Tombstones are invaluable as they provide birth and death dates while indicating a spatial relationship to an individual. People tend to be buried in places with special meaning such as the family church, military memorial cemetery, family land, or near relatives. Furthermore, tombstones are the only existing documentation of some children and adult women.

Information may include

  • Full name
  • Birth date and death date
  • Names of parents
  • Name of spouse
  • Names of children
  • Religious or organization affiliation
  • Military service

Locating tombstones can be challenging but sources are available for the resolute researcher. Death certificates list burial locations, and lists of area cemeteries are often available to locate those individuals who died without a death certificate. Public libraries or chambers of commerce may be able to assist researchers with these lists. Cemetery registries for church, governmental, military, and private cemeteries often have indexes, and many counties have completed cemeteries databases inclusive of family cemeteries. The W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection owns many such books. Cemetery registers may have recorded additional information such as next of kin and burial permits. Family cemeteries tend not to maintain registries. These registries vary in available information but may include information unavailable elsewhere such as birthplace and maiden name. The records of funeral directors provide names of insurance companies which sometimes maintain extensive genealogical information. One side note is that deceased individuals are usually cared for by funeral homes near the place of death rather than the person’s residence or eventual burial.

Descendants have the legal right to visit their family members’ graves even when located on private land; however, researchers are recommended to use courtesy when contacting the land owner for permission to view the graves. The local public library or chamber of commerce may be able to assist researchers with location of particular cemeteries as will the U.S. Government Geological Survey maps. Some cemeteries have been relocated due to road construction, flooding for dam projects, or building construction. Many relocation projects, particularly by the Tennessee Valley Authority (, have generated extensive records about the original and relocated sites of interment.

Many county genealogists have undertaken cemetery documentation projects which record the county’s cemeteries, each grave, and the information from the tombstones. These projects also document the cemetery location. To locate them, contact the local public library, genealogical society, or chamber of commerce.

Researchers seeking alternative sources for individuals’ birthdates and deathdates may find success in church records, censuses, and wills.

For more reading

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1974. (App Coll CS 45.G73)