries during our lifetime, whether it be for funerals, Memorial Day, Pioneer Day or for a peaceful, contemplative walk — but are you aware of the wonderful genealogical treasures that can be hidden there?

Cemeteries have several sources of information: the inscriptions on the stones, the records of the sexton and, if the cemetery is associated with a church, the burial records.

Inscriptions can range from none to detailed information for generations. Sometimes only initials were given but typically inscriptions include the decedent’s name, birth and death dates and possible relationship to another person.

For example, you might find a stone that says “John Doe, 1859-1901”; or “John Doe, 12 September 1859 to 22 January 1901” or “John Doe, beloved husband of Jane, died 11 January 1901, aged 41 years, 3 months and 29 days.” (A helpful birth date calculator is at

I have seen a large memorial stone in a family plot detailing the lives of that family extending several generations, their relationships and which of their many homes each person was born in.

Other inscriptions that give information about a person include symbols. Some are for fraternal organizations such as IOOF, BPOE, the Masons and Order of the Eastern Star, military insignias, religious symbols and many others. An excellent article on how to determine the meaning of the symbols is at

Once you know the derivation of the symbol, you might be able to find more records for them from those organizations.

Sexton’s records can include death certificates, funeral programs, obituaries and lists of survivors. Some of the best records they have are the plot listings. Information includes who bought the plot and when, all of the burials in that plot and a lot of times the relationship of the deceased to the plot owner. This is especially valuable because not all burials have stones. Knowing when someone was buried can lead to other records such as death certificates, probate records and obituaries.

Frequently, when a cemetery is associated with a church, there will be a burial entry in the church register. Varying amounts of information may be recorded including parents, spouse, children, age, date of birth and death. In some records, even the godparents are noted. Again, there may be no stone in the cemetery to mark their grave, but the burial entry will provide identifying information.