Humans have visited the graves of their ancestors for thousands of years. Finding these graves, whether they’re for someone you know or a relative long past, isn’t always a simple process. While it’s easier to find graves today than it’s ever been before, there is still a lot of guesswork. This is particularly true if you’re not sure where to start your search.
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Visiting the grave of an ancestor is often a powerful experience. It puts your lineage and mortality in perspective, and it’s also an opportunity to respect those who died before you.
If you haven’t taken the time to find the gravesites for your ancestors, you might feel like a piece of your genealogy puzzle is missing. If you’re ready to start your journey of discovery, follow these steps to find a loved one’s grave in a cemetery.
How to Find a Marked Grave in a Cemetery
If your relative is in a marked grave, breathe a sigh of relief. This makes the process of searching for their grave much easier.
Most modern graves are marked and recorded in some way. If you’re searching for a marked grave, follow these steps.
1. Collect information about the deceased
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it. Start your search by collecting important information about the relative. If you’re searching for multiple graves at once, compile as much information as you can. You’ll need information from vital records like:
- Full name (first, middle, last)
- Date of birth
- Date of death
- Location of death
While it’s easy to get caught in the details of a person’s life, it’s their death we’re really concerned about. The location and date of their death are essential to locating their grave quickly and simply.
How do you find this vital information? A great place to search is census records, family religious texts, or other records. Obituary archives in newspapers are also a great resource.
2. Check online resources
Once you’ve collected the information you need to start your search, it’s time to locate the grave. The best place to start is also the simplest — online. It’s no surprise that with our wealth of online tools today that there’s also a way to find graves online. This makes the entire process so much easier.
Two of the best resources for searching graves virtually are:
Volunteers run these websites, and they photograph gravestones and regularly upload these photos. By entering the vital information of your relative, you can quickly see if any photos of their graves are online. It could be this simple to find exactly what you’re looking for.
3. Contact the county or funeral homes
If you don’t have luck with any of the websites above, don’t fret. There are still ways to find this information. Start by contacting any funeral homes that were in business during your relative’s time of death. These are the ones most likely to have records of where ancestors rest. You might have to make several calls, but they will have this information.
If you can’t locate the right funeral home or it’s no longer in business, contact the county clerk’s office where they died. Ask to speak to the Vital Records Department. Sometimes you’ll need to pay a fee or prove your relationship to the relative in order to access this information, but they’ll know where to find the grave in most cases.
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4. Visit the cemetery
Once you’ve located your loved one’s grave, it’s time to find their grave. Some cemeteries are large, so this step is often more intimidating than it sounds when you’re faced with rows and rows of graves.
The good news is there’s an easy way to avoid searching endlessly. If this is a modern cemetery, they most likely have a website. There should be a map or search feature that makes it possible to locate your relative’s grave quickly. Even if the cemetery doesn’t have a website, call to ask about the location of the grave.
Graves are typically organized into blocks, lots, and sections. You’ll find the number engraved on the side of the gravestone usually, or there’s some other indicator of the lot and grave number. Using markers, like grave epitaphs are also helpful.
5. Find the grave
When you’ve found the grave in-person, take some time to reflect. This can be a powerful, emotional moment, even if you didn’t know the relative personally. Many people find it soothing to clean the grave, bring flowers, or write a note. However, before taking any action, learn how to clean a headstone properly to prevent damage.
Bringing small grave decorations is often a sign of respect. For graves that have been untouched for decades, flowers, or other mementos are a sign that someone is thinking about this person. Allow yourself to spend time with the grave and reflect on the journey that brought you here.
How to Find an Unmarked Grave in a Cemetery
An unmarked grave is difficult to find, but not impossible. If your relative died long ago, their grave might not have a marker or any record.
1. Complete steps 1-3 above
The initial steps are still the same as finding a marked grave. You’ll need to determine as much information as you can, especially about where your ancestor died. There are a lot of unexpected ways to find the cemetery location if your relative’s body rests in one.
In addition to calling the county and talking to funeral homes, try these sources:
- Old newspapers
- Local historical societies
- Death certificate
- Family records
- Family correspondence (letters, etc.)
- Church records
The goal is to determine the location where your relative was laid to rest. Unfortunately, there are often instances where this information simply isn’t possible. Some locations and communities simply didn’t invest in record-keeping until very recently.
This means you might not be able to find the exact location, even if you know the city where your relative died.
2. Location the burial place
If you do find the burial location, there are a few methods for finding the actual grave. In centuries past, it wasn’t uncommon for folks to be buried in mass graves or not to receive a headstone.
Here are some things you should know about an unmarked grave:
- The grave marker might not be at the head of the grave
- The marker could simply note the area, not the exact location
- Many people could be under a single marker
- The marker might be unreadable or even damaged
- Markers could be over empty graves
If you do find the area you suspect your relative is buried, there are a number of archeological steps that are possible. However, these steps are only for professionals. Many states have laws about digging or disturbing graves, and you might not legally be allowed to do any of these yourself:
- Rod probing: A 6-foot rod with a blunt end pushes into the soil to find caskets or vaults.
- Soil coring: A hollow tube is inserted above a suspected grave, and the soil is removed to find evidence of disturbance. This requires a trained archeologist.
- Excavation: Systematic removal of soil in a controlled fashion to find graves without causing damage.
- Ground-penetrating radar: A radar wave in the ground records what material it passes through.
- Resistivity: An electric charge runs underground to measure moisture retention in the ground that could locate a grave.
- Conductivity: A magnetic field is applied to the ground to make a map of the soil.
While all of these are effective ways to find an unmarked grave, they are time-consuming and disruptive to the area. You’ll need to decide whether this is something that’s a good fit for your search.
3. Visit the grave or location
If you’re able to locate the unmarked grave, congratulations. This is a huge accomplishment! Be sure to keep track of your progress and newfound information to pass along to the city or other historical groups.
It’s this type of genealogical research that makes it easier for other people to locate their own ancestors in the future.
If you’re unable to find the exact grave, you still might visit a nearby location or the cemetery. This is still a way to feel close to your ancestors and to honor their memory. Bring flowers and follow proper grave flowers etiquette to create your own gravemarker. It truly is the thought that counts.
Feel Closer to Your Past
Visiting the graves of deceased relatives brings you closer to your own story. It’s not often that we take a moment out of our busy schedules to reflect on those who lived before us. Going to their final resting place puts a lot of things in perspective while also honoring their memories.
With so much talk about graves, it’s easy to start asking questions about your own end-of-life plan. Start end-of-life planning to make these decisions today on behalf of your friends and family. How do you want to be remembered?
- “Locating Unmarked Graves.” Texas Historical Commission. THC.Texas.gov.