Locating and Visiting Cemeteries

The article was written by my good friend, William Dollarhide. I’d advise readers to keep their sense of humor about them while reading, and enjoy it. And please note that Bill doesn’t require that you do exactly as he and Joyce did while cemetery-hopping (but it can’t hurt!). Enjoy…


Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule #30: That cemetery in Missouri where your great-grandparents were buried is now called “Interstate 70.”

Although I would not consider myself as someone obsessed with death, burials, or other ghoulish activities, I have had some wonderful experiences in cemeteries. I am sure I am not alone. Since visiting cemeteries is part of what we do to find information about our ancestors, every genealogist has a cemetery story. These stories may include the weird problems associated with cemeteries as well as the wonderful discoveries that can be found there.

To most genealogists, the first problem is always that of finding the exact location of a cemetery where an ancestor was supposed to have been buried. But once the cemetery has been located, other problems prevail, such as finding a gravestone in an old unkempt graveyard with no finding aids available.

Here are some thoughts on finding and visiting cemeteries that may be of use to genealogists:

Finding Tools for Locating a Cemetery
FindaGrave.com: Maybe the deceased person you are after has been identified in the largest online database of grave records, www.findagrave.com, now with over 83 million searchable grave records. If you can find a specific person here, you can find the name of the cemetery in which the person was buried. You will also get a photo of many gravestones, plus many other details.

Death Certificates and Funeral Homes: A death certificate may give the name of a cemetery where the deceased was interred, as well as the name of a funeral director. The funeral director is probably still in business (or his successor) and should be contacted. To do this, use the Yellow Book (a directory of funeral homes) to find a funeral director today. Funeral directors are clearly the best experts on the location of cemeteries in a particular area. The Yellow Book is distributed annually to every funeral home in North America. Anyone should be able to call or visit a local funeral home, and request to use their directory to find an address and phone number for any other funeral home. Fortunately, the same Yellow Book database is now on the Internet at www.funeralnet.com where the address and phone number for virtually every funeral home in the U.S. and Canada can be found online.

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 3: When visiting a funeral home, wear old clothes, no make-up, and look like you have about a week to live… the funeral director will give you anything you ask for if he thinks you may be a customer soon.

Obituaries: Another possible source for locating a cemetery where an ancestor was buried is to see if a printed obituary for the deceased person includes information about where the body was interred. Most obituaries are found in newspapers published near the place where a person died. Many old newspapers are available to genealogical researchers on microfilm, and usually located in a public library, college library, archives, genealogical society, historical society, or some other institution near the place of death of the subject. A two-volume publication, Newspapers in Microform, published by the Library of Congress is the best listing of what newspapers might be found on microfilm. The publication acts as a means of identifying and then borrowing rolls of film that can be used at a local library through the national Interlibrary Loan System used at over 6,000 libraries in the U.S. In addition, state libraries or state archives usually have a good collection of newspapers for a particular state. Most state archives now have a website on the Internet, and where a review of county newspapers are often given in detail.

The Internet is also a good place to search for obituaries that may have been published for a particular area. One of the best collections of newspaper obituaries online is at www.GenealogyBank.com. Also, check www.cyndislist.com under the category, “Obituaries.” Or, use your browser to search the web for the keyword, “obituaries.” A hit list on Google has 162 million results – a better way to go is to be more specific to the place where the obituary may have been published, such as “Obituaries FL” (7.7 million hits), or “Miami FL Obituaries” (2.2 million hits), or “Miami Herald Obituaries” (598,000 hits), or “Berger Obituary Miami FL” (55,800 hits), or better yet, “Betty Jo Berger Obituary Miami Herald” (3,190 results).

Finding A Cemetery Using the GNIS
There is another great tool for locating a particular cemetery that may not be obvious to researchers. The most complete listing and locations of named cemeteries in the U.S. can be found at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) website on the Internet at http://geonames.usgs.gov/pls/gnispublic/f?p=132:1:3082981772070987

This site has the USGS’s Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), which contains the names of some two million place-names (map features) in America, of which about 107,000 are cemeteries. The GNIS includes the largest list of named cemeteries published anywhere. (A few years ago, a very expensive printed publication advertised as the “most complete list of cemeteries in America” was produced showing about 25,000 cemeteries, less than one-fourth the number that can be found in the free GNIS listing).

The GNIS cemetery names were taken from the most detailed topographical maps, the 7.5 x 7.5 minute series published by the USGS. Each map in this series covers 7.5 minutes of latitude and 7.5 minutes of longitude, a rectangle which represents an area about 6-7 miles wide by about 7-8 miles deep. For the 7.5 series, over 50,000 maps were required to show the entire United States and its possessions.

In addition to cemeteries, all other named features from the maps were extracted, including cities, towns, villages, hills, mountains, valleys, oil fields, airports, post offices, streams, lakes, and any other place on a map with a name. For years, genealogists were compelled to pay several dollars per map for copies of the USGS 7.5 series maps. Today they are all freely accessible on the Internet and parts or all of each map can be printed directly to your printer.

Visiting a Cemetery
Typically, a cemetery of interest to a genealogist is either too big in size or too small. The very large cemeteries, such as a Forest Lawn in the Los Angeles area, are not user-friendly to genealogists. They have restrictions on giving out information about people buried there, without going through a time consuming process of inquiry, and often through a mail request for information only. And, the very smallest cemeteries are a problem because they are without any official maintenance or sponsorship and site neglected (and often invisible).

The greatest number of cemeteries, however, are those in between the largest and smallest in size. These are the ones that are maintained by some governing body, such as a cemetery association, or a county, city, or church. Although most of these cemeteries have an official sponsorship and in most cases have written records of the interments, there are many without a sexton’s office at the site. So, a genealogist should try to find out who is the keeper of the records before actually visiting the cemetery.

Who has the cemetery records?
Some years ago, I was able to visit a cemetery outside the little town of Edna, Kansas where my great- grandfather, Benjamin Watkins, was buried in 1914. I was accompanied by my genealogy friend, Joyce Hensen, of Linden, Kansas, a well-known genealogy witch. Joyce used divining rods to “witch” for unmarked graves. She could tell you where a burial was precisely located using this method, including whether the burial was for an adult or a child. It may sound a bit oija-oija — but I have seen it work and have become a believer. (The divining rods do not work when I am holding them — it takes a person with the “gift” to do it, just like dousing for water).

Joyce Hensen also believed in communicating with her dead ancestors to assist her in finding the exact location of their graves. I have been with her in several unindexed cemeteries, and have always been instructed to stand at the entrance to the cemetery, put my hands over my head, turn in a circle, and yell out to my dead ancestor with something like, “Lafayette Black! Where are you!” — then sense a direction to walk and find the tombstone. In at least two occasions, this technique worked beautifully. One time, while at Liberty Cemetery near McFall, Missouri, after yelling out to Lafayette Black, I headed in the first direction that came to my mind, and walked in a straight line to his grave, some 200 feet away.

Now I know this may sound a bit far fetched. But it had worked two different times in two different cemeteries. The other time Joyce and I were visiting a cemetery outside of Waco, Texas, and when we yelled the deceased’s name out, we both turned immediately and were about to walk simultaneously in the same direction. We both spotted his gravestone less than twenty feet away at the same instant. We looked at each other with our mouths agape, amazed that the direction had come to both of us at the same time.

So, as a believer, I was with Joyce again, this time in Edna, Kansas, attempting the same technique to find Benjamin Watkins’ grave. But as we approached the cemetery, we saw that there were three entrances to the I.O.O.F cemetery outside of town. So Joyce, who was driving, raised her hands and cried out, “Benjamin Watkins, where are you?” a few times. (I had to grab the steering wheel so we didn’t go crashing into the ditch). She immediately slowed and turned into the second entrance road, driving about halfway into the cemetery. We got out of the car and repeated the hands-over-the-head thing, walking in a circle around the car and calling out, “Benjamin Watkins, where are you?” but neither of us could get a strong sense of a direction to walk. In fact, after about an hour of both of us walking aimlessly around the cemetery, and not finding Benjamin Watkins’ gravestone, we gave up and went back to the car.

I talked Joyce into going back into town so we could visit that little coffee shop we had passed on our way through town. She agreed, reluctantly, and we discovered that the coffee shop was occupied by a dozen or more retired farmers, all of whom seemed to be dressed in bib overalls and baseball caps, and all having a grand afternoon gab session. I asked one of them if he knew who was in charge of the cemetery, and whether there were any records of the burials there. I was told immediately who was the keeper of the records, who happened to be on the local cemetery district board. With the retired farmer’s directions, and within just a few minutes, Joyce and I were knocking on the man’s door.

He took us out to his garage, where he had a length of PVC pipe over his workbench in which was a rolled-up blueprint diagram of the Edna Cemetery, showing all the burial plots and the names of all interments. We found the name “Benjamin Watkins” in no time, and had an exact plot location for his burial, so off we went again to the cemetery.

Now with a little sketch map the man had made for us, we knew where to look for Benjamin’s grave, which, as it turned out, was fairly close to where we had entered the cemetery the first time. We took the second entrance, went into the cemetery over half way in, stopped and found Benjamin Watkins’ tombstone in a matter of seconds.

Now. The reason we didn’t find the grave marker the first time we entered the cemetery was because Joyce, who had been communicated with Benjamin, had stopped the car where she thought Benjamin was telling her where to go. We didn’t find the grave marker the first time because it was directly underneath the car!

Although I still believe my method was the surest and most logical way to find the grave marker for Benjamin Watkins, Joyce proved to me once again her uncanny ability. But in this case, she was too accurate. She parked the car over the grave!

I’m not saying that everyone will find their ancestors’ burial using Joyce Hensen’s techniques, but it is certainly worth a try. But, in the meantime, when you are about to visit a cemetery, there should be someone in the local area who has information about the burials. If a cemetery has obvious care, someone knows, and finding that someone should not be that difficult. It is a matter of contacting someone in the community to learn who has the records of that cemetery. A local genealogical society may help. Or, start by contacting a local funeral director to see who may have the records of a particular cemetery.

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule #4: The cemetery where your ancestor was buried does not have perpetual care, has no office, is accessible only by a muddy road, and has snakes, tall grass, and lots of bugs . . . and many of the old gravestones are in broken pieces, stacked in a corner near a pile of dirt.

6 thoughts on “Locating and Visiting Cemeteries”

  1. Love this article. One of my Mother’s favoriate pass-times was visiting cemeteries. Mom died in March 2011 and I am going thru her binders and finding many interesting facts and stories she had discovered in her 20+ years of collecting “family”. While reading this article I could “see” Mom doing this and being as serious about it as Joyce Hensen. Thank you for giving me that wonderful vision. (Sitting here crying and smiling – Thank you)

  2. I’m so sorry you have succumbed to woo, Bill! Have you counted up the many times the “Where are you?!” system did NOT work? These anecdotes are representative of “post hoc” logical fallacies.

    “The testimonials of dowsers and those who observe them provide the main evidence for dowsing. The evidence is simple: dowsers find what they are dowsing for and they do this many times. What more proof of dowsing is needed? The fact that this pattern of dowsing and finding something occurs repeatedly leads many dowsers and their advocates to make the causal connection between dowsing and finding water, oil, minerals, golf balls, etc. This type of fallacious reasoning is known as post hoc reasoning and is a very common basis for belief in paranormal powers. It is essentially unscientific and invalid… Every controlled study of dowsers has shown that dowsers do no better than chance in finding what they are looking for.” [The Skeptic’s Dictionary]

    Sure, it can’t hurt, but it shows a total lack of logical thinking. The rest of your article was excellent, and thanks for that.

  3. You may be right about dowsers, but I wouldn’t characterize the reasoning as post hoc, but rather as faith – the same thing require for you to become a Methodist or a Mormon. Joseph Smith has been historically confirmed by the current LDS church leaders as having an occupation of a dowser in the 1820s of New York. In fact, Smith used two rounded stones in one hand, rubbing them together, to “divine” the location of water. He did this for many of his neighbors, and it was learned later that he would take contracts to find water, but would visit the farm a few nights before, using good old fashioned shoveling techniques to find the water, then go back to the farm with his divining stones to find the same spot in the presence of his employer. After the water was discovered, he would enhance his reputation as a gifted dowser of water and had no lack of customers. What is not readily known is that Joseph Smith used the same divining stones to find the gold tablets that are the basis for the Book of Mormon. Since the original gold tablets were lost, the Book of Mormon must be accepted by faith – not logic, and not post hoc reasoning. But, in any case, your distrust in the Where are You? system is no different than mine – I was simply reporting on what happened. I tried to say that not everyone will have success using this method, and Leland’s first introductory paragraph confirmed this as well. Oh well, thanks a lot for liking some of what I wrote. -bill$hide

  4. Joyce taught me how to witch. I believe it basically finds disturbed ground. We did it at a family reunion in a small cemetery and it worked. Only a few people couldn’t get it to work, mostly men. We also used it to find our septic tank when we moved into a new house. There was a basic idea of it being under the driveway outside the garage but nothing specific. Found it using the rods! Didn’t use any special rods, just bent wire clothes hangars. Hold the rods loosely. When you are over the grave, etc. the rods will turn and cross in front of you. Try approaching it from different directions. Very interesting and fun.

  5. If anyone is search for an obituary in Washington County, Tennessee. We have an FREE online resource. We have obits from 1844 to present-day 2012, online for free of those people who were born, or lived, or died or is buried in Washington County, Tennessee. We are also taking obits to add to our collection. Our guidelines state it must be an orginial or copy of an orginial obituary. Bringing copies from GENEALOGYBANK.COM is not acceptable due to copyright issues. We are taking obits from 1777 to 2012. Our website is http://www.rootsweb.com/~tnwcobit/washington_county.htm. We have placed 1620 online and still have plenty to go!

  6. Even with a map showing where the plot is, the search can be daunting! I remember my dear mother trekking through a NY cemetery helping me look for my great-grandparent’s gravestone. It was in the heat of summer and after she almost broke an ankle falling into the many depressions, we finally reached a corner of the area and looked back over the expanse we had covered. Nothing! As we stood there, though, I said “Her name was Rose”. Back where we had started was a beautiful yellow rose bush, completely overgrown. Finding a branch, we poked under it and sure enough, there was Rose & John Hamilton.

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