Walk a Cemetery to Understand Its Secrets



Cemetery genealogyIn every cemetery I’ve visited (and there have been dozens and dozens) I don’t think I’ve found any two that are alike.

Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota is about as far as you can get from the Moravian cemetery in Bethania, North Carolina. At Mount Moriah the graves (including those of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok) are located on a steep hill moving up from the old town; in Bethania the men are buried on one side behind the church, the women on the other, and all of the stones are the same size and shape.

Mt. Moriah, SDMoravian Cemetery, NC
Mt Moriah Cemetery Deadwood South DakotaMoravian Cemetery Bethania NC

For me, walking a cemetery really does reveal its secrets:

  • when established
  • proximity to early settlements
  • upkeep
  • types of stones
  • tombstone imagery
  • types of inscriptions
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I believe a cemetery reveals so much about the people who lived in a specific place during a specific time period. Were Bible inscriptions typical? Were there a lot of children buried there? Is the cemetery well kept or left to nature’s whims? I know that we can’t visit every family burial plot in person, many times relying on the kindness of strangers to snap a photo or two for us. But if you do get the chance to visit a cemetery, go.

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And don’t just go to the plot where your ancestor was buried. Walk the cemetery if you can. Read the inscriptions, photograph the symbols, note if family members are buried close to one another or far away (as in the Moravian cemetery). What are the earliest stones, the most recent?

Even here in San Diego, I love walking through Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Although all of the “newer” graves are standard white crosses, there is an old section of the cemetery where you’ll find stones of every shape and size. It was here that I stumbled across the grave of one John Gallagher.

John’s inscription inspired me to begin a long genealogy research project, which is still incomplete because I can’t find all of the information I need. John remains a brick wall, even though he has absolutely no connection to my own family. As a genealogist, I think it’s impossible to walk a cemetery and not find a tombstone that inspires me to research.

I undertook a similar project for a Civil War bugler named Adolph Metzger. Again, not a family member but he had an intriguing story that I wanted to research. Adolph died in 1866, and is buried at the Custer National Cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Both his widow and his mother in Germany claimed his pension. As you can imagine, the letters in his pension file are fascinating!

If you love cemeteries as much as I do (and I’m sure you do), take some time this week to get out to a local cemetery and just walk the grounds. I think you’ll be surprised at all you can discover.

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  1. I love walking through cemeteries and have walked through many during my lifetime. My children were practically raised in cemeteries we were in them so often. In several cases, a cemetery worker has had better things to do than help me find a specific grave, so there was no choice but to go up and down each row. I always find inspiration and wonder on these walks. It is like some of them are crying out to share their stories. Who can’t pause for a moment when they come upon 4 or 5 little baby graves in a row, belonging to the same parents? How broken their hearts must have been with one loss right after another and so many. For some, the answer is completely told in the time frame. The pandemic in 1918, for example. Others, not so easy to decipher.

    Like you, I have on several occasions made a project out of a stranger not connected to my family (at least, not as far as I know!). I think it is good to do this. We gain more understanding of humanity when we step outside the pages of our own family histories into the stories of others.

    Have a blessed day and a very Merry Christmas!

    1. Suzanne,

      Great observations! I truly believe that walking the grounds is one of the best things you can do to really “taste” the period and the people. Also happy to hear that you, too, research non-family members. It’s addictive, isn’t it!

      1. Thank you! Yes, it is very addictive and very educational as well. While I can’t think of anything specific at the moment, I know that I have learned a lot of things by researching strangers that I never had occasion to know about before. This is an addiction that I will carry to my own grave, I am sure. 🙂

        Have a blessed evening and a very Merry Christmas!

        Your sis in Christ,

  2. I have a lot of basic information on my family tree. But I am trying to get information on my grandmothers time in a foundling home. They said they couldn’t find anything but I know she and her sister were there for 5 years. Don’t know where to go or who to ask.

    Thank you for your time.

    1. Hi Lori,
      Now that’s a new one for me. I would contact whatever agency had jurisdiction over a foundling home. Don’t know if it would be city, county or state. Perhaps even a health department issue?? Is there any chance that your grandmother and her sister were there under a different name? I would go back to them and ask about female siblings under their care. Nancy

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