Cemetery trips: What not to do

If you stick with genealogy, eventually you’re going to end up in a cemetery. (As a researcher, I mean.) This post is about beginner’s luck, which is not always what it’s cracked up to be. On two very different cemetery trips, I learned some important (and basic) don’ts:

Don’t go without a friend (old or new) who’s been there before. I nearly missed my family’s monument in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Watervliet, NY. Pathetic, considering I had a cemetery map and a plot location AND the monument was big enough to have bit me if it wanted to. But I had no sense of the cemetery layout and quickly got disoriented, wasting much time and energy. By contrast, when I visited the much larger Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn with two knowledgeable genealogy buddies, things went just swimmingly– because they knew the ropes and the layout, not to mention the staff.

Don’t assume there will be a marker,
even for relatively recent burials. Sure, markers fade and sink in old rural cemeteries. But markers can also be missing for big-city relatives who died within living memory. Looking in Holy Cross for the grave of my gg-uncle William (d. 1930), I found only a blank space and a somewhat murky plot ownership record. I still need to learn whether the marker disappeared or never existed – common enough when families had enough money to buy a grave, but not a monument.

W. Haigney gravesite

Lots of markers here, but not THE marker. I think the grave I was looking for is next to the potted plant.

Don’t assume that everybody in the grave is on the headstone. I have two family plots that contain children who died very young but are not listed on the headstones. In both cases, though, their burial information is on their death certificates and is confirmed by the cemetery’s own burial records.

Don’t skip a visit with the staff, even if you think you know everything. Yes, the title says it all. I didn’t bother finding when the groundskeeping staff patrolled St. Patrick’s. I already had my grave location info, so who cared? Oh, well: St. Patrick’s isn’t nearly the size of Holy Cross, but it still managed to confuse me. I kick myself thinking how efficient I could have been if a human being had given me a quick primer on how the place was arranged. I never did find one tombstone I was looking for that day; I ran out of daylight. Which brings me to another point: In larger urban cemeteries, a visit to the office is just the prudent thing to do. The staff should know you’re there and what section you’ll be visiting – often, they’ll want to keep an eye out for you, which isn’t a bad thing.

I’m sure there are lots more favorite cemetery tips – and goof-ups. Any to share?


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