Don't take every piece of information someone sends you as gospel! Ask for sources! Verify information! Have an open mind! YOU could be mistaken!.
How to Find an Obituary for a Specific Person
As part of your genealogy and ancestry research, you may need to find the obituary of a specific person. In this article, we will provide a list of useful resources that will help you find the obituary of a specific person.
Obituaries are one of the most important sources of information that genealogists seek when looking for clues pertaining to the life of an ancestor. What many people may not know is that the practice of announcing deaths in such a manner dates back to around 59 BC.
Roman newspapers etched on metal or stone known as Acta Diurna (Daily Events) would be posted at important points around Rome. It would feature notable births and deaths as well as general gossip regarding the important people of the city.
In 1439 with the invention of the printing press the practice of announcing notable deaths continued with the advent of newspapers. This is something that has persisted and remains the common practice today although those mentioned no longer have to be rich or famous.
So why are obituaries so indispensable to genealogy and more importantly how can we find the ones we need for our research?
Importance of Obituaries To Family and Friends
Those with elderly parents or those who have spent time living with a grandparent may have experienced them sitting reading the local newspaper looking to see if anyone they know has died. As we get older, we get a morbid fascination with our own mortality and by extension with those we know who are close to our age.
Obituaries are the chance for a family to announce to whoever may not already know that one of their loved ones has died. It often allows the family to tell people when the funeral is taking place, allowing the chance for old friends to attend and give their condolences.
Obituaries serve an important social function in that the families do not have to take time in the midst of their grief to try and contact everyone their deceased loved one may have known.
Obituaries hold great importance to a genealogist even though they are technically not considered a strong proof document. Searching through obituaries for ancestors may help us find out important information regarding them such as:
- Close family members
- Religion and church affiliations
- Date and place of birth
- Date and place of death
- Former profession
- Important biographical information
The family information that can be found in an obituary can be beneficial in differentiating two people with the same name in official records. Knowing the names of siblings and parents can make identifying the correct census record for an individual much easier.
Just like with any mystery it can be a lot of small clues that help you find the truth and the documents to prove it. We must always remember that obituaries can be inaccurate and that the information within should be viewed as a clue until it leads to better-documented proof.
Does Everyone Have an Obituary?
The simple answer to this question is no, not everyone has an obituary. They are not like death certificates because they are something that a family member creates for a person rather than an official record of death.
We do not automatically get an obituary upon a person's death and if no one chooses to make the death announcement then there will be nothing for us to find.
In researching history for so long I have lost count of the number of times people have seemingly just disappeared from the public record. At some point, they must have died but a death record can’t be found, and no one ever posted a death notice.
It, therefore, is important to note that there may not be an obituary for the person you are trying to research. So a smart genealogist will search anywhere that such a posting might be but also understand that if it isn’t found it may simply not exist.
How to Find an Obituary
The important place to start when it comes to seeking an obituary is gathering as much information as you can about the person in question. You need their full name, other names they may have used, approximate date of birth, place of birth and likely place of death.
There may be many options as to where someone may have died so you may be searching several places. Also, remember that sometimes an obituary may be posted in an area someone was born as well as where they died.
Once you have your target areas you need to determine what publications would have been in circulation around the time your focus person may have died. The notice may only have run in one newspaper so it’s best to try and check them all.
Make Use of The Library
The local library in a town your ancestor may have died may be an invaluable source for finding their obituary. They may have full collections of local newspapers in which you can search the death notification sections. Some libraries may also have digitized versions that you can view online to save you the trip.
Where to find Obituaries Online
A good free source to research obituaries online is Legacy.com. This site allows you to search for specific people by location and approximate obituary date. It may take multiple searches and the use of variations on your information to locate an obituary but it is certainly worth trying this site.
If you happen to have an Ancestry membership with a filled out tree you may also from time to time receive hints that lead you to Newpapers.com. In the past, this has helped me locate many different family announcements including weddings, births and deaths.
If you know your region of focus for the obituary you can search online for that area in particular and you may find dedicated sites that can lead the way. A local newspaper may be able to direct you to where you can view old copies of their publications.
Funeral homes are a great source for more recent obituaries with more and more people posting online rather than in print.
Obituaries date back to ancient Rome and today has become a very common practice. Sometimes an obituary may be only a piece of information we find regarding one of our ancestors, but the information contained within can help us find out more details.
They are not always 100% accurate so we should never assume them to be. Their importance is as a guide to further identify a person based on the people, they considered family and the things people said of them after their death.
Not everyone has an obituary but when they do they can sometimes be found with relative ease. The key is to know as much as you can about the person and especially when and where they may have died. Once we know where to look, we can learn the best publications to check and hopefully successfully locate what we are seeking.
Genealogist and family-tree research specialist
Neil was born in Shropshire, England surrounded by centuries of living history. His interest in the past has been a lifelong passion leading to undergraduate degrees in both Economic History & Geography and History & Politics.
This interest in history quickly translated to family history when he moved to the U.S. in 2010. It was here that he began working on his own family tree as well as that of his American wife. That research allowed him to gain a wealth of experience working with both U.S. and European genealogical documents and studying their best uses in researching family history.
Following 9 years of honing his genealogical research skills, Neil was proud to have earned a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University in late 2019. Neil also took part in the research process for a Duke University study into the families of 19th Century UK Members of Parliament.
Genealogy for Beginners
The ultimate beginners guide to genealogy by Marc McDermott
February 24, 2022
If the word “genealogy” brings to mind tedious searches through dusty shelves and boxes to eke out yet another tiny fact about a distant ancestor who died long before you were born, you’re right.
But you’re also completely wrong.
There is so much more to genealogy than just putting together a list of names, places, and dates.
Genealogy is all about understanding the history of your family.
It’s about where your ancestors came from, how their world affected who they were, how they lived, and eventually, how they came to have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all the way to down to you.
Pro tip: a great way to get your feet wet in this hobby is with a free trial at one of the big genealogy sites. MyHeritage has a free 14-day trial which gets you instant access to 11.9 billion records and over 3.5 billion family trees. Click here to learn more about this offer.
People get started with genealogy for a variety of reasons:
- to learn more about their family culture and heritage
- to add a sense of history and tradition to their lives
- to make sense of all the “cousins” they have met and figure out how they fit together
- to find out whether that story that Grandpa Adams used to tell about being descended from President John Adams is really true
- to leave a personal history behind for their children and grandchildren
- and countless more
Whatever your reason for considering genealogy, this guide is designed to help you take that first plunge.
While this guide is specifically about genealogical research in the United States, most of the same rules apply no matter what countries you are researching.
What is genealogy
Genealogy is the study of our ancestors: our parents, their parents, and on and on.
But not only are we looking for a list of names and dates, but we’re also looking for their stories and how they fit into history.
Genealogy is a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but without the photo on the box and with some of the pieces missing.
It’s challenging, but when you finally sit back and see the picture come together, it’s incredibly satisfying and rewarding.
Why you should start today
When I was 13 years old, all four of my grandparents and five of my great-grandparents were still alive.
By the time I was 23, every one of them was gone, together with their stories and memories.
The longer you wait, the more will be lost.
Records get destroyed, on purpose or accidentally; people pass away.
Too many people wait until they are retired, their children are grown, and they finally have free time, but that’s far too late.
Don’t wait, get started today!
Four tips for getting started
1. Organize your findings
Ready to jump right in? That’s great, but there’s something you should do before hitting the library or jumping online.
You need to decide how you’re going to organize what you find.
There are some ways you can do that, and none are perfect for everyone, so pick the one you think will work best for you.
Regardless of what else you do; you should have a way to file physical documents.
Even if you plan to put everything on the computer, paper makes a great, durable backup, and can be great for organizing your thoughts, too.
Your best bet for paper records are file folders and somewhere to store them, like a file cabinet or storage box.
Use one folder for each surname you are researching. If you have a lot of information about a specific person or family, make a new folder just for them, too.
On the Computer
There are a variety of computer programs you can use to organize your genealogy, too. They range from free to rather expensive. See our guide here.
In general, the more a program costs, the more features it has. But for the beginner genealogist, more features aren’t always better.
Pick a less complicated program to start. You can always export your family tree from one program to another later.
Some websites, such as Ancestry and FamilySearch.org, allow you to build your family tree online and skip the software altogether.
Just be aware that if you use a subscription website to organize your data, you may need to keep paying every month instead of just once for software.
Probably the most popular genealogy program is Family Tree Maker.
It offers every feature you will need without going overboard, and there are how-to guides for it everywhere on the web.
Family Tree Maker retails for about $80, but chances are you’re never going to need anything it doesn’t offer.
2. Always use birth names
Whether you’re working on paper or a computer, one essential rule is to always use maiden names or birth names.
A woman’s surname may change two or three (or more!) times in her life, and you don’t want to have records lurking under several names.
Always use the surname she had at birth.
Likewise, if you have a child who is adopted, it is usually best to use his or her birth surname, too, if known.
3. Start with the census
Many folks just starting out in genealogy start with census records, and for good reason.
Most census records are now digitized, searchable, easy to access online, and full of great information to start building your family tree.
4. Don’t forget the bigger historical picture
Your life is a reflection of the world around you, and the same is true for your ancestors.
When it comes to genealogy, you cannot ignore the world that your ancestors lived in, either.
When your ancestors came to the United States, what was happening in the country where they lived before?
Was there a war, civil unrest, famine, religious persecution?
Why did your ancestors settle where they did?
Why did they move when they did?
All of these questions not only impact how and where you go about searching, but they also add historical context and interest to your family’s history.
- many families relocated in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression, looking for new opportunities
- the U.S. government has issued land grants several times to encourage settlement of the “wild frontier”
- the Irish Potato Famine in 1845-1852 caused thousands of people to emigrate
I even have one ancestor who settled where he did because he hurt his leg and couldn’t walk any further.
Understanding the world in which your ancestors lived is vital to understanding who they were, and making their lives truly come to life.
Bonus tip. Always be learning
One of the best things about genealogy is that you’re constantly a student. The more you learn and study the field of genealogy, the more addictive it becomes.
It’s important to stay up to date with the latest news, especially as it relates to the big genealogy sites releasing new digital record collections.
There are countless sites out there to follow. One website in particular that we love is Genealogy Explained.
There are more than a dozen kinds of records commonly used in genealogy (and many uncommon ones, too).
Each type of record will be good for certain types of information, but less useful for others, so it is important that you know about all of them.
Many of these records can now be found online (check out the website list later in this guide), but for some, you still need to go to the source, whether it be a courthouse, a church, a library, or wherever.
What Is the U.S. Census?
When we talk about the census, most of the time we’re talking about the Population Schedule of the U.S. Census.
This census has been taken every ten years since 1790, and most of the records still exist today (unfortunately, most of the 1890 census was lost in a fire).
While other components of the census sometimes exist, such as an Agricultural Schedule or Manufacturing Schedule, most of the time the Population Schedule provides the greatest amount of information for genealogists and family historians.
Information Available from the Census
From 1790 to 1840, census takers listed the name of the head of each household, together with the number of people living in each household divided into age ranges and by sex.
1840 US census. Click to enlarge
Unfortunately, that means that these records may be of limited use in tracing family lines, as there is no way to connect children with parents or even husbands with wives.
Still, these years can help you track your ancestors’ movements over time and may give clues on where to search for other, more detailed records.
Beginning in 1850, the census lists every single person in each household, including valuable information such as place of birth and age.
Later records list actual month and year of birth, or even exact date of birth, depending on the census.
1860 U.S census (click to enlarge)
They may also list occupations, places of work, income, the value of real and personal property, education level, and more.
In general, the later the census, the more information it includes.
But any census from 1850 on can be a very helpful resource in linking parents with children and trace elusive ancestors through their brothers and sisters.
How Information Was Gathered
One of the most important considerations in using census records is understanding how the information was gathered.
The Theory: during a certain range of days, a census taker visited every single house or another dwelling within his territory, spoke with the people living in each, explained what information was needed, and carefully gathered and recorded it.
The Reality: although the vast majority of the information on the census is accurate (or very close) there are several reasons why a particular record might not be.
One of the most common reasons was that no one was home.
If the residents weren’t home, rather than having to circle back—and keep in mind most years of the available census, people traveled on foot—the census taker likely got the information from the next-door neighbors.
Beginning with the 1940 census, the census takers were finally instructed to indicate who provided the information (with a plus sign inside a circle), but that doesn’t help in any of the years before that.
1940 U.S census (click to enlarge)
Even if someone was home, they might not have understood all the questions, they might not have remembered their children’s exact ages (or even their own), they might not have spoken English well (or at all), and they might have been entirely illiterate, which led to some very interesting and creative spellings of names.
And of course, it doesn’t matter how correct the information is if the census taker’s handwriting is illegible.
Fortunately, even if not exact, in most cases the information is close, and may provide the clues needed to lead you to more accurate and thorough records.
Just try not to be frustrated when your ancestor John appears as Johnny, age 5, in 1850; Jon B., age 14, in 1860; and J. D., age 26, in 1870.
One thing to keep in mind is the date that the census was taken.
Historically, census information was collected over a period of a month or more, but every census year had a specific date (such as April 1), and all information was supposed to be based on that date.
1940 U.S census residence section
So, if Susan turned 13 on April 5, and the census date was April 1, she should still be listed as age 12 on the census, even if the census taker didn’t arrive until after her birthday.
If someone in the household was alive on April 1 but had passed away by the time the census taker arrived, they should still be listed on the census.
In reality though, things did not always work out that way. Susan was listed as age 13, and the deceased was nowhere to be found on the census.
To make matters worse, the official census date has not stayed the same.
From 1830 to 1900, the date was June 1 (actually June 2 in 1890, because June 1 was a Sunday).
But in 1910, the date was moved to April 15. In 1920, it was moved to January 1. In 1930, it was changed to April 1.
Be aware of the official census date and how it might affect your search.
From one census to the next, your ancestors could be living in a new township, a new city, a new county, or even a new state, all without moving an inch!
That’s because places change over time.
A town may adopt a new name.
A county might be split in two.
New states were being formed even into the 1950s.
You need to be aware of this and may need to do a little research to find out what a location was called in a certain year.
For example, searching for your ancestors in Snyder County, Pennsylvania in 1850 is guaranteed to turn up zero results, because Snyder County was not formed until 1855.
You need to be searching in Union County instead.
Searching with Soundex
It is very easy to misspell names, especially if the person saying it is illiterate and can’t spell it for you.
And for much of U.S. history covered by the census, many Americans were illiterate. Foreign names and those spoken with a heavy accent were also often misspelled.
So, if you’re looking for an ancestor with the surname Donovan, how can you possibly search for it on the census if it might have gotten spelled Donavan, Dunavan, Dunovan, Donnovan, or any of a dozen other ways?
Soundex is a special system that was set up to help you do just that by organizing similar sounding names together (such as Smith and Smythe).
In the 1930s, Soundex indexes were created for the 1890 to 1920 census schedules, and have since been created for many other records, too.
Some genealogy websites such as Ancestry even include an advanced search option to use Soundex when searching any of their records.
Soundex uses a letter (the first letter of the last name) and three numbers representing additional consonants, if any, to group the names (Smith, for example, becomes S530; Washington would be W252).
It lumps similar sounding consonants together (like d and t, or m and n) to make it easier to catch spelling mistakes.
Many times, this can help you find missing ancestors, especially if their names were misspelled on the census or other records.
However, the more unique your ancestor’s surname, the less useful the Soundex might be.
Galloway and Galey, for example, both share the same Soundex code, G400, but there are many, many more Galloways than Galeys.
We’ll go into more detail on using Soundex (and the related Microcode) in another article.
Is it Worth It?
Given all the problems of finding specific census records and considering that the information may not be correct, is it even worth using them at all?
Absolutely, without question, yes.
While the census may have its issues, it is very easy to search.
Every available page of every year has been digitized, indexed, and put online by sites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch.org, making them accessible from nearly anywhere, often for free.
Census records are one of the few good sources for locating and tracing parents, siblings, and families across generations.
They provide excellent clues about not only places and dates of birth but tell you exactly which counties you should be searching for wills, probate records, birth, marriage, and death records, church records, and so much more.
The census isn’t going to give you everything you want to know about your ancestors, but it is a fast, easy, and inexpensive way to get started.
Quick Tip: in some census years, a few people on each page were chosen to provide extra information – be sure to check the bottom of the census sheet, and you might get lucky. More on the U.S. census here.
1940 U.S census. Whoever was listed on lines 14 and 29 were required to give additional information
Other common records
Here’s a quick rundown on the other types of records used most often in genealogy.
certificates can tell you not only when someone was born but where, and give important details about the child’s parents, often including when and where they were born, too.
Birth certificate for President Obama
Some states have them online, others you may have to request by mail.
Before around 1900, many birth records were kept by counties rather than the state.
Death certificates will include date and place of death, the cause of death, and very often information about either the decedent’s spouse and family, parents, or both.
Like birth records, most have been kept at the state level since around 1900 and the county level before that, and many are available and searchable online.
Social Security Death Index (SSDI)e Social Security Death Index tells you the date of death, date of birth, when and where the SSN was issued, and the city where benefits were last paid.
It is fully searchable online and easy to use. However, this only helps for those ancestors who had Social Security Numbers issued, so it isn’t much help before 1950, and somewhat incomplete up to around 1970 or so.
Marriage records include the date of the marriage, the age (and sometimes date of birth) of those being married, and often their parents’ names.
In many cultures, the place of marriage could be a great clue to find the bride’s birthplace as the marriage often took place in the same town.
They may also include lists of friends or relatives who were witnesses for the marriage.
Counties and states maintain marriage records, and many are now digitized and online.
Churches maintain marriage records too, and before the mid-1800s, that might be the only place that kept them.
Don’t forget to search local newspapers for marriage or engagement announcements, too.
Baptism records will list the date of the baptism and, for children, the child’s parents. It may also list the date of birth.
These are mostly only found in church records.
Baptism record of President Martin Van Buren
Wills and probate records
These records vary widely in the information they contain but can be great sources for names of children or other relatives, and clues about where to look for property or other records.
They’re mostly only found in county courthouses. Sometimes indexes are published online or by local genealogical societies.
Deeds and land records
Deeds and other land records track land ownership and will list the name of the buyer and seller as well as the date.
They can sometimes help trace family lines but are most useful in proving residence in a particular county.
They’re mostly only found in county courthouses, though some counties have started to put them online.
The Bureau of Land Management (glorecords.blm.gov) has over 5 million federal land title records searchable online, from 1788 to the present.
If your ancestors emigrated to the United States, they had to get there somehow, and for most of history, that meant a ship.
Passenger lists generally list every passenger, so they are good for linking spouses and children, and often list ages, too.
Be sure to check the columns to see who paid for the trip, last known address/contact person, and who they were going to stay with in the U.S.
These columns often reveal invaluable information about close family members.
Many passenger lists are now online. Your local genealogical library may also have a copy of Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, which before the internet indexed every passenger list that was published in a print source.
This index can also be found online at worldvitalrecords.com, but requires a subscription.
Once your ancestors arrived, they likely wanted to become citizens.
Applications for naturalization can include great information including name, date of birth, place of birth, date, and place of immigration, and more.
Top section of naturalization application for Elias Sanders, father of Senator Bernie Sanders
Many of these records can be found online, or check out county, circuit, or district court records.
Several drafts have taken place in U.S. history, and even if your ancestor never served in the military, he might have had to fill out a draft card.
They can give you name, date, and place of birth, place of residence, and even sometimes a physical description.
WWI draft card for Brooks Benedict aka Harold Mann
Records from the 1942 draft are available online. For other drafts, check out the National Archives and Records Administration (www.archives.gov).
Before there were phones and phone books, there were city directories.
These can tell you not only where your ancestors lived, but their occupation as well.
Some city directories are available online, while others can be found in local libraries.
If you can track down an old family bible, you may find a treasure trove of genealogical data.
Families often recorded every birth, baptism, marriage, and death in their family bible, sometimes for several generations.
Check with all your living relatives to see if there is a family bible lurking on a bookshelf or in a closet somewhere.
Obituaries vary a lot in what they include, but often list not only the decedent’s full name, date of birth, and date and place of death, but also their parents, spouse, children, and grandchildren, and their spouses, too.
There are a variety of obituary indexes online, such as Legacy.com and Obituaries.com.
Specific newspapers can be searched, too, either through the newspaper’s site or at Newspapers.com.
Cemeteries keep records of every interment which may include a lot more information than you think, including not only date and place of death but the place of birth, parents, spouse, and even names of children.
Some cemeteries have their records available online, but many you will need to contact them individually.
There are no formal indexes of cemetery records online, but one great source to start with is Findagrave.com.
Once you’ve found your ancestor’s grave, the tombstone can provide some helpful hints including dates of birth and death, spouse, and sometimes children.
Photos of many tombstones are available at Findagrave.com, but the best way is to visit the cemetery yourself.
It helps you feel a direct connection with your ancestors.
Just as important, going in person gives you the chance to check other graves nearby.
Sometimes several generations of a family were buried within a few feet of each other, so be sure to check out nearby tombstones as well.
Old family photos
Names, dates, and places are all well and good, but if you can put a face with a name, that’s a thousand times more satisfying.
And finding photos of your ancestors may not be as hard as you think.
The best place to start of course is with your own family. Reach out to every relative you can and see what they might have lurking in their photo albums.
Even if they don’t have photos, they may know which family member does have them and point you in the right direction.
Most genealogy websites allow you to do photo searches, though their collection size can vary a lot.
One site called DeadFred.com not only lets you search for photos but offers to send you a free copy if you find a direct ancestor.
Others places you might find photos include:
- military records
- business directories
- passport applications
- prison and hospital records
- the Library of Congress photo collection
Many libraries and historical societies have photo collections, too.
Written records are not the only source of information; one of your best sources is other family members.
Talk to your family, especially older relatives, and you will be amazed at some of the stories you learn.
Personal stories add texture to your ancestors, fleshing out those names and dates into real people.
Interviews can also help you understand why some records contradict.
For example, on one census I found a cousin (Edward) who was listed as my great-great-grandfather’s son, but on the next census, Edward was listed as his grandson.
By talking to a great-aunt, I came to learn that Edward was my great-great-grandfather’s grandson, but because his mother was unmarried when he was born, they pretended Edward was their son for several years to avoid embarrassment.
There are three big keys to interviewing:
- the sooner, the better – if you wait too long, those stories may vanish forever
- record the interview – on tape, or digitally, you’re going to want to listen to it again. Better yet, record it on video – imagine how pleased your grandchildren will be to watch their great-great-great-grandfather telling family stories 50 years from now
- prepare questions ahead of time – if you don’t know what you’re after, the interview may break down into rambling, disjointed stories
Where to find common records Online resources
There are literally hundreds of thousands of websites dedicated to genealogy and family history, but not all are created equal.
Here is a rundown on some of the most important and useful websites for your research. To learn more about free resources, check out our guide to free genealogy websites.
d connect with other existing trees. FamilySearch is entirely free for anyone to use.Ancestry
Ancestry has thousands of data collections available online, containing millions of individual records.
It also lets you build your family tree directly online, or upload a family tree from your computer.
Once your family tree is online at Ancestry, it will try to find common ancestors with other users who may have already done a lot of the research on your family themselves.
Be warned, sometimes these other family trees are quite useful, but sometimes they are poorly done, and can even set back your research if you don’t verify their information.
Ancestry is only available by a paid subscription, but most public libraries have a subscription, so you can go to the library and use theirs.
Hiring a professional
Not sure you want to do all the work yourself, or that you even can?
You might consider hiring a professional, but it will cost you.
On average, rates vary from $35 to $60 an hour, plus expenses.
In most cases, the only time you should need to hire a professional genealogist to help you is if:
- you’re super rich and don’t want to do the work yourself (where’s the fun in that?)
- you’ve hit a roadblock, and you just don’t know what to do next
- you need to do in-depth local research, and it’s too far to travel yourself
- you need an expert to translate records from a foreign language
- you want expert help to compile a print genealogy or family history
If you do decide to hire a professional, you should look for one who has been accredited by one or more bodies.
You can find lists of accredited genealogical researchers at:
So, there you have it, everything you need to get started on what for many is a lifelong hobby, and for some even a profession.
It may seem daunting at first, but it only takes a few minutes to get started.
And once you start connecting with your ancestors and your family’s history, you will never want to stop.
But remember, the most important thing is to start now.
Cemetery Surveying 101
Completing a cemetery survey can be a long, tiring, hot, dirty and yet rewarding job. When you're standing all by yourself in the middle of a cemetery on a hot afternoon, thirsty, tired, perspiration running down your glasses and dripping on you notes, you think to yourself, "I must be crazy for doing this! I don't have any family in here." Then you remember what brought you there in the first place. Cemetery markers are disappearing at an alarming rate from either deterioration or vandalism. By completing a survey, you are preserving history and the memory of those that have gone before you. Any name or date that you record may be that single bit of information that someone else needs to connect his or her elusive family link. The reward comes from sharing your information with others and knowing that your hard work may help someone else. Hopefully, a hundred years from now, your descendants will have a much easier time finding their ancestors than we have.
The first thing you need to decide when doing a cemetery survey is how you want to do it. Some people do their surveys by row, which helps preserve family relationships. Others do surveys by rows or sections and then record the data alphabetically. If choosing to do your survey alphabetically, it is a good idea to make notes as to who is buried beside and around each tombstone. This helps researchers tie in family relationships. Decide which method you want to use and be consistent. Plot the cemetery out by sections or rows and record information on each row or section until it is completed. Be careful when working in rows, sometimes they won't be straight, and you can get off track and miss markers.
Include in your survey the location of the cemetery and full directions on how to reach it. Include the city, major intersections, highways and/or main roads. If you want, you may also include a brief description of the cemetery, such as condition, accessibility or history. Also include your name and the date the survey was completed.
If there is a WPA survey of the cemetery you have recorded, it is also a good idea to check that survey against yours. You can include names and dates from markers on the WPA survey that were missing or no longer visible when you conducted your survey. Put them at the bottom of your survey and list them as such.
Some Do's and Don'ts from other surveyors:
1. Don't consume too many liquids before or during your cemetery outing. Cemeteries are not equipped with restrooms.
2. Don't survey a cemetery during or after a rain. Wet, squashy, earth and leaves underneath your feet only add to the creepy feeling you sometimes get and you could fall.
4. It is best to do surveys in the early spring or late fall. The weather is cooler and less chance of encountering snakes. A cloudy day in the summer also works well if you're not afraid of snakes.
5. Find out who has legal jurisdiction over the cemetery property and get permission to be on the grounds before recording the data. Public cemeteries don't usually require permission.
6. If the cemetery is abandoned, attempt to find out who owns the land the cemetery is on and obtain permission from the legal owners to be on the property.
7. Be careful when touching a tombstone. Some older ones are loose and could fall over on you.
8. Take a friend. You can get twice as much done in the same amount of time. Also, one person can read the stones and the other record them.
9. Watch where you sit. Poison ivy, ants and other crawling things love cemeteries.
10. If you can't read a name or date on the stone, don't guess. Use a "?" in place of the name or date on your records.
11. Record the information on the tombstone exactly as it appears. Copy it word for word, line for line. Keep the spelling, punctuation, etc., as it appears on the stone. Resist the temptation to make corrections.
12. If you have additional genealogical information for the individuals that might be of interest, include that in a separate comments column.
13. If your handwriting leaves a lot to be desired, it's a good idea to print, especially if someone else is going to transcribe your survey.
14. Hang on to your hand written originals. You never know when you might need to go back and check something.
Legal pads: Lots of room to write and easy to control in high winds.
Clipboard: Holds the legal pads. If someone sees you in the cemetery, they make you look official.
Pens or pencils: Take several.
Laptop computer: Will replace all of the above. Make sure you have plenty of battery life.
Cemetery Hat: If you sunburn easily, this is a good idea.
Rubber kneepads: These help those old knees when you have to get down close to read a stone. They also help prevent grass stains.
Insect Repellant: Almost a necessity in the spring and summer.
Fanny Pack: A little out of style and may be hard to find now, but they stay around your waist and are a good place to keep keys, pens and other stuff you don't want to carry around.
Water or other non-alcoholic beverages: Just remember rule #1.
Ice chest: For those large cemeteries that take all day.
Cell phone: For keeping in touch with your loved ones and in case of emergency.
Camera: You can take photos of the cemetery or tombstones for documentation.
When your survey is complete, enter your information into a computer database such as Microsoft Works or Microsoft Access. If you don't have a database, you can use any word processing software as long as it will save the information in a "text" format. Then you can e-mail your completed survey to email@example.com.
We will also accept handwritten surveys. These will take much longer for us to get on the web site because we will have to enter your data on computer. For more info on cemetery transcriptions visit
The Association for Gravestone Studies