Mar 30, 2020
Using Cemetery Records
Cemetery records can be an extremely helpful tool in genealogical research. In this blog post, I will cover how these records can help you find the information that you need and how to obtain these records. You can often obtain burial lists at little or no charge. Cemeteries who do request payment for this information usually charge between $10 and $50.
Always make sure to visit the cemetery’s website to find out what their procedure is for obtaining genealogical information. Some cemeteries take requests by phone or email while others require a written request sent via US mail.
I have outlined four circumstances where burial records can really help you further your research:
- When no death record is available:
I had been working on the genealogy of my husband’s second great grandparents, Michael and Elizabeth Cleary. There were no death records to be found online and I suspected that they died in New Jersey sometime after the 1940 US Census report (this assumption proved correct). New Jersey doesn’t post death records or death indexes from this time period online and you need to have a pretty good idea of when the person died in order to obtain a death record. It also costs $25 per death record plus additional charges if you do not have the exact date of death.
I knew that Michael and Elizabeth’s daughter, Ethel, was buried in November of 1991 at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania (just outside of Philadelphia). I visited Holy Cross Cemetery’s website and read that they offer free genealogical assistance. I called them on the phone, and I had Ethel’s exact burial date and age at death in front of me (it is important to have this information at your fingertips so they can quickly help you – the people working in these offices are very busy). They placed me on a brief hold then came back with the names and burial dates of the people buried alongside Ethel. Sure enough, Ethel was laid to rest alongside her late parents, Michael and Elizabeth Cleary. Using the burial dates, I was able to find both Michael’s 1946 obituary and Elizabeth’s 1950 obituary (I had searched their names on newspapers.com prior to this, but their obituaries did not appear in keyword searches). Thanks to the burial list provided by Holy Cross Cemetery, I now had this important genealogical information for my husband’s family tree.
2. When the correct death record cannot be determined:
John and Catharine Martin were my third great grandparents and I knew that they both died in Philadelphia sometime between 1889 and 1910. John Martin was born in Ireland sometime around 1831 and his wife, Catharine, was born in Pennsylvania sometime around 1832. There were numerous death records for people named John Martin and Catharine Martin with similar birth dates and birth places who died in Philadelphia between 1889 and 1910. I was having trouble determining which records were the correct death records for my ancestors. This is where burial records proved helpful.
John and Catharine had a daughter named Aloysia G. Martin who died on April 10, 1888 and was buried at Cathedral Cemetery in Philadelphia. Aloysia was unmarried and died at the age of 22 years old. I figured that her parents were likely buried alongside their late daughter.
I called Cathedral Cemetery on the phone and asked how to obtain Aloysia’s burial information including the information of the people buried alongside her. I was told that I needed to send a check for $45 along with a written request, which I did. I was hopeful that Aloysia G. Martin’s burial list from Cathedral Cemetery would also contain the death information of my third great grandparents. I was in luck! I received a burial list of ten relatives that included John and Catharine Martin. As a result, I was able to locate their Philadelphia death records along with their obituaries on newspapers.com. Catharine died in Philadelphia in December of 1891 and John died in Philadelphia in February of 1907. I would not have been able to determine their exact dates of death if it were not for Aloysia’s burial list provided by Cathedral Cemetery.
3. Using cemetery records to discover new stories
I was researching my husband’s fourth great grandparents, Terrence and Mary Donahue, and I was having trouble confirming Terrence’s death information. I suspected that he died in July of 1863 and was buried in Philadelphia, but I couldn’t be certain. I ordered the suspected burial record in an effort to confirm Terrence’s date of death, but I also discovered something really amazing in the process. I knew that Terrence had several children in addition to my husband’s third great grandfather, James, but I did not have death information on all of the children. There were a lot of Donahues born in Ireland and living in Philadelphia in the mid to late 1800s, so confirming records on this family was challenging at times.
I received Terrence’s burial list which confirmed my suspicions that he died in July of 1863 in Philadelphia. Several of his children were buried alongside of him including his son John. I had not been able to confirm John’s date of death prior to this. I located John’s October 1865 death record by referencing his newly found burial date. The occupation on his death certificate read “soldier”. Things started getting interesting. I then located his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer which listed several details about John’s Civil War service including his regiment, the battle where he was injured, his age and his last residence. No one knew that John was a Civil War solider prior to this! I then ordered John’s Civil War pension records from the National Archives and learned that the family emigrated from County Donegal, Ireland. This was information that we would not have known otherwise. In short, Terrence’s burial list lead us to information on a Civil War ancestor and ultimately the family’s origin in Ireland.
4. Using cemetery records to find new ancestors
Thomas Tracy, an Irish immigrant and saloon owner, was my second great grandfather. I wanted to find as much information on the Tracy family as possible including the names of Thomas’ parents, which I did not have.
I ordered Thomas’ April 1927 burial list in hopes of finding more information on the family. It worked! Thomas’ parents, Thomas and Catharine, were both buried alongside him at Cathedral Cemetery in Philadelphia. Using the dates on the burial list I was able to locate their death records and obituaries. Catharine’s obituary led me to another ancestor: her son, Bernard.
Discovering Bernard also led me to a very sad story for the family history books. I learned through newspaper research that Bernard went missing in 1906 in Philadelphia and was never heard from again. His brother, Thomas, made a few desperate attempts to locate his brother using newspaper articles and classified ads in the 1920s, but he had no luck. To this day, nobody knows what happened to my third great uncle.
Obtaining Thomas’ 1927 burial record led me to the names of his parents along with their death dates in addition to discovering a sibling that I did not know that Thomas had. I would have not been able to connect Thomas with these other relatives because they were never listed on the same census report and never had similar addresses.
Burial records can be an incredible tool in researching your family history and sometimes you can obtain this information at no charge and over the phone. Just have your information ready at your fingertips including your ancestor’s burial date and age at death.
Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
In April’s blog post, I will discuss how Ancestry Thrulines can help you with your research.