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Tiptoeing Through the Graveyard

Guide to Discovering Your Ancestors in Cemeteries


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The practice of marking the final resting place of a loved one goes back thousands of years. The ancient pyramids are conceivably the greatest example, standing today as a reminder of the ancient Egyptian glorification of life after death. Roman catacombs, a subterranean burial place for early Christians, contained niches where the fully clothed bodies were placed and which were then sealed with a slab inscribed with the name of the deceased, date of death and a religious symbol. Many of the elaborate grave markers erected in the 19th and early 20th centuries were styled after the memorials of the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilizations. Following the first World War, grave markers started to become smaller and less elaborate - plain crosses and simple, upright stone slabs decorated with carvings, symbols and epitaphs.

Cemeteries are living lessons in history. People who buried their dead said much about themselves and the ones who had died. While not considered a primary information source, gravestones are an excellent source of dates, birthplaces, maiden names, spouses' names and parents' names. They can also provide evidence of military service, membership in a fraternal organization and religious affiliations.

Why Visit Cemeteries?

Why should you visit the cemetery if you already have a birth and death date for your ancestor? Because you never know what you may find. Nearby gravestones can lead you to other family members. Little grave markers can tell the story of children who died in infancy for whom no other records exist. Flowers left on a grave may lead you to living descendants.

Other than a few records and documents and, perhaps, some family jewelry or heirlooms, your ancestor's tombstone is the only physical evidence of the life they lived. There is nothing in your genealogical research that will connect you to your ancestor more than to stand in the one place on earth which contains their mortal remains and to see important pieces of their life carved into stone. It is an amazing, awe-inspiring experience.

Next > How to Locate a Cemetery

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