Researching your family history can take on a variety of different appearances. Many professional genealogists consider themselves more like detectives than researchers, where the clues can come from a variety of different locations. Today, we'd like to look at a rather unusual location for finding valuable genealogical information about an ancestor, their headstone.
You see, headstones and grave markers often list much more than just a name, birth date, and death date. Some headstones list the names of family members. Some quote favorite verses of the Bible. Some list the place an ancestor was born or the church she belonged to. Visiting an ancestor's grave is like searching for buried treasure (but please, no actual digging), you never know what new information you'll find listed on a tombstone.
It's not difficult to find out which cemetery someone was buried in. If you know where your ancestor was living near the time of his death, you will most likely find him in that town's cemetery. If your ancestor was not buried in the town that he died in, he was probably moved to be buried near his spouse or another family member who preceded him in death. Many cemeteries have been indexed by volunteers, and the indexes are searchable online. Every cemetery also keeps their "sexton's records" that list who is buried in a cemetery and the specific plot in which they are buried. These records, along with a map of the cemetery, are available at the cemetery office (if it is a large cemetery) or in the local county office (if it is a small cemetery).
Sexton's records are lists of who is buried where; they are not extractions of everything that is engraved on a tombstone. To read what is written on an ancestors' tombstone, you'll have to go to the actual grave. Just remember that just because a headstone engraving is "written in stone" doesn't mean that it's infallible. Headstones, like any other record, can contain errors, so compare the headstone with the information that you already have and evaluate it carefully.
It's also a good idea to pay attention to the graves around your ancestor's, since families were and still are often buried together. You may find new information about other ancestors, and you may even find new family members that you never knew about. If a child died at a young age at a time when birth records were not made, she may not show up in any records except her tombstone.
When you go to the cemetery, wear clothes that can get dirty so that you can kneel on the ground and get a close look at the tombstones. Sometimes grass grows over flat headstones or headstones that have fallen down, so bring a small trowel to remove the grass and dirt. Bring gloves to wear in case the grave site is overgrown with weeds.
Always make a record of any headstone that you find so that you'll have it for future reference. The best way to do this is to take a digital photo. Hint: when taking a digital photo, a mirror can come in handy to reflect sunlight onto the stone and to create shadows to make the words more visible. But never use shaving cream or chalk on a tombstone to make the lettering easier to see as this can cause irreparable damage the tombstone. If you choose to make a rubbing, be very careful not to scratch or wear away the stone. Don't take a rubbing of a sandstone monument or a headstone that looks worn or weathered; it is important to preserve headstones for others who will come to see them in the future. Once you have a photo or a rubbing of a headstone, record the new information that you found, and make copies for interested family members. With any luck, you may get a new companion for your next cemetery excursion!