There has always been something mysterious about cemeteries. Perhaps the knowledge that those interred took secrets to their grave has resulted in the enigmatic haze that seems to linger over these peaceful resting sites. But it’s not just the dead that hold secrets. Cemeteries themselves are often home to puzzling (and sometimes spooky) features.
We think of cemeteries as quiet tranquil places. As a “Tombstone Tourist,” I’ve spent years in cemeteries searching for genealogy clues, exquisite artwork, stunning vistas, and that perfect photograph. A trip to the graveyard is never boring. I’ve come back with tales of beauty, delight, and terror. Here are just three shocking discoveries I’ve made while searching in cemeteries.
1. Abandoned Crypts
There’s a cemetery in Kentucky that holds a baffling find; three 19th century mausoleums that have disappeared right in the middle of the grounds.
On a humid July day, I stepped inside a grove of trees to escape the searing heat. Inside that cool dimness stood three stately mausoleums, each with a façade protruding from a hill now enveloped in trees, vines, and shrubs. This thicket had been growing untamed for years.
The mausoleums stood side-by-side. The first was a small brick crypt with a surname above the entry along with a date “1895.” But the tomb had been bricked up for so long, trees grew on top obscuring its existence.
The middle mausoleum was built from pressed concrete with niches and arches along the walls. Again, the doorway and windows were bricked shut against the onslaught of trees and ropy vines that brushed and clung to its surface.
The third mausoleum was constructed of plainer concrete set off in a corner. No names or dates were visible but trees blocked any approach. It was visible only through a tangle of vines and foliage.
Who had these monuments been for?
Why had they been abandoned?
Had the bodies been moved when family members relocated?
Or were they simply forgotten?
Perhaps no one left payment for special care in perpetuity.
Apparently, what has been lost and forgotten shall remain so.
2. The Grave in the Middle of the Road
Having grown up in Indiana, I can assure you that Hoosiers are a practical lot. But there’s one roadside attraction that will cause the most stoic of residents to stop and ponder the audacity and fortitude it took to keep a grave in the middle of the road for close to 200 years.
The story began in 1808 when Nancy Kerlin married William Barnett, the great, great, great grandson of Pocahontas and John Rolfe.
Baptism of Pocahontas by John G. Chapman, 1840. (Public Domain Image)
They settled near what would become Amity, Indiana to raise their family.
Nancy died on December 1, 1831 and was buried on top of a small hill overlooking Sugar Creek, one of her favorite spots. Soon others were also buried here and over the years a small county cemetery developed.
But then progress reared its head around the turn of the last century and Johnson County decided that a road needed to be built to connect Amity with other thoroughfares. This meant the grave had to be relocated.
Nancy’s grandson, Daniel G. Doty had a problem with that.
Doty went to the county and voiced his opposition. Nothing changed so he decided to take matters into his own hands. When county work crews arrived they found Doty sitting on his grandmother’s grave – with a loaded shotgun. Again, Doty told the county that his grandmother would stay where she was. If they insisted on trying to move her grave, they would have to deal with him. With that prospect, county workers agreed to let things “rest” where they were.
A concrete slab was placed over the grave in 1912 to protect it.
An historical marker was added in 1982, and Nancy became an anomaly.
But three years ago, after numerous reports of accidents, something had to be done.
In 2016, Nancy’s grave was temporarily moved to widen the road. It was the perfect time for University of Indianapolis archaeologists to see just what was buried there.
Amazingly, they discovered that residents have been driving past not only Nancy’s grave but also the remains of six others – a man, a woman and four children. Was this the Barnett family? No one’s said for sure but the state has now designated this small spot in the middle of the road a family cemetery.
The Grave in the Middle of the Road
3. The Tree of the Dead
In Terre Haute, Indiana there stands the most massively disfigured cemetery tree I’ve ever encountered. Though its genus is no longer identifiable, it stretches at odd angles as if reaching out in despair.
It was a frigid January day when I encountered what I have since called “The Tree of the Dead.”
I’d been taking photos when my husband waved me over to see his find. Over the years I have seen hundreds of ominous cemetery trees, but none like this. This tree was surely waiting for the headless horseman to plunge through that opening with a rush of fetid air as he continued searching for his head.
Stepping closer, I attempted to take a photo, but the tree was having none of it. My camera shut down immediately. There are several explanations for this common cemetery occurrence; the batteries are too cold, connections are corroded, post seals are damaged, or spirits are sapping energy attempting to manifest. Yes, well … but after changing the batteries two more times, I had yet to get one picture.
My husband thrust his camera into my hands and I was able to get two photos before the batteries died. One shows the tree in all of its appalling façade with twisted limbs reaching akimbo to the sky. (Notice the limb with a dragon’s head at the end?)
The second shot shows the opening in the middle of the tree: a bizarre heart shape. And the mishmash of tombstones scattered around the plot date to the late 1800s but names are indecipherable.
Who is buried here?
What happened to give the tree such an appearance?
Could it be caused by a decades-old drought?
Maybe arsenic used to embalm bodies back in the 19th century slowly leaching its way up into the tree?
Or could it be … something else?
A visual reminder of how perilously close fact and fiction are entwined in the graveyard.
Cemeteries hold a vast amount of secrets, most of which we may never know. But the genealogist’s pursuit of answers means we’ll never stop exploring and asking the questions, and perhaps one day, those secrets taken to the grave may be revealed.
Discover tools for locating tombstones, tips for traipsing through cemeteries, an at-a-glance guide to frequently used gravestone icons, and practical strategies for on-the-ground research. And once you’ve returned home, learn how to incorporate gravestone information into your research, as well as how to upload grave locations to BillionGraves and record your findings in memorial pages on Find A Grave.
About the Author: Joy Neighbors is a national speaker, author, freelance writer, blogger, and avowed Tombstone Tourist. Her book, The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide focuses on how to locate cemetery records, what to do when you get to the cemetery and how to understand the silent language of the stones. She also shares a few stunning family secrets along the way. Joy also writes the weekly cemetery culture blog, A Grave.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode 157 is ready for you! This episode features a variety of must-have tips for the family historian: courthouse research strategies, identifying old family memorabilia, and using YDNA to learn more about your paternal line.
Something I love about the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast is host and producer Lisa Louise Cooke’s unique ability to bring together the best voices on “all things genealogy.” She truly knows how to pick the most valuable gems—both the topics and the experts—and string them all together in a way that’s easy to listen to and inspiring.
Premium Podcast Episode 157 Highlight
In this episode, I was especially intrigued by Michael Strauss’ segment on identifying old family memorabilia. He’s our Military Minutes contributor. The memorabilia he uses as an example is military-themed—a series of postcards from a soldier during World War I. They’re so intriguing: I’ve shown you just one of those here:
Michael’s tips apply to just about any kind of family artifact you might find in your possession. You’ll hear the questions he asked about these postcards and the kinds of genealogical documents he sought to answer those questions.
Another don’t-miss segment is a voicemail Lisa got from Ken. He’s a riot! And he has a good DNA question for Diahan, which she addresses directly.
Also in this episode: The Archive Lady Melissa Barker chimes in with tips for genealogists on visiting courthouses. I chime in, too, with comments about a fascinating new cemetery database that will bring together not just the data on tombstones but information about the stones’ physical surroundings. You’ll love this if you’re a nature lover–or if you just like the idea that when we are laid to rest, we become part of the natural landscape.
Click here to listen to Premium Podcast Episode #157 (Premium eLearning membership required).
The Perks of Premium eLearning
This and all Premium Podcast episodes are available to our Premium eLearning members. In case you missed the memo, Genealogy Gems Premium Membership is now Premium eLearning—and there’s MUCH more than there ever has been before for Premium members! Click here to learn more about the benefits of Premium eLearning, which we think is the best genealogy education opportunity around.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
Cemetery research is a crucial family history skill. Tombstones are monuments to our ancestors lives and may have key genealogical clues engraved in the stone. Follow these four steps to finding your ancestors’ burial places and the records that complement them.
Many of my ancestors are buried just two miles from my house in Round Hill Cemetery in Marion, Virginia. I drive by the cemetery each day, as I take my daughters to school. I never pass by without glancing up at the hallowed ground which holds the remains of those who came before me. The sun perfectly illuminates their resting place each morning and a majestic tree stands at the very top of the hill–a living monument to the lives they led in the town where I now raise my own family.
It is an emotional experience to stand in the place where an ancestor’s remains have been laid to rest.
Each time I visit the grave of my grandma, I have a vision of a family standing around a casket on a bitter cold day in March. It was a just few days before the official start of spring, but it was the dead of winter to me. That ground is sacred to me, now.
Each time I visit, I am transported back in time to that day. A wound is re-opened for a moment, but the moment is fleeting because I quickly remember her life, not her death.
I remember the stories she told, the service her hands rendered to her family and, most importantly, the love that transcends time and even the icy grip of death. Death truly loses its “sting” as we stand before a monument of stone and see beyond to the life it represents. Scenes like this one have played out at each grave.
I am reminded of this quote from Fear Nothing, a Dean Koontz book, whenever I visit the cemetery:
“The trunks of six giant oaks rise like columns supporting a ceiling formed by their interlocking crowns. In the quiet space below, is laid out an aisle similar to those in any library. The gravestones are like rows of books bearing the names of those whose names have been blotted from the pages of life; who have been forgotten elsewhere but are remembered here.”
I have often gone to my ancestors’ resting places to take pictures of headstones and search for relatives I may have missed in the past. It seems like each time I visit, I notice something new.
This library of marble holds many clues that have helped me break down brick walls in my family history research. These clues have been there, etched in stone, for decades. It wasn’t until I recognized how to read the clues that I began to understand the importance of cemeteries in family history research.
These resting places have become much more to me than merely a place to go and offer a bouquet of flowers. There are answers waiting to be discovered. The key to getting the answers is knowing which questions to ask.
In my experience, the best genealogists are not the ones with the best cameras, the best software, or the best gadgets–they are the ones with the best questions.
Curiosity is the most important tool to the successful genealogist. The next time you find yourself in a library of marble, take a few moments to let your curiosity run wild. Ask yourself:
“Who are the people surrounding my family members?
What are their stories?
What do the etchings on their headstones mean?”
That curiosity will lead to the most remarkable discoveries and you will see for yourself how a piece of marble truly can break down a brick wall.
Below I’ve outlined the steps for finding family cemeteries and which questions you should be asking when you get there. Get inspired by my own examples of breaking down brick walls, and implement these methods I used for your own success!
Cemetery research step #1: Identify the cemetery
The first step in cemetery research is to identify the name of the cemetery where an ancestor was buried.
The best places to start looking are death certificates, funeral home records and obituaries. Each one of these records should contain the name of the cemetery where a family member was buried.
We sometimes fail to look beyond the names and dates on death certificates. If we get in the habit of taking the time to absorb all of the information on these important documents, we will find genealogical treasure.
Sometimes, the death certificate will not give us the name of the cemetery.
This was the case with my great-grandmother, Mollie Weimer Overbay. I was frustrated to see that the death certificate only indicated that she was buried, as opposed to cremated or removed to another location. While the certificate did not provide me with the name of a cemetery, it did offer the name of the funeral director: W.B. Seaver.
Luckily, I was able to follow this lead to the local funeral home. Within their records, I discovered that she was buried in Round Hill Cemetery, along with many of my other ancestors.
Cemetery research step #2: Locate the cemetery
Once you have located the name of the cemetery, several resources can guide you to its location.
Three helpful websites are listed below. Which you choose may depend on personal preference or familiarity but also on which site seems to have more records for the locales of most interest to you.
This website allows you to search for cemeteries all over the world.
At the home page, click on the Cemeteries tab (#1, below).
Then enter the name or location of the cemetery (#2). In the screenshot below, you can see part of the Google Maps interface that shows you the exact location of the cemetery, should you want to visit in person:
Find A Grave also has pictures of many of the headstones located within cemeteries.
2. Billion Graves allows users to collect photos of headstones by using an iPhone/Android camera app.
The app, available on Google Play and the App Store (for iPhone and iPad), tags the photos with the GPS location and, essentially, maps the cemetery as headstones are added.
Search for cemetery locations using the Billion Graves app or on the website by selecting the “Cemetery Search” option and then entering the name of the cemetery or a known address (to see it on Google Maps):
From the home page, scroll down just a little until you see “Browse Cemetery Records by Region.” This can be especially helpful if you’re looking for all records within a specific county or other region. However, it’s not quite as useful if you’re trying to locate all cemeteries within a certain radius of a location, regardless of local boundaries.
In addition to these resources, it is essential to contact the local library, genealogical society, and/or historical society where your ancestors are buried. These organizations are well-known for maintaining detailed listings of local cemeteries within their collections.
For instance, within Smyth County (where I live) there is a four-volume set of books that contains the work of two local historians, Mack and Kenny Sturgill. They spent several years mapping local cemeteries and collecting the names on all of the headstones.
Although these books were completed in the 1990s, the information is still valuable to genealogists. Detailed driving directions were given to help future researchers locate cemeteries that would otherwise be difficult to locate. Many of them are on private property and even in the middle of cow pastures or wooded areas.
Furthermore, some of the headstones that were legible in the 1990s have now become difficult to decipher due to weathering or have altogether disappeared. It is likely that the counties in which you are conducting cemetery research offer similar resources.
Cemetery research step #3: Prepare for a visit
Once you have found the cemetery you want to visit, you will want to take the following items along with you to make the most of your visit:
pair of gloves
notebook and pen
You may also want to use a damp cloth to bring out the carvings on headstones. A side note: if you are like me and have an aversion to snakes, you will either choose to go on cemetery expeditions during the winter, or you will invest in a pair of snake chaps.
Get more help! The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide (above) contains detailed step-by-steps for using FindAGrave and BillionsGraves, plus guides for understanding tombstone epitaphs and symbol meanings.
Disclosure: Genealogy Gems is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Thank you for supporting our free podcast by using our link.
Cemetery research step #4: Visit and search for clues
This headstone shows something unusual: the couple’s ham radio call signs (the codes engraved just below their names).
The headstones found in cemeteries can reveal much about your family. You will find more than birth and death dates. If you look closely, you will discover symbols related to military service and religious beliefs, maiden names of the women in your family, and you may even find family members that you never knew about. Many times, you will find children buried in the family plot. Look around to see who is buried near your ancestors. It is likely that you will find connections to other family members when you are visiting the cemetery. These connections may lead you to break down long-standing brick walls within your family history.
In my own experience, there have been several instances in which cemetery research has helped shed light on a family mystery. I had grown up hearing that there were members of our family who had fought in the Civil War. Who were these men? What experiences did they have during the war? Where had they fought?
The answers to these questions came as the result of a visit to the cemetery. I had gone to Round Hill Cemetery to photograph the headstones of my Weimer ancestors. As I worked my way down the row, I encountered an unfamiliar name—William Henry Wymer. At the top of his headstone, there was a Southern Cross of Honor—a symbol used to denote a soldier who fought during the Civil War. Below his name was the following inscription: “Co. A, 6 VA RES, C.S.A:”
When I went home that afternoon, I began to search for more details. With some census research, I learned that he was the uncle of my great-grandmother, Mollie Weimer Overbay. Upon confirming his relationship to our family, I began searching for a pension application for his wife, Rhoda:
The application had been submitted in 1926 and told the story of William’s life. Among other things, I learned the answers to my questions about his service during the Civil War. His wife indicated that he enlisted during the last year of the war and was present during a well-known battle in our county—the Battle of Saltville. I am sure that my great-grandmother had grown up listening to tales of this battle and William’s experience during the war. The details of the story had been lost but were now re-discovered thanks to a trip to the cemetery.
Subtle clues like this one await you as you search out your own ancestors. The next time you make a trip to one of these libraries of marble, take a few moments to look closely at the clues that surround you. They may not be obvious, but they are there, waiting for your curiosity to uncover them. So, bring your cameras, your gloves, and your grass clippers to the cemetery on your next visit—but don’t forget to bring your questions and your ability to perceive the minute details, as you stand beneath the towering trees, among the rows of marble, waiting to offer up their long-held secrets.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems.