People, Place, and Time

Telling my family's stories

Why you should always visit a cemetery

I’ve always really enjoyed visiting cemeteries.  My favorite ones are the sleepy rural ones, like the one adjoining my mom’s family farm a few miles outside Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.  Or Log Church cemetery nestled in the hills of Jo Daviess county in Illinois.  I’ve always enjoyed walking among the stones, looking at the names, and thinking about the people represented by those names.  On a sunny afternoon, I’ve always found places like those good for contemplation as well.

But even if you don’t share my tastes — and I don’t blame you at all if you don’t — you should definitely make visiting cemeteries where your family/families are buried a priority in your genealogical research.  Here are some things you may find and should keep an eye out for.

  1. Exact places of birth or death recorded nowhere else in my records.  For one set of my great-great-grandparents, this included the TINY (we’re talking populations of 150 people or less) villages in Germany (they came from different villages in completely different areas of Germany).
  2. Names of parents, spouses, and/or siblings.  Sometimes these are carved on the stone itself, along with the relation, which is particularly precious.  But don’t forget to look at surrounding stones – if your ancestor is buried there, chances are someone related to him/her is too.  Often whole families are buried together.  And even if you don’t know the relation when you are visiting, take notes of any gravestones in the cemetery (or at the very least, in the same area) with the same surname.
  3. Middle names.  They may not seem like big clues, but sometimes that can be all you need to break down a wall, especially if it’s uncommon, or is for example, the person’s mother’s surname.
  4. Other information.  For example, one stone for a woman in southern Michigan that I came across had “born a slave” inscribed on it.  Sometimes favorite verses (sacred or secular) are inscribed.  For immigrants, these may be in the mother tongue of the old country.
  5. Military service.  Keep an eye out for service markers and inscriptions, as they will indicate not only what war the person was involved with, but also often provide specific information about their unit that can be used to look up more information.
  6. The state of the gravesite and the size and design of the burial marker can also be helpful, as they can indicate wealth, social standing in the community, memberships in certain orders.  And if the grave site is being cared for, that may be an indication that you have some cousins in the area!

Some of these pieces of information may be recorded in a transcription of a cemetery and findable on a site like, a site I love and highly recommend, by the way!  But much of it isn’t recorded.  Photos help a lot with finding the information on the stone itself, but still don’t give you much for context.  And you just never know what you’re going to find until you go!  So next time you’re in an area your family used to live, and you’re visiting all those records repositories like the courthouse and the library – don’t leave the cemetery off your list!


2 comments on “Why you should always visit a cemetery

  1. Robert Loyal Siedenburg
    December 7, 2014


    What a practical set of instructions, courteously presented as suggestions. I’ve never gotten bad advice from you, Clare. Thanks for caring enough to share these great pointers with the rest of us.

    First and middle names certainly do seem to travel down through the generations, don’t they? And my own parents had the following inscribed on their tombstone: proud parents of Delight, Robert, Richard, Joy, Merry. That would lead a researcher down at least one generation—and give my generation lots to live up to!

    My own favorite epitaph on a gravestone in eastern Carroll County, Illinois, in a little cemetery behind a small country church is that of a lady who died in middle age. It reads, “I told you I was sick!” Not only she, but also her family, had a real sense of humor.

    Rob Siedenburg
    amateur genealogist

    • Clare Cook
      December 7, 2014

      What a great line, Rob! Hard to argue with her . . .

      Thanks for your kind words, and for adding your own experience. I didn’t mention – but perhaps should have – the Wolfley cemetery in Carroll County you introduced me to, which is one of those lovely peaceful country cemeteries.

      This is hardly an exhaustive list, so do feel free to add to it, and thanks again for writing.


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This entry was posted on December 6, 2014 by in Uncategorized and tagged , .
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