How Cemetery Records and Inscriptions Can Expand Your New York Genealogy, Part I

How Cemetery Records and Inscriptions Can Expand Your Genealogy:

  1. Identify places of origin for ancestors–village or town, county, country written on the tombstone; separate cemeteries for each ethnic group or special divisions in the cemetery:  East Side Polish, West Side Polish, German, French, Irish Catholic, Irish Protestant.  Pay as much attention to where the grave is located as you do to the inscription on the stone.
  2. Compare family naming patterns on stones and in sextons registers with relationships stated or obvious from the lay-out of graves in the burial plot.  It is normal in New York for the wife to be buried on the left of the husband.  In older sections of the cemetery, extended family members are often buried in proximity to each other–children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, their spouses, etc.  In newer sections, husband and wife are together, extended families will be found in their own plots scattered through the cemetery or buried elsewhere.
  3. Identify and document elderly parents who emigrated from the old country and died shortly after their arrival–their entry is carved on the back of the family stone (later concealed by large bushes or vines and easy to miss).  The tombstone or the sexton’s notation in the register may be the only evidence to alert you that the parents did come.
  4. Original spelling of your surname on emigrants’ tombstones and proof of name changes.  Americanized, shortened, changed surnames will be carried by younger generations–children and grandchildren.  Grandfather is buried under the original spelling of the name–exactly as he spelled it himself.  Somehow it just didn’t track right to bury him under an assumed name.
  5. Evidence of religious background:  artwork carved on the stone including crosses and their variants.  Size and color of the tombstone–Quaker stones were restricted to 12″ high, with few words carved on them.  Scandinavian burials have modest stones in shades of pink, cream, or warm gray sandstone. Polish stones are large, red or black in color, and stand elbow to elbow as if they were army troops lined up to march.

See also August K Gillespie, “Gravestones and Ostentation:  A Study of Five Delaware County Cemeteries,” Pennsylvania Folklife XIX (Winter 1969-79):  34-43.  Quaker stones were under 14 inches high (1840-1960) and included 4-6 lines of inscription.  Presbyterian stones averaged 35-38 inches in height (1840-1890) with 8-10 lines of inscription.  The Article also compares Baptist, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic stones.

Stay tuned for more…Your favorite New York genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS  Whole multi-generational pedigrees can be constructed from cemetery evidence!
Part 2 coming next.



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