There is More to Cemetery Research Than Tombstones

There is More to Cemetery Research Than Tombstones

Most people know that tombstone contain information about their ancestors.  But, did you know that tombstones aren’t the only records available at the cemetery?  The cemetery office can be a gold mine information.  Let’s take a look at what you might find in cemetery records.

Cemetery Records

Depending on the age of the cemetery, they may keep records in a variety of ways.  They might be in file cabinets, in computer databases, huge ledger books, and even on window shades.  Yes,  It’s true!  One small cemetery I contacted had records from the 1890s on window shades.  Maybe they ran out of paper.

My experience is with ledger books, so let’s work with that.  Most of my relatives who lived in Oakland, Alameda County, California were buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery.  I paid a couple of visits in the early 1990s and the kind man in the office allowed me to view their ledger books.

First, the deceased person had to be found in the index.  These were large books covering a wide span of years.  They contain names, plot numbers, and book/page numbers for the original record.

I was not allowed to work in the file room myself.  Once I found the book and page number, I was given the ledger books for those records.

The ledger books contained a synopsis of what was on the paperwork filled out at the time of the burial.  Entries included this information (varied by year):

  • Name of deceased
  • Age at death
  • Place of birth
  • Place of death
  • Plot Number
  • Who paid for the plot and burial with their mailing address
  • Burial Files

But, wait!  There’s more!

There was sometimes more information on file for burials.  However, I was not permitted to look at these files.   I was allowed to send in the list of names and plot numbers that I had found.  In return, I received copies of the sheets in the ledger books and sometimes obituaries.

St. Mary’s Cemetery Register Book

Records do vary by cemetery.  St. Mary’s has huge ledger books, but Holy Cross in Colma, CA has small index cards.

What Did I Learn From These Records?

While I picked up various facts about individuals, I found out something invaluable from looking directly at the files.  Many individuals don’t get their names on tombstone.  Unless you look at the actual burial records, you don’t know who all is buried in a plot.

These are some of the people I found who were not listed on the tombstone but were listed in the cemetery records:

  • My grandfather is buried with his younger brother, Willie.
  • Sophie (Bonita) Figg is buried with her grandfather, Jozimas de Braga.
  • Theodore Souza is buried with his grandparents, Theodoro Pacheco and Maria de Braga.
  • William P. Algrava is buried with his aunt and uncle, Theodoro Pacheco and Maria de Braga.
  • Martin Kelly, my 4th great grandfather, is buried with his wife and children, but his name was never put on the stone.

Some Cemeteries Will Not Let You Look at Their Records

Be forewarned!  While St. Mary’s in Oakland was more than willing to allow individuals to view their records in the early 1990s, other cemeteries were not.  Each cemetery has its own policies.  Some won’t even give you information unless you send it in the form of a written request.

Holy Cross Cemetery Reburials for the Kelly Family
Index cards from Holy Cross Cemetery

Save yourself some time. Contact the cemetery prior to making a trip.

Ask them these questions:

  1. Do they do look ups in their records?
  2. Would they be willing to let you look through their old record books?
  3. If you are allowed to view the records on site, do you need an appointment?

Always ask if there is a fee involved.  I was shocked when I wrote to a cemetery and received a bill for $100 for research.  There was a $20 research fee per plot and they did the work before informing me of the fee.  Lesson learned!

Last Tip, I Promise

Check  to see if the records for the cemetery you need are online.  Some older cemeteries are partnering with websites to have their records transcribed and digitized.  You might find the original records without having to make a trip.

Check, too!  Volunteers are adding information from files in some cases.  It’s worth a look.

So, next time you’re ready to do some cemetery research, don’t overlook the office files.  You might find valuable information that doesn’t appear on the tombstone.




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Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website,

One thought on “There is More to Cemetery Research Than Tombstones

  1. Thank you for this information. All of my efforts have been online so far, but I hope one day to visit some of the cemeteries. I especially appreciate your suggestions to call ahead and to beware of unadvertised fees.

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