What Records Do Cemeteries Keep?

Written by elizabeth slough
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What Records Do Cemeteries Keep?
Burial records might be kept in the pastor's office within the church. (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

Cemetery records, or burial records, are regulated by state or local governments -- when they are regulated at all, which is not always the case. Some small cemeteries do not have records associated with them, particularly private, family graveyards that still exist -- albeit unused -- alongside old houses or in tiny villages in rural areas. Burial records, when they do exist, are typically kept by the church to whom the cemetery belongs.

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Community or Church Cemeteries

Community or church cemeteries are those that are attached to a specific town, borough or church. The kinds of records these institutions maintain will vary according to the age of the graveyard and the regulations governing its management. Many records relate to cemetery plots; these generally include the location of the plot, its owner, date of purchase and names of family members buried in the plot. The death register will include names of persons interred in the cemetery, both in plots and in individual graves, along with their dates of birth and death. Some registers also include the deceased's cause of death, if known, and the name of the individual's surviving relatives.

Veteran's Cemeteries

Any veteran of U.S. military service who was not dishonourably discharged is entitled to burial in one of the 131 veteran's cemeteries located in the United States. Records for the veteran's cemeteries, which can be searched at the National Gravesite Locator, also contain information from a broad range of other sources, including state veterans' cemeteries, private cemeteries and other military graveyards. Records at, for example, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, include the veteran's date of birth (if known), date of death, branch of the military and rank. If the veteran saw combat duty, the records may include this information, as well.

Jewish Cemeteries

Jewish religious law contains very specific instructions for the handling of the earthly remains of a Jewish person. In addition to the timely interment of the decedent, it is also strictly forbidden to move a body once burial has occurred. The caveat about disturbing graves led to Jews seeking to establish cemeteries across Europe. Because it was difficult for Jews to buy land, some families had to travel many miles to bury their dead in a cemetery consecrated to their faith. However, this deeply reverent treatment of the dead makes it easier to find Jewish burial records. A Jewish cemetery's records typically include a registry of the plot owners as well as a registry of individuals buried within the graveyard. An individual's entry in the burial record would include his dates of birth and death and, possibly, the name of his wife, their wedding information and the names of any children they may have had. The death registry might also state the name of the person who paid for an individual's funeral.

Private Cemeteries

Families who established private burial plots on their own property most commonly recorded death information in the family Bible rather than in a separate interment register. The family bible, in fact, often served as a clearinghouse for all sorts of information relating to the history of people joined together by blood and surnames. Births, marriages and deaths were common entries, but the family bible might also document outbreaks of illness such as smallpox or influenza, the travels of adventurous family members who had gone off to college, military service or to pursue a life at sea.

Solace for the Forgotten

Sometimes the information that does not appear in cemetery records is as revealing as that which does appear. In many churches, for example, infants who died shortly after childbirth are recorded only as "Infant d." with a date -- often, the date is only a year, lacking the month and day. While it is fairly common knowledge that many churches will not bury suicides in consecrated ground, it is less known that some ministers refuse to record the names of suicides in the church's death register. If a name was recorded, the cause of death was most often omitted.

Anonymous graves were not reserved for suicides, however. According to the Washington County Arkansas Genealogical Society, unmarked graves, also called pauper's graves, held those who died in poverty, unwed mothers, orphans and the mentally ill. An individual could be banished to a pauper's grave simply for stealing a loaf of bread. Although the lucky ones -- those who died during periods when the economy was good -- were sometimes memorialised with grave markers and entries into the burial registry, more often than not, a pauper's grave meant eternal anonymity. [REF 6]

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