How Cemetery Records and Inscriptions Can Expand Your Virginia 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 arrangement of graves in the burial plot.  It is normal 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, aunt and uncles and 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, who die shortly after their arrival, may be named on the back of the family stone later worn away or concealed by large bushes or vines).  The tombstone or the sexton’s notation in the register may be the only evidence to alert you that the parents came to America and that the family knew it.

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. You need this vital spelling to locate your family on immigration and naturalization records.

5.  Evidence of religious background:  artwork carved on the stone including crosses and their variants.  Size and color of the tombstone–Quaker stones in southeastern Virginia were restricted to 12″ high, with few words carved on them.  Danish burials have modest stones in shades of pink, cream, or warm gray sandstone. Polish stones tend to be 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.

This is Part I of this important post. Stay tuned for Part II, coming this week. Your favorite Virginia genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS I love Virginia research and I love the people who came from Virginia to settle in other parts of America bringing their traditions and their culture with them. I married into a Virginia family and what an adventure it has been to have direct access to American ancestors. Please tune into my new blog “Be of Good Cheer!” launching soon.

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