While you can do a lot of genealogy research online, you may run into a situation that requires you to visit a cemetery to read the text on a headstone. Or you may feel driven to visit the grave of a family member or friend for emotional reasons.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Information Will You Need Before You Try to Find a Grave in Pennsylvania?
- Pennsylvania-Specific Resources to Help You Find a Grave
- Reasons Why You Can't Find a Grave
- Steps for Finding a Grave in Pennsylvania for Free
The good news is that volunteers across the country are working hard to photograph headstones and upload them on websites that anyone can access for free.
We'll tell you about those websites, but we will also give you other ideas on how to find a grave in Pennsylvania if the image of the headstone is not available online.
What Information Will You Need Before You Try to Find a Grave in Pennsylvania?
Finding a headstone in Pennsylvania requires that you know some basic information about the deceased. Here's what you need to know, as well as some pitfalls that may complicate your search.
It's hard for modern audiences to imagine life without birth certificates, but this method of recording births with the federal government is only about 115 years old.
Pennsylvania began recording births at a state level in 1906. You may also be able to find the record of births from local jurisdictions from the mid-1800s. If you can't find a public record, you might need to search baptism records at churches located in the vicinity of the birth.
But finding your ancestor's given name doesn't mean that you'll be able to find information about their death easily.
It was common (and still is) for people to use nicknames instead of their given names. Some of your ancestors may have used their middle name as their first name. To further complicate matters, it was common for names to be repeated in the same family—even within the same generation. Marriages and divorces may also complicate your search.
Even if you know your ancestor's name, you don't know what name their family may have chosen to put on a headstone. For example, "Alfred" may be buried under a headstone labeled "Fred."
Knowing the name of the deceased may not help you find their headstone.
Knowing the important dates of a person's life goes far in helping you find the records of the deceased. In particular, knowing the death date is particularly helpful for finding a grave in Pennsylvania.
Old cemetery records were recorded chronologically. And having a death date would make it easier to look for an obituary printed in the local paper.
The later date is also closer to the modern era when better records were kept. For example, if your loved one died in Pennsylvania after 1906, their death certificate might include the name of the burial site or the name of the funeral home.
Location of death
Another helpful piece of information that may help you find a grave in Pennsylvania is the location of the death. As a general rule, people tended to be buried where they died. This is because transferring the deceased's body was (and still is) expensive, and cremation was not a popular choice until recent years.
The websites that we refer to in the next section use the state and county of the death to narrow the search for a particular grave.
Pennsylvania-Specific Resources to Help You Find a Grave
While there are a few Pennsylvania-specific resources to help you find a grave, we recommend that you begin your search on websites with more extensive databases. These websites are also excellent if you know specific information about the deceased.
Your first step in finding a grave in Pennsylvania should be to use the Find A Grave website. Since 1995, volunteers have photographed headstones across the country and entered the information on this site.
You can search the database using the name of the deceased, the year of the person's birth and death, the location of the cemetery, and the names of the spouse, parent, children, or siblings of the deceased.
If you can't find the headstone on Find a Grave, you might extend your search to Billion Graves. This website uses searchable GPS cemetery data to provide headstone images and other information about the deceased.
Interment enables you to search for death records and cemetery records for Pennsylvania (and other states and nations). Knowing the name of the cemetery or the location of the death is helpful when using these resources.
Your first stop when trying to find information about your ancestors should be at Ancestry's website. There are free and paid components to this website.
Ancestry will link you to the Find a Grave index to help you find a grave in Pennsylvania, but Ancestry's interface is a little easier to use. Even if you didn't find the grave you were looking for through Find a Grave, it would be worth trying again through Ancestry's website.
Ancestry may be extremely helpful when you are in the process of gathering information about your loved one. For example, you may find the burial location of your ancestor by finding the family tree that some unknown second cousin (twice removed) posted online.
If your loved one was a U.S. Veteran, consider searching through the database offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. This database allows you to search using the person's last name, date of birth, and date of death.
You can also search for your soldier's grave through the American Battle Monuments Commission website.
The Pennsylvania State Library offers advice for those trying to find information on their ancestors. This page also provides links to many resources, such as Pennsylvania Obituary Links and Pennsylvania Scrapbook Necrology.
Reasons Why You Can't Find a Grave
We know how frustrating it is to search for hours for your loved one's Pennsylvania gravesite without achieving any results. Here are some possible reasons that their information didn't show up in any of your searches.
The person is still living
You might not find the death information for a relative because the person is still alive. If this is a possibility, learn how to find out if someone is still alive before spending a lot of time searching for information about their death.
A volunteer hasn't worked in that cemetery yet
Volunteers photograph the headstones you find on the Find a Grave website. It could be that no volunteer has visited the cemetery where your loved one was buried. Keep checking back periodically to see if their information has been recorded yet.
The headstone is difficult or impossible to read
Headstones deteriorate over time. Unfortunately, some monuments are extremely difficult (or impossible) to read. Others may have crumbled over time.
Your loved one's grave wasn't marked
Your loved one may have been buried in a cemetery, but the family may not have installed a permanent monument. Some cemetery records may be available to show exact burial sites, but some of those records may be incomplete, illegible, or destroyed.
Your loved one was buried on private land
It was common practice for rural Americans to bury their loved ones on private land. These burial sites may have been marked with a headstone, or they may have been honored with a wooden cross or another monument that has since deteriorated.
Some of these private cemeteries may still exist, but they can be challenging to find.
Steps for Finding a Grave in Pennsylvania for Free
If you were unsuccessful in finding a grave in Pennsylvania using these online tools, you might consider hiring someone to research your family tree. Search for genealogy experts who live in the location where your family lived (and died).
If you don't want to pay an expert to find a grave in Pennsylvania, here's some additional advice to help you with your search.
1. Seek help from the oldest remaining family members
Your grandparents may be deceased, but are any of their siblings still alive? Consider reconnecting with these family members to see what kind of information they have on your family tree.
They may have a scrapbook of obituaries and funeral cards, a family Bible, or even photographs of your family member's funeral or grave. Even if they don't have (or remember) the information, they might be able to point you in the right direction.
2. Search through online newspapers, census records, and vital statistics records
Some of this information is available for free, but you might have to pay a subscription to access old newspapers. Finding this biographical information may help you narrow down your search for your ancestor's grave.
3. Visit the Pennsylvania community where your ancestor lived and died
While many historical records have made their way online, there are plenty of documents still housed in musty storage rooms of historical societies and libraries.
You may also consider visiting cemeteries in the community where your loved one died. You may find a graveyard with meticulous records, or you might have to wander through the grounds reading names on headstones from the era you are researching.
Did You Find Your Loved One's Grave in Pennsylvania?
Once you find the burial site online, you might want to visit the location. At that point, you might be interested in looking at resources that help you find a specific grave in a cemetery, so you don't have to wander the graveyard for hours.
After looking for a particular grave in Pennsylvania for months or years, you might feel emotional when your search comes to an end. Consider leaving a gift at the gravesite to honor your loved one.