At first it was dead ancestors that drew me to cemeteries. Once I started researching my family history, I began to feel connected to them through their stories. I was particularly interested in mother’s family, who emigrated from Quebec to New England in the late 19th century. My curiosity was piqued by the high incidence of mental illness and institutionalization among the women in the family. I was even fascinated by the occasional bad behavior of certain relatives. I visited my first ancestral graves not long after I began work on the family history in 2012.
By the time I became interested in genealogy, the ancestors I would have like to have met were long deceased. There would be no opportunity to interact with them, to sit next to them and listen to their stories, or to ask them questions. Visiting their graves in a cemetery seemed like the next best thing. These people and their stories had become a part of my thoughts every day since I discovered them through my genealogical research. I thought it would be an honorable thing to do, after having brought the sad stories of their lives to light, to I pay my respects to them. Where better to do this than the places where their remains were buried?
The funny thing about my attraction to cemeteries was that it extends beyond my own family. Any time I walk through a cemetery I can’t help noticing an unusual grave stone or one that has a lengthy inscription, leading me to further investigate that person’s story by searching old newspapers, visiting historical societies, and using genealogical websites. When I began to visit Aspin Hill Memorial Park, a pet cemetery in Montgomery County, Maryland, I found enough stories there to start a blog, Pet Cemetery Stories.
You can learn a lot about people by looking at their graves. Grave markers come in many varieties, and from them you may be able to discern more than just the deceased’s name and dates of birth and death. Depending on how permanent the marker is — I’ve seen anything from wood to poured concrete to granite or marble — and what is inscribed on it, you may learn whether the person was affluent, what their occupation was, their ethnicity, or even how they died.
Look at nearby grave stones, too. They may tell you things such as how long a particular family has lived in the area. Perhaps there is a woman whose death date is the same as the birth date of the person buried next to her. Did she die in childbirth? Sometimes you can only guess at the story behind a grave stone, but I find it pleasant to muse on the possibilities and think of how different life was years ago.
When I see a grave that is regularly decorated long after the death of the loved one, it tells me something about the respect and affection this person engendered during their lifetime. Sometimes, the effusion of flowers and souvenirs at a grave seems over the top to me, but I respect the sentiment of the survivors of the deceased.
It is not unusual for a grave stone to be put in place before the person dies. There was one instance in which the grave of someone still living help me connect with a long-lost cousin. I had found the grave of my great-great-aunt Corinne and her husband, but had never been able to locate their daughter. By looking at the grave stone next to hers I discovered one for her daughter, Rita…and that there was no death date inscribed on it. Even better, by reading the inscription, I learned Rita’s married name, enabling me to locate her through directory assistance. So you see, you can even find living people by visiting a cemetery!
I hope that this post convinces you that cemeteries are not simply sad and morbid places. They are a living document of the life and times of the people who are buried there and of the region that surrounds them. I find it reassuring to know that I’m not the only person who feels this way. In Maryland, where I live, there is an organization called the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites. I have learned a lot about cemetery preservation since joining CPMBS this year, and hope to learn more in the years to come.