Many people look to their family tree to learn more about their ancestors, their family’s historical roots, and their traditions. During your genealogy research, you may want to visit the cemetery where your ancestors are buried. However, it’s not always easy to find the exact location of a person’s grave.
Sometimes the burial records are destroyed or lost over the decades, or a person may have been buried in an unmarked grave. If you need to know how to find a loved one’s grave, read our guide! We have useful tips on which documents and places to check so you can find where someone is buried.
Ask Your Family Members
If the person died recently, your older family members may already know where that family member is buried. Save yourself the trouble of sifting through death certificates and ask them first. They may even have photographs, family stories, and important details that can further enrich your genealogy research.
For example, if they know that the ancestor in question served honorably in the military, this is a useful starting point. Veterans may have died in their last place of residence, but they may have been eligible for burial at a national VA cemetery like the Arlington National Cemetery.
Search For Their Death Certificates
Sometimes no one in your immediate family knows where your deceased ancestor is buried. In these cases, their death certificate is a vital record to help you learn where and when they were buried. Note that you’ll need to know where a person died to search for their death certificate, as death records are typically maintained by the local county.
If you know their place of death, visit the county clerk’s office there to request a copy of their death certificate. Be mindful that most counties weren’t mandated to keep these records until the 1930s, so you may have a hard time looking for this and other records if your ancestor died before this time period. In this case, state databases like the state health department may also have records of when and where they were buried.
Sometimes, a city or county will have digitized copies of their death records. Contact these city or state offices to find out if they have a website with a death certificate index so you can search for the name of your ancestor. If you find them on their website index, you may be able to request a copy of their death records. You can also visit websites like Family Search to see if their death records have been scanned and stored online.
Consult The Social Security Death Index
An ancestor who applied for Social Security may be part of the Social Security Death Index’s records. If they had a family member who claimed death benefits after their death, this creates an entry in this index.
Visit the Social Security Death Index to look up the name of your ancestor. You’ll also need to know the approximate date that they died and the location of their death. Their page will also yield the following information:
- Date of birth
- Age at time of death
- Last known residence
- Family members, including benefit claimants
Look For Local Obituaries
Obituaries are a valuable source of information about a deceased person. They typically note at least the birth and death dates, the location where funeral services will be held, and the burial place.
But, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a more detailed obituary with information about their occupation, notable deeds, and surviving immediate relatives. Check local obituaries to help you narrow down where the cemeteries where a family member may have been buried.
If you know the date that a person died but not the location where someone is buried, you may be worried that you’ll have to search through a mountain of obituaries. However, that date can be used to narrow down when their obituary was published. Note that obituaries are generally published a few days to a couple of weeks after a person’s death.
Search Church Records For Burial Sites
If your ancestor worshiped at religious sites like a church or synagogue, these sites may have records of their funeral and burial. They may even be buried at a cemetery near their site of worship, helping you quickly locate their grave.
Check the religious sites that were open in the city or county where your ancestor lived to narrow down where they may have worshiped. Some parishes, mosques, synagogues, etc. already have digitized records so you can access their websites for cemetery information. Others may not have online information, but you can visit in person to search their archives and find their grave site.
Contact Local Cemeteries
If you’re wondering how to find where someone is buried, cemetery records are another great starting point. Find out when your local cemeteries started accepting burials to pinpoint if your ancestor may be buried there. If they closed down, search for the approximate period they stopped operating.
A cemetery office typically keeps records of the people who have been buried on their property. You can ask to search their cemetery records and find a grave. However, note that some cemeteries are privately owned and aren’t always open to the public, so you may have to make a request to visit.
Don’t forget to search the cemetery records of non-denominational cemeteries or cemeteries maintained by the city or town. The latter typically oversaw the burial of the local indigent or homeless. Your ancestor’s grave site may be there if they died with no relatives, money, or property.
Impoverished ancestors may have been buried in a “potter’s field”, also known as a mass grave site. While these sites may be able to tell you if a person was buried there, they won’t have a cemetery gravestone or specific place of burial.
Knowing the full name of your ancestor is often all you need to locate their grave in a cemetery. But if your ancestor has a common name like “Jane Cooper”, there’s a strong chance that someone with the same name is buried in the same cemetery. To avoid mistakenly visiting a different person’s grave, cross-check their cemetery records with other personal details like their date of birth or death.
Get Burial Information From Funeral Homes
Another way to find where an ancestor is buried is to look up which funeral homes were operating when your ancestor died. If their funeral home is still operating today, they may have records about your ancestor’s burial services and the cemetery where they’re buried.
Don’t lose heart if the funeral home has shuttered down. Sometimes, when a local funeral home closes, the new funeral home takes over its business location and records. Funeral homes don’t tend to keep detailed archives spanning more than a few decades, but it’s still helpful to contact them and ask.
Ask Local Historical Societies
Some towns have historical societies that preserve important records, such as church records, obituaries, and cemetery plot indexes. They may keep microfilm scans or other digital copies on a website, or they may only have physical records.
If your ancestor died in a place with such local societies, reach out to them for information. Many of these groups will offer to look up their records for a small fee.
Tips While Checking Death And Burial Records
Tracing your genealogy and the cemetery where your ancestor is buried can be a dizzying, lengthy process. Follow these suggestions to organize your efforts and make it easier to analyze your findings.
Keep Requests Short And Simple
Before you request information from a county office, cemetery, or local archives, you need to know the following:
- Whom to contact
- Any fees for document copies or information requests
- Necessary information to search their records
You can request information by calling the relevant office, sending an email, or asking via snail mail. Include any details that can simplify their searches such as the last known location of residence or birth date. Avoid wasting their time with long-winded anecdotes about your genealogy or ancestor.
Be Prepared To Pay Fees For Document Copies
Once the relevant person has replied to your request, send the required fees via check, money order, or onsite payment. These fees will cover the expense of creating and sending copies of records.
Some offices won’t charge you a fee if you’re not asking for a certified copy of their records. Ask if they provide “genealogy use” copies to get these documents at a reduced rate.
Create A Chart For Easy Cross-Referencing
Sometimes, you may get information in bits and pieces during your search. Making a chart can help you keep track of details and compare data, such as the name and residence of a person, their age when they died, and any surviving immediate relatives.
Information about the deceased’s relatives can be useful for verifying information. For example, knowing where their spouse is buried may help you find the grave of a person, as spouses are often buried side by side. If you’re looking for the grave site of an unmarried person or young children, they may be buried in a family cemetery plot with other relatives.
Find Out Who Owned The Cemetery Plot
Some cemeteries allow more than one person to be buried in the same cemetery plot. If your ancestor’s relatives didn’t purchase their cemetery plot but the records indicate that they were buried there, don’t fret. They may still be buried there but simply don’t have a headstone to mark their grave.
What To Do When You Find The Grave
If you’ve tracked down your ancestor’s gravestone, you may want to document whatever you find for your genealogy records. Here are some things you can do once you’re at the cemetery.
- Call ahead before visiting the cemetery: If the cemetery isn’t publicly owned, it may have set visiting days and hours. Schedule your visit to avoid wasting time and get help to locate your relative’s grave, especially if the cemetery is large. The cemetery office may also have useful information on how to drive or commute there quickly.
- Be careful not to damage the gravestone: Gravestone rubbings have become popular for genealogy and historical preservation. However, they may further damage a headstone that’s already worn down or broken. Instead, try gently trimming overgrown surrounding grass or carefully wiping the stone to see the inscriptions.
- Take photographs: Pictures are a good way to document your genealogy research progress and ancestor’s burial place. If your ancestor’s headstone has an etched portrait, you can take a photo and try to have the image restored to learn what they may have looked like.
Learn More About Your Genealogy And Heritage
It can be tricky to unearth the final resting place of your ancestors, but finding their graves can help you feel closer to your ancestry. Visiting their graves is a way to honor their memories and reflect on your own life.
Take plenty of pictures during your search so you can put together a vivid record of your family’s lineage. If you find old photographs of these ancestors along the way, have them restored at a reputable restoration service. They’ll be the perfect finishing touch for your genealogy records!