How to Find a Grave in Iowa for Free: Step-By-Step

Updated

If you’re wondering how to find a grave in a cemetery (specifically in Iowa), you might not know where to begin. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

Is it necessary to pace around cemetery after cemetery to check every headstone? What if you’re not sure about the spelling of the person’s name or the county where they passed? Learn about locating a grave in Iowa for free with these step-by-step instructions, resources, and tips. It might also be helpful to learn how to find out if someone died.

What Information Will You Need Before You Try to Find a Grave in Iowa?

To find a grave in Iowa — or anywhere really — it’s helpful to know a few biographical details about the person or family member you seek. 

Though the grave indexing efforts in Iowa and beyond didn’t begin as digital projects, much of this information has migrated online. Many states have online indexes that can aid you in your search. Of course, you can always begin in your search engine of choice. However, it’s worth noting that record-keeping can be a complex business, especially for the biographical data of specific individuals.  

One such indexing project was completed by the Works Project Administration (WPA). The Graves Registration Survey began in the 1930s and is now available online for Iowa and many other states. 

The biographical details that will help in searching for graves (and specifically in the above resource) include:

  • First name
  • Surname
  • County where the person passed away

If you’re unsure of spelling or about one or more of the details above, you can always make an educated guess. 

The Iowa WPA Graves Registration even allows you to search phonetically — that is, how you believe the person’s name is pronounced. This phonetics-based search is commonly known as a “Soundex” search.

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Iowa-Specific Resources to Help You Find a Grave

There are a few resources that you should tap into right away to help you find a grave in Iowa. 

Several of these resources pool their data together and are interconnected, which increases the likelihood that searching in one spot will yield all the most possible, accurate results.   

Be sure to check out the following.

The 1930s Grave Registration Survey by the Works Project Administration (WPA)

The Works Project Administration was part of "The New Deal" programs initiated under President Roosevelt in 1933. The WPA was initially designed to fund the building and improvement of America's infrastructure. However, it also financed arts, history, and culture. 

The specific online version of the 1930s Grave Registration Survey for Iowa is free and was created using multi-generation typed copies of the transcriptions created by the WPA workers. 

According to the site, much of the data was difficult to read clearly. Therefore, a name not included does not mean the individual is not buried there. This inconvenience highlights the sometimes spotty ability to find older or unknown graves. 

The Iowa Gravestone Photo Project

The Iowa Gravestone Photo Project has more than 1.3 million photo records from across Iowa. This project's mission is to capture digital images of Iowa graves, archive them to honor ancestors, and provide researchers with a tool to exchange information. 

According to the site, the "Gravestone Photo Project" or "GPP" was undertaken as a single county gravestone photo archive in Van Buren Co., Iowa. It originated in January 2003 and has grown to include independently managed repositories in over forty states.

All users are allowed to upload their photos to further enrich the database's content. 

The Iowa GenWeb Project

According to the site, the Iowa GenWeb Project was established in July 1996 and is part of the more significant USGenWeb Project. These organizations are possible thanks to a group of volunteers working to provide websites for genealogical research in every county and every state in the country. In addition, the overall project is non-commercial and fully committed to free access for everyone.

LDS Genealogy

LDS Genealogy is more of a database site than a single resource. The Church of Latter-Day Saints organizes this site, and it can direct you to other resources with Iowa grave information. 

Resources linked on this site include Ancestry and Archives.com. However, keep in mind that some of these resources may be useful, but they may not be entirely free. 

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Additional resources

Two additional resources among the best for finding graves online are FindAGrave.com and BillionGraves.com. Keep in mind, however, that these resources are not Iowa-specific. Much like other resources mentioned prior, though, they’re run by volunteers. Similarly, they work to photograph gravestones as well as regularly upload photos.

Steps for Finding a Grave in Iowa for Free

Rather than operating on the idea that you need to “just start looking,” it might help you significantly if you break your search efforts up into actionable steps. 

Steps for finding a grave in any state will likely look similar, as it’s essential to use the resources closest to you first — rather than running to the nearest cemetery. 

1. Verify with friends or family

Before you even begin an official search, it’s a good idea to reach out to your friends, family, and loved ones. Someone might know where the grave you’re looking for is located, or at least provide a clue about where to look first. 

Anything that can help you narrow down the location should be considered helpful. For example, if one of your relatives has lived in a particular part of Iowa for a long time or has neighbors that do, this is an excellent place to start.  

2. Look for free resources

While some paid services help you find a grave in Iowa, it’s valuable to check out free resources first. These free resources can help you locate individuals by first name, last name, and county where they passed away. It’s also possible to view photos of more than a million graves with the Iowa Gravestone Photo Project mentioned prior.  

3. Narrow down your options

During your search, you may find a few potential graves that could be a match for the one you seek. Finding a few potential graves may depend on how old the grave is, your certainty surrounding the person’s biographical data, the quality of the data or photos provided, as well as any wear on the grave itself (if photo evidence is provided, for example).  

It may not hurt to document a few different possibilities of the grave you’re looking for, just in case one lead ends up being inconclusive. A few additional leads may also help you locate individuals of interest you may not have even known you were looking for. 

4. Confirm cemetery hours or rules

Once you find one or more potential cemeteries or plots where you can find your loved one or person of interest, it’s essential to check with these sites about their hours or any special rules, such as what you’re allowed to leave at a grave. 

In addition to respecting cemetery policies (if any), it’s important to respect those buried and their families. If you weren’t aware, there’s such thing as headstone etiquette, as well as grave flower etiquette.

5. Call the county or nearby funeral homes

Once you have a few leads — no matter if you’re confident in them or not — another smart step to take is to call the county clerk’s office or nearby funeral homes. These offices can be great, free resources for Iowa ancestry of all types. 

Someone at one of these offices might be able to help you narrow down the cemetery you should visit or even direct you to the exact plot on a map. 

6. Pay your respects

You may also be wondering what to leave at a grave, especially if you've never visited one before. While it's not necessary (and perhaps not allowed) to leave flowers, notes, or a gift if you don't feel comfortable, it's always important to remember the significance of cemeteries and the families of those involved.

If nothing else, you can visit the grave you're looking for and spend a few quiet moments; This is the perfect alternative, especially if you're unsure about the cemetery's rules surrounding what you can leave a grave. You may also choose to write or prepare a poem, prayer, or speech to help you honor the person you're visiting and those around them.

Dig Into Data

Before you start trekking around cemeteries in Iowa, be sure to dig into data available online. Though perhaps not the most advanced or current, free resources will get you that much closer to locating the grave of your loved one or person of interest in Iowa.

You may also be interested in related resources, such as how to bury a loved one if you can’t afford it or how to clean a gravestone.   


Sources:
  1. 1930’s Graves Registration Survey. Iowa Works Project Administration.  Iowawpagraves.org.
  2. Iowa Gravestone Photo Project. Iowa Gravestone Photo Project. Iowagravestones.org.
  3. Iowa County IAGenWeb Genealogy & HIstory. IAGenWeb. Iagenweb.org.

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