By: Hillori Schenker ∼MRC Board Member∼
Although I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, many traditions and values
are identical from my hometown and Montrose. Between Memorial Day and
Labor Day I often hear people, in both locations, remarking on the
need to tend the graves of loved ones. Weeding, watering plantings,
and ensuring that the ancestral headstones are in good order is a
common tradition many Susquehanna County residents take on. But what
do you do if you don’t know where a gravesite is?
Assess the information you already have, then proceed with the most
readily available tools. Perhaps you know the town in which the
decedent (that’s what we call the dead person in the biz) resided.
Perhaps all you have is a name and approximate date of death. Take
what you know and head to the Internet. Ancestory.com and Find-A-Grave
can be troves of information, if you already know the approximate
location of the decedent. If you have nothing to go on, search online
obituaries with whatever information you have. There is no right or
wrong way to search, just keep plugging away with combinations of
words. My high schoolers get hung-up on this. They want to know
exactly the right phrase to plug into the search engine. The exact
phrase may change from situation to situation. Try everything and
examine the results. Cast a wide net and throwback the items you don’t
want. The information is free—use it.
Depending upon the situation you may also wish to try the National
Cemetery Administration’s (NCA) Grave Locator from the Department of
Veterans Affairs (VA). This search engine only contains information
from official VA cemeteries. However, if you do not know where a
person may be buried and know that he is a post-Civil War veteran, it
may be worth a quick search. On that note, remember that Arlington
National Cemetery is run by the Army and is therefore not in the NCA’s
On the topic of veterans, another resource only for the Civil War’s
Union dead is the Civil War Honor Roll. This group of twenty-seven
volumes was digitized and is available courtesy of a partnership
between NCA and ancestry.com. The Civil War Honor Roll includes the
names of over 203, 000 deceased Civil War soldiers killed in battle.
The information includes the name of the soldier, relevant demographic
information, his original burial place, and his final burial place.
Although the U.S. government did an incredible job tracking the Union
war dead, there are many pages of those who were originally interred
near the battlefield but became unknowns.
Larger cemeteries often have their burial records available online. If
you suspect a decedent is interred at a large cemetery, search that
website for an available grave locator. Smaller cemeteries may take
visits to the site, or at least a call to the cemetery office.
Cemeteries typically create three types of records. Potential items to
search in a cemetery office include receipts for cemetery deeds. The
actual plot deeds are generally given to the purchaser. Other ideas
include the burial records, which are chronological—so you’ll need an
idea of the burial date. Finally, the ledger with shows identity and
the date of the plot. If you are really lucky, the cemetery keeps
detailed maps of the plots themselves. Churches generally keep burial
records only. Any church burial grounds may be more challenging if a
death/burial date is unknown.
Historical societies are also troves of information. Aside from
obituaries, newspapers, and other assorted records, historical
societies often have old maps. These maps can be helpful to find small
groups of burials that are not in official cemeteries. Early graves
may not be located in the town or church burial ground. Certain ethnic
communities and far-flung farms preferred to bury on their own
Historical societies may be able to help with this or be
able to recommend you to the state archive. Researcher, Thomas Hannon,
discovered that Western Pennsylvanian farm burials are typically on a
farm hilltop. Hilltops are generally the poorest farmland, and so a
practical location for a burial. They are also quite picturesque, too.
If you know an old farmstead had a cemetery and are able to walk
around the property, in western Pennsylvania you should head uphill.
I’ve seen enough small cemeteries in Susquehanna County to suspect
that this holds true here, too. The Susquehanna County Historical
Society, https://www.susqcohistsoc.org/, is helpful, friendly, and undergoing a renovation to make research a breeze!