Visit Virtual Cemeteries and Funeral Homes
Cemetery tombstones or grave markers are good sources for death information, as well as providing evidence for date of birth, family relationships, military service, and membership in fraternal organizations or societies. A visit to the cemetery is a must for family tree projects, but not always easily done in person. While it can't quite match the special feeling you get standing before your ancestor's tombstone, online research in the form of tombstone transcriptions and photographs affords the opportunity for “virtually” traipsing through cemeteries around the world from the comfort of home.
Tombstones often show the age of the individual when she died in place of either the date of birth or death. If this information is provided in the form years, months, days, such as “Age 22 Years 11 Months and 26 Days,” then you can easily calculate the missing date with the help of a birth date calculator (just type birth date calculator into your favorite search engine).
Virtual Cemeteries Have Their Shortcomings
Convenient as it is to research cemetery records online, there are a few disadvantages over a firsthand visit to the cemetery. Keep these in mind as you explore cemetery information online:
Tombstone information may not always be read and transcribed correctly. Some grave markers can be very hard to read, or the transcriber may have mistyped the information when putting it online. He may also have missed information inscribed on the back of the stone (although the thorough ones won't).
The arrangement of graves in the cemetery can be important because family members are often buried together or close to one another. That arrangement is not always preserved in the alphabetical listings you sometimes find online. Check to see if some type of placement information has also been transcribed, such as the cemetery section and row. This can at least help identify people buried in the same general area of the cemetery. If the site also includes individual tombstone photos, you can sometimes find clues in them to help identify a gravestone's relative position in the cemetery.
Find Online Cemetery Databases and Lists
Genealogical societies and volunteers are the greatest source for online cemetery transcriptions, so a good place to begin is on the website of an area genealogical society or the appropriate county site at USGenWeb. If that doesn't pan out, use a search engine to locate online cemeteries or transcriptions by entering a phrase such as greene county virginia cemetery. Or visit ePodunk (
The symbols and architecture you encounter in the cemetery can tell you a lot about your ancestors. Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister details many examples of funerary architecture and tombstone symbols, accompanied by photos. Alternatively, look online for information by searching for phrases such as tombstone symbols or cemetery symbolism.
In an effort to preserve the valuable information crumbling away in cemeteries, and to improve access to this information for genealogists, a variety of groups and organizations are collaborating to put cemetery data online. Best of all, these databases are all free!
Find a Grave — Visit the well-organized Find a Grave site (
USGenWeb Tombstone Transcription Project — Browse by state and county to view hundreds of thousands of cemetery transcriptions and photos contributed by volunteers to this special project at USGenWeb (
JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry — Well over 1.3 million names are available for searching in this database of Jewish interments in cemeteries and other burial sites worldwide (
Veterans Affairs Nationwide Gravesite Locator — Search for burial locations of veterans with the help of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (
Don't Disregard Funeral Home Records
Genealogists often overlook the records maintained by funeral homes. These can be a very valuable source of family history information. Depending on state or local laws, the funeral director may be the one responsible for filing the death certificate and placing the obituary with the news media, which means all of those valuable details collected from family members may reside in his files. A funeral home file may provide the deceased's date and place of birth, maiden name if a female, date and place of death, burial location, parents' names, veteran status, social security number and, sometimes, names of surviving relatives.
It is important to realize, however, that a funeral home is a private business. Its primary responsibility is to the deceased and the grieving family, not to genealogists. You may find the funeral home to be reluctant about releasing private records. You may also find that older records are stored away in boxes in a basement or attic, or have been thrown out to make room for more current records.
Some funeral home records may be found online in the form of transcribed data. These are generally posted by genealogical societies or volunteers, not the funeral homes. There are exceptions, however. The records of the J.F. Bell Funeral Home in Charlottesville prior to 1970 have been placed online (
Don't believe everything you see on a cemetery tombstone — even if it is carved in stone! This applies to funeral home records, death certificates, and other death records as well. The information is only as reliable as the person who provided it.
If you're unable to find any funeral home records online, you may wish to contact the funeral home directly. For best results, address a written request to the manager of the funeral home. This gives them the opportunity to respond at their convenience. Be specific about what you're looking for, enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope, and offer to pay for any copying expenses.