Whether you volunteered as the family historian, you’re trying to find information for a child’s family tree project, or you simply want to see how far back your roots go, you might eventually need to go on a grave hunt.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Information Will You Need Before You Try to Find a Grave in Tennessee?
- Tennessee-Specific Resources to Help You Find a Grave
- Steps for Finding a Grave in Tennessee for Free
Finding a relative’s grave takes a bit of detective work, some good old-fashioned research, and a bit of know-how to make sure your search doesn’t end up in frustration. We hope that, by reading this, you’ll be armed with all the tools you need to find the grave of a loved one or a long-lost relative that you recently found out belonged in your family tree.
What Information Will You Need Before You Try to Find a Grave in Tennessee?
Before you start looking through the many resources available to help you find a relative’s grave, it’s a good idea to first gather some information about them. You may not have every item on this list, and that’s okay. Just keep in mind that, the more info you have, the easier your search will be.
Here are the items you’ll need to start your grave search in Tennessee:
- Full name (first, middle, and last)
- Death date
- Name of spouse(s)
- Name of child(ren)
- Place of death
Each of these pieces of information comes together like a puzzle to help search engines locate records that most closely match those of your relative. They are all important in their own way and can significantly contribute to your search. Here’s a quick breakdown of how each item is helpful.
Your relative’s name
Names are incredibly important when it comes to a gravesite search. Most search engines will require a first or a last name when you search for a grave. If you have either one, you can get started. This is good news for those who only have an initial for a first name and a full last name.
Names contribute heavily to how many search results are given to you and, as a result, how many you have to comb through before you get to your relative. Here’s a practical look at how this works.
Let’s say you know your relative’s first name starts with a P and their last name is Black. You could type in P. Black into a search engine and see what happens. The only problem is that you’ll end up with results for every person whose last name is Black and whose first name starts with P that was buried in Tennessee.
Now, let’s say you did a bit more research and found a military record that had their first name: Percy. You enter Percy Black into the search engine and now you have 4 records for the state of Tennessee instead of 150. Your search just got that much easier and faster.
Your relative’s birth and death dates
Birth and death dates are other items that can greatly help narrow search results. Let’s take the example of P. Black once more. If we can’t find their first name, then we’re bound to end up with too many search results for P. Black. How else can we narrow down results? By entering birth and death dates into the search parameters.
A birth date or death date can instantly refine search results. For example, if you search for P. Black who died on November 19, 1844, you’ll only find one or two results instead of hundreds.
Even having an “about” date is better than no date at all. If you know they died around 1844, then you can enter “about 1844” and you’ll be given results for P. Blacks whose gravemarkers note a death date from around 1840-1850.
Your relative’s family members
Why enter spouses or children into your search parameters? Because this information can also help narrow down results and give you information for only your relative. If you know that P. Black was married to Jenny Black and they had two children, Paul and Percy Black Jr., your search results will be much more specific than if you merely entered “P. Black.”
Entering family names can also help you discover family cemeteries or family plots even if you still have trouble locating a single grave.
The location of your relative’s death
Prior to the mid-1900s, cremation wasn’t that popular, and moving a body across state or county lines was incredibly cost-prohibitive. As a result, most people were buried near where they died. Knowing where your relative died can help you narrow down results and refine your focus to specific areas of the state.
Note: While burial in the area of death was typical, there are exceptions to every rule. Civil War soldiers, for example, were often buried near the battlefield where they died. However, some families chose to embalm their fallen sons to bring them back and bury them in their hometowns.
Tennessee-Specific Resources to Help You Find a Grave
Thanks to the popularity of ancestry research, there are plenty of resources available to help with your search. Here are a few of the best.
The Tennessee Gravestone Photo Project is a volunteer-run project with the goal of photographing every grave in Tennessee. Most of the gravestones are also transcribed, and a description accompanies each picture.
Tennessee is a state with hundreds of Civil War gravesites, pioneer gravesites, and gravesites from early settlers. Many of these stones are becoming worn and weathered and harder to read with each passing year. The photo project aims to document these stones for posterity.
The database currently has 227,000 gravesites uploaded and hundreds are added daily. The database is searchable by first or last name and by county.
The Tennessee Historic Cemetery Preservation Program is run by the Tennessee Historical Commission with the goal of documenting, mapping, and recording all historic cemeteries in Tennessee.
Cemeteries are considered historic if they’re 50 years or older. These places often have no distinct markings, rocks for gravestones, and no address other than a nearby county road. The commission finds these areas, marks their GPS coordinates, and locates each grave in the area.
Though not yet available, the commission will soon come out with a public map of all historic cemeteries. If your relative was buried in a family plot on the family farm and you can’t find their grave or the location of the cemetery, the commission might be able to help you.
Tennessee has microfilmed county records, census records, Civil War military records of Union and Confederate soldiers, prison records, and newspapers with obituaries and death notices. While most of this information won’t direct you to the gravesite of your relative, it can provide vital information to assist you with your search.
Other helpful resources
Here are a few nationwide resources that can help you with your search.
Find a Grave: Largest gravesite database in the world with over 190 million records.
Interment: Online database that cross-references search results with several other gravesite and genealogy databases.
Military Grave Finder: Online database for military graves in national and private cemeteries.
Steps for Finding a Grave in Tennessee for Free
1. Gather information
Before you power up that search engine, do some initial research and collect information about your relative. Find their name, the name of their spouse and children, their birth and death dates, and where they died, if possible. Once you have this information, you’re ready to start your search.
2. Search online
Choose a gravesite search engine and enter as much information as you have. Sift through records, dismissing those that bear no relation to your relative and bookmark those that do. Check grave information against what you know to be true of your relative for a positive match.
If you have trouble finding search results for your relative, try searching in different ways. Use their full name for one search, a nickname for another search, and “about” dates for a third. If you still run into a brick wall, pause your search and pick it up again in a month or two. New data is always being uploaded, so you never know what you might find later.
3. Search in-person
Sometimes online searches won’t result in any tangible leads, but in-person searching might. Check microfilmed county and state archives for information about your relative. This is a bit more tedious than checking online search engines, but it could prove well worth it.
Another place to check is cemeteries. Many have archives and a searchable database that will enable you to search for your loved one’s name among their records.
4. Prepare for your visit
Once you find your relative’s grave, prepare for your visit. Print out a map of the area or the cemetery and mark their plot if you have the exact plot number or GPS coordinates.
5. Visit the cemetery
When you visit the cemetery and find your relative’s grave, be sure to document your trip. Take pictures of the gravesite and the area, draw up a map if you need one, and record the exact GPS coordinates for their grave.
Finally, when you’re ready, consider bringing a flower or other item to leave at the grave in their honor.
Searching for a Grave
Finding a relative’s grave may take some time, patience, and effort, but the results will be well worth it in the end. Be sure to keep well-documented records of your findings, and you’ll preserve a piece of family history for the generations after you.
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