The Desert Shamrock: Arizona's Original Irish Newspaper,
Volume 11, Number 2, March/April 2000, page 25



by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Professional Genealogist & Historian

        As morbid as it may sound, searching cemeteries can be one of the most fascinating, and even exciting, aspects of family history research.  The awe and inspiration that you feel when you visit the grave and tombstone of an ancestor is beyond description.

Cemeteries are not simply only where your ancestors were laid to rest, but they are also where you will find monuments to them as ordinary people.  As well as providing you with vitals and other details about your ancestors, these individual memorials also give you an understanding of who your ancestors were, and how family, friends and neighbors felt about them.

        Cemeteries can be categorized into four different types: Church, Public or Municipal, Commercial Memorial Park, and the Family Burial Plot. 

        Cemeteries provide more than just basic vital statistics.  The information found on tombstones is rich and unpredictable.  If your ancestors were themselves the immigrants to America, tombstones may be the only record of the original spelling of your surname.  Additionally, clues for maiden names, minor children, military service, occupation, religious and fraternal affiliations, and places of origin are other bonuses found in cemeteries.  The tombstones of the Irish in America are particularly noted for identifying the county or township of birth in Ireland, and for identifying maiden names of women.

Cemeteries are being completely transcribed and published.  For researchers who cannot visit the cemeteries, this provides a great service.  These publications can be found in the various special genealogy libraries as discussed in previous articles.  Additionally, the internet is a new source for providing cemetery transcriptions.  

However, these transcriptions can contain errors, and even be misleading.  In visiting the cemeteries themselves, the researcher can note an ancestor’s placement in respect to other individuals in the cemetery.  In this way you may discover family members with different last names buried nearby.  Also, various symbols and markings identifying military service, fraternal associations, and other significant factors may not be included in transcriptions.

As well as the tombstones, cemeteries can provide additional information through written record sources such as Church Burial Registers, Sextons’ Records, Cemetery Deeds and Plats, Burial Permits, Funeral Directors’ Records, and Grave Opening Orders.  Like tombstones, these records will vary in content.  While some of these written records may be on microfilm and available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, most records are still only available by going to the cemetery’s records holding facility.

The care and condition of cemeteries will, naturally, be an important factor in the amount of information that you will find.  Newer cemeteries and tombstones will be in better condition, but not necessarily provide more information.  This is due to the cost of tombstones and carving them, and to cemetery restrictions limiting the style, size and shapes of tombstones.  Thus, modern cemeteries and tombstones have a very limited amount of information.

The cemeteries and tombstones from after the Civil War through the 1930s is the best period for providing the greater wealth of information.  Not only are the tombstones still in good legible condition, but, being the height of the Victorian era, the tombstones of this period are extravagant in design and extensive in the amount of information carved on them.  This is also during the height of immigration to America—1820-1920—and thus the tombstones of many of these immigrants have the potential to provide genealogists with important information, most significantly including the place of origin.

Cemeteries and tombstones from colonial America through the Civil War are more likely to be destroyed or lost, or the stones may be mostly or completely illegible.  Also, those that exist are far less extravagant and informative.  Yet, despite these possibilities, it is still worth the effort to locate the cemeteries from during this era, as even the most limited information can be most significant.

In Ireland, historically the population rarely had tombstones erected in their memory.  Meanwhile, many tombstones have been worn by the weather to the point of being unreadable.  However, if a tombstone is found for an ancestor, as well as birth and death information, townlands of residence, maiden names, and relationships may be given.

Generally, Irish cemeteries did not have written records.  However, the associated church may have kept burial registers, particularly Church of Ireland parishes.  Regardless of actual religious affiliation of the ancestor, Church of Ireland cemeteries and burial registers should always be searched as it was the state church.  In addition, town or city cemeteries may have sexton’s records of burials.

When you are unable to visit the cemetery or the office where the records are kept, you can contact the church or office directly for assistance.  Sometimes they will send you transcriptions of the stones requested, and copies of the records.  Or, you can contact the local genealogy society, or find someone in the area to visit the cemetery and copy records for you.  Sometimes, they may even provide photographs of the tombstones.  Through the USGenWeb site <> as discussed in previous articles, you can find information regarding local societies and researchers, and possibly even information on the local cemeteries and records office.

For previous articles on the basics of searching for your family history, visit my web site at  Click on Professional Services, then Genealogical Writings.

DISCLAIMER: This is an important reminder that the above article is provided here exactly as originally written and published several years ago. Therefore, while most of the primary context of the article may still be relevant, please be aware that possibly certain of the information and references may now be outdated, such as individuals and organizations, links, contacts, facilities, etc. Please follow-up accordingly for more updated information.

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©2013, Robert M. Wilbanks IV, Scottsdale, Arizona
created Nov 15, 2013; last updated Nov 15, 2013