Digging Up Bones: Locating Cemeteries And Identifying People In Them

by Michael Pollock | Aug 2, 2011

Most people who have done any significant amount of genealogy research will have visited at least one cemetery. Such research can be a means to acquire information about an ancestor that may be available nowhere else, and on more than one occasion has yielded unexpected results for me or others I have assisted.


Don't Limit Yourself

Perhaps the most unusual example of this was quite early in my career when a friend and I drove down from Arlington, Virginia to Highland Springs to interview an uncle, the last of his generation still living, for research. As I was asking a series of questions, the uncle's body suddenly spasmed, much like the beginning of a grand mal epileptic seizure. Excusing himself without explanation, he walked to the other end of the house and returned a short time later carrying a book with a strap around it, similar to the "props" one may have seen in the "Little Rascals" shorts that once ran at your local movie theater every Saturday before the matinee. Undoing the strap to open the book to the back of the same to show to me, he revealed several pages where someone had apparently practiced their handwriting by copying out of an old family Bible, containing births, deaths and marriages of the Beale family dating back to the 1790s.

No doubt you are wondering what does this has to do with cemeteries? Well, the uncle explained that earlier that year he and his son went to visit the cemetery on the old homeplace near Rockville, Hanover County, Virginia, that was no longer owned by a family member. Noticing how badly overgrown the cemetery had become, they went to the owner to ask to borrow some tools to clear off the cemetery and were directed to a tool shed. They found the book in that tool shed. I have previously spoken, and will no doubt again speak, of finding records in places where one would never think to look, but this example offers yet another important lesson--not putting off one's research. You see, my friend and I postponed our visit to his uncle 3 times before we actually made the trip. Had we postponed it a fourth time, we would never have made the trip as the uncle died the following week and chances are my friend and I would never have learned of the existence of that bible.

Even when one knows where a cemetery is located, it can be problematic identifying who may be buried there. Perhaps the family could not afford the cost of a permanent marker so a temporary marker was used or it was never marked. If it was marked, it may have been with poor quality material that was eroded by the weather or the tombstone had been vandalized or otherwise damaged by nature in a flood or the falling of a tree.


Be Imaginative...If You Can Afford It

Probably the most "exotic" request I have ever had regarding a cemetery came from a power plant on a tract where the cemetery was located.

The problem was the cemetery was in the area designated for a fly ash retention pit and needed to be relocated (this plant was specifically designed to incorporate a number of technological advances that would not just minimize release of greenhouse gases, but allow other waste by-products to be reused constructively rather than going to a landfill). To relocate the cemetery, it was first necessary that I identify the 24 persons known to be buried in the same and then locate their next-of-kin to get the needed consents for the relocations. No big deal, except for the fact that 13 of the graves were unmarked.

My research established that those I was able to identify were all either descendants of a common ancestor, or related by marriage to a descendant. That common ancestor had a total of 12 children, but the families of only 6 were represented in the burials, and English common law would require that I trace the descendants of all 12 children. Not relishing the prospects of another 8 months of research to the possible exclusion of anything else, I recommended that the attorneys representing my client argue that the descendants of those buried in cemetery constituted a special class by virtue of being direct descendants of at least one of those buried in the cemetery that conveyed to them a greater interest in the future of the cemetery, thus standing to speak for the unknowns that the descendants of the other 6 children did not enjoy. That argument was used by the attorneys, and upon acceptance by the Court, set a new legal precedent in Virginia.

I was aided in my quest by the fact that the number of graves in the cemetery was indisputable as a result of a previously done archeological survey utilizing both ground sonar and core sampling. As a result of that survey, I also knew the precise location, size and shape of each grave. That proved helpful in that a smaller grave in a row of graves could be presumed to be a child of another individual in that same row, and two "adult sized" graves side-by-side would presumably be a husband and wife. Though I learned as a result of this project there is no "hard and fast" rule on how family members will be buried together in a cemetery plot, tradition holds that the wife will rest in death as she stood in life, to her husband's left.

I was ultimately able to identify 22 of the 24 graves by such means as census, a "diary" and death certificates. For example, an infant child appearing in one census but not the subsequent even though presumably too young to have "left the fold" was confirmed to be buried in the cemetery by a death certificate as a result of my knowing the name of the child and the range of years to be searched. I was fortunate to have access to the "diary" of a local doctor recording the names and dates of birth for children who did not appear in census at all whose parents I knew to be buried in the cemetery. 

Having that information was useful because the index to death certificates in Virginia does not include age at death, so without the diary I would have been facing a need to look until I identified the proper persons not just at everyone of a specific surname dying during a certain period of time in that locality, but perhaps even in nearby places for I actually found one individual's death occurred in West Virginia. 

In her specific case, her grave was not marked, but those of 2 infant children were. I did not have access to their birth certificates because of the 100 years privacy restriction in Virginia, presuming they were indeed born in Virginia, so did not have the maiden name of their mother to determine why they were buried in the cemetery or who would have the right to grant permission for their graves to be moved. I also could not find a marriage for the parents. I was able to establish the mother's identity by finding her death certificate in West Virginia in which not only was the place of burial stipulated to be this cemetery, but her maiden name was also stated to be that of the primary family buried there, with census then confirming there was a family member of that specific name and approximate date of birth.

Earlier I stated that I benefited from knowing the shape of the graves. The ground sonar map of the cemetery showed one of the unmarked graves was square. In the interviews I conducted with the surviving family members as I identified them, two different individuals told me the same story about why that specific grave was square.

It was the grave of the father-in-law of the last individual buried in the cemetery, and the story was that he died as a result of a severe beating in a barroom brawl. Realizing that they would be immediately suspected once the body was discovered, those responsible took the body to a nearby railroad track and left it there, hoping that it would be thought that he had stumbled over the tracks and fallen, then too drunk to get up or passed out, died when hit by a train. Their ruse did not work, but the body was too badly mangled to allow for a public viewing at his funeral, so the undertaker decided to use a discarded cartridge case rather than a coffin for the burial.


Don't Just Rely On "Official" Records

Another cemetery project intended to exhume the remains of a client's great-grandmother in Maury Cemetery, Richmond, for reburial with her husband. The client recalled visiting the site as a child, but the grave was unmarked and he was unclear on why she was buried specifically where he recalled visiting. My research established that the plot was owned (not only) by her son-in-law. A map of the same only showed the dimensions of the plot and number of graves, but did not identify who was buried where. There is an official index to burials in this cemetery, but what is not widely known is that Maury Cemetery was founded while still located in what was the town, then city, of Manchester, and the aforesaid index not only dates from after the annexation of Manchester to Richmond in 1911, but was done by walking the grounds of the cemetery and copying the inscriptions. 

Because the grave was never marked, it was not included in the index, but I found at the cemetery itself a burial register (now housed in the office of the Superintendent of Cemeteries) which noted the date and location of the burial. With only 1 adult grave shown on the plat for which there was no corresponding entry in the index, logic argued that was the grave of the client's great-grandmother, but the city of Richmond refused to accept that as sufficient grounds to allow exhumation, necessitating that my client place a memorial in the plot were his great-grandfather is buried.

Such registers as exist for Maury will typically exist only for some church and larger/commercial cemeteries, and then provided they have been well-enough managed that the records not only still exist, but also properly maintained, noting the recent controversy at Arlington National Cemetery with multiple bodies found to be in the wrong grave, with some graves containing more than one body.


What About When Even The Cemetery Location Is Unknown?

Thus far I have written only about cemeteries whose location is known, but the subject of this article would logically include those whose location are not known. While I cannot specifically speak to how many of the same are not longer in existence or are not documented elsewhere, many of the county surveys done as a part of the Writers Project Administration during the New Deal, at least in Virginia, include cemeteries. These listings are incomplete, as they typically left out burial after 1900, but they do include descriptions of which the cemetery is located.

Another means to identify were a cemetery may be located is on quadrangle maps compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey, sometimes in conjunction with a corresponding state agency. One should make a point to check not just current maps, but older ones, since the originals were compiled as a result, in part, of a physical inspection, while they are now done largely by aerial survey. While I am not aware of any instance where a cemetery shown on an earlier map has been taken off new maps after an aerial survey failed to show any evidence of the same, that is a possibility with either small cemeteries or those that have been allowed to overgrow with trees and/or thick brush.

A cemetery can also be shown on other maps, sometimes recorded as part of either a division of a larger tract, or as a result of the sale of the tract out of the family which nevertheless retains a right of access to the cemetery. Such maps can be found in a deed book, will book or in chancery papers. Though I have never encountered an instance of a cemetery appearing on a map in the U.S. Postal Site Applications and Reports (National Archives Records Group 28), and some of those maps have been very crude, I have been amazed at the detail I have seen on some of the maps. 

Other places I would check would include: 1) right-of-way maps for toll roads and railways (there is a large collection in the cartographic department of the National Archives, now located in the College Park annex); 2) Insurance maps such as the Sanborne collection (please note that the willingness of such companies to issue insurance, primarily against fire damage, was predicated upon access to a means, such as a fire department, to fight the fire, so coverage, thus maps, were typically available only in urbanized areas); and 3) Civil War battlefield maps.

It would be far more likely that a cemetery would be mentioned, but not actually described, in a deed. When it is not described, your best chance of locating the cemetery would be to determine on a topographical map to the extent possible the actual location of the property, then identify the largest and flattest portion of the same. I once had a client, now deceased, who was an architect and based upon that generality, speculated upon the location of a cemetery mentioned, but not described, in a deed involving someone we thought was related to him, the problem being that the location was in what is now the right-of-way of Interstate 64. Contacting the Virginia Department of Transportation which has jurisdiction over roads, I asked if there had been a cemetery in the location speculated by my client and was told yes. Unfortunately, I was also told that it was identified by area residents as a "slave cemetery", though we knew it to be otherwise, and none of the graves were marked, so even if the precise "organization" had been preserved after the relocation, which was not done, there would have been no practical way to utilize DNA testing of the remains to determine if my client was indeed related to the family which had owned the property and how.

Having previously mentioned a doctor's "diary", I would not overlook diaries and journals kept by any individuals living in the area where you believe a cemetery to be located. The local or state historical society, the state library/archives and local libraries and schools would be likely repositories, but do not limit your search to the immediate area. Though I am not aware of there being any cemetery records in the same, the Huntingdon Library in California is well known for having a significant collection of Virginia genealogical records and it is not the only library outside of Virginia known to have significant Virginia holdings. Similarly, as it was originally founded by the Anglican, now Episcopal, Church, William & Mary has a large collection of Methodist records for Gloucester County, Virginia, that one would sooner expect to find in either the Methodist Conference Archives in Richmond or at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, as it is Methodist sponsored. Apparently these records are at William & Mary because the son of the man who collected them was an alumnus of the College and bequeathed the records to Swem Library after his death.


Don't Forget The Internet

Perhaps the best source for information is Cemetery Junction as it is world-wide, includes links to those cemeteries whose records are available on-line, whether in their entirety or partial listings, and encourages visitors to contact the site manager with information on any omitted cemetery. One can also find information on cemeteries posted at county and other place specific components of USGenWeb, Rootsweb and elsewhere (should you find reference to a cemetery website that is no longer active, try visiting The WayBack Machine. If the site was not subscription based &/or protected by "robots", i.e., protocols that can recognize, for example, when a password has expired based upon the current time rather than the date of original posting, you should see a table listing first by year, then by month, and finally day of the month, all dates when The Wayback Machine captured posting updates to the site.

Finally, periwinkle can be a clue to the existence of a cemetery, though I have no practical knowledge to say the best time of year for a search for periwinkle to be done or whether this is a natural occurrence, i.e., that the chemicals released/created as a result of the decomposition of human bodies promotes the growth of periwinkle, or periwinkle was once commonly sown in cemeteries because it required less maintenance than grasses, but I have seen frequent assertions of both on the internet and elsewhere. Of course, to locate a cemetery by finding periwinkle, one would have first to conduct a visual inspection of a possible site, preferably with advance permission of the property owner(s).

Ultimately, success in locating a cemetery &/or identifying an individual buried in the same can require not just searching published sources, unpublished manuscripts, and the internet, among other sources, but also thinking outside of the box.


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