16 April 2011

Carved in Stone

Cemeteries and cemetery records are great genealogical resources. But, like other resources, they are subject to error, often more so than we realize.

The information used by the cemetery is typically provided by an informant, often a close relative of the deceased person, but sometimes an acquaintance, doctor, undertaker, etc. No matter how well the informant knew the subject, there is a chance that the information provided will be incorrect. Many people think they know when and where their parents and grandparents were born, but they may be mistaken, especially when it comes to the state or city of birth. People are often upset and stressed when making funeral arrangements, and they simply make mistakes without realizing it. For example, when my grandmother's oldest son died, she accidentally gave her current husband's name as his father, rather than the name of his real father, her first husband. That incorrect name went on the death certificate and is now part of the "official" record, even though it is wrong.

When information is missing from the headstones, we may rely on the cemetery's written records. Unfortunately, these are sometimes missing, incomplete, or poorly maintained. Often the date of burial appears in place of the date of death. Spelling errors and other mistakes are common. When remains are removed to a new location, sometimes the records at the old cemetery are not updated, or the old marker remains in place. I have come across several people who seem to be buried in two completely different locations because the relocation was not properly documented.

The existence of a stone is not proof that a burial took place. People sometimes place memorial markers in the family plot for relatives who were actually buried somewhere else, or for those who were cremated and the ashes scattered. Conversely, the absence of a marker is not necessarily proof that someone was not buried there. Shifting ground, earthquakes, floods, vandalism, theft, relocation and new construction can all cause a stone to be misplaced, destroyed, or planted in the wrong spot.

Cemeteries, like censuses, are valuable research tools. But it's important to remember that they are not perfect.

1 comment:

  1. Another reason there are stones without actual burials is that a families or couples sometimes buy multiple plots in advance. A surviving spouse sometimes goes so far as to have his or her name and birth date put on a stone next to the grave of the deceased spouse. So they already have a grave waiting for them.This can lead to confusion if the surviving spouse for some reason ends up being buried somewhere else, or if their descendants go ahead and bury them in the plot but never get around to having the death date added to the stone.

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