If you’re looking to explore your roots, or just want to soak up some regional history, look no further than your local cemetery. On most mornings, that is exactly where I go, because I am a funeral director. But I often head there on my off-time, too. Working as a funeral director has piqued my curiosity about the lives of those who rest beneath the monuments.
In fact, it was such interest that inspired me to author two books about notable American cemeteries: Green-Wood Cemetery and Gardens of Stone.
I’m far from alone in my interest. Touring cemeteries has become a huge pastime as evidenced by the many hashtags, such as #tombstonetourism and #cemeterywandering, to be found on social media.
Whether small churchyard cemeteries or large, elaborate necropolises, cemeteries today are regarded as cultural repositories and outdoor museums. What’s more, they are visual reminders that every life has a story, and one of them may be the story of your ancestors.
“Discovering the cemeteries and graveyards of your ancestors is a great place to further your genealogical research, as well as a make a physical connection to ancestral family,” says Valerie Elkins, a family history expert and professional genealogist based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“Besides the commonly found information of name, birth and death dates, grave headstones may include clues on where to find further information to aid your research,” she says.
That information may include the person’s hometown, even in another country. Emblems on tombstones can provide clues to past membership in fraternal organizations, a person’s religion, and their veteran status, Elkins explains.
“Neighboring headstones can link families together, so it is important to pay attention to those graves surrounding them. Shared death dates might tell you that they died from the same cause such as a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, or that they died to possible unnatural causes such as war or murder.”
Elkins recommends the Internet as a good starting point if you are unable to locate your ancestor’s grave. FamilySearch.org, a free website, provides access to millions of records that the Family History Library, the world’s largest genealogical library, has available.
Ancestry.com, which has a large catalog of cemetery records, is also a good resource. It is a premium website, but local libraries often provide free access.
And if online research doesn’t work, Elkins says it pays to contact local and state genealogy societies, which may be the key to finding information about cemeteries, even unpublished small family graveyards, especially since cemeteries’ names may have changed over time.
“Once you locate your loved one’s headstone, take photos of the stone,” she says. “Some headstones have information on the back and sides of the stone, so be sure and record this as well. Take pictures of the neighboring headstones to research later.”
While many visit cemeteries to trace their family lineage, others go to view the splendid architecture and learn more about local history.
“The history of America is in cemeteries,” says Marge Raymond, a veteran senior tour guide for Brooklyn, New York’s renowned Green-Wood Cemetery.
Raymond, who knows just about every inch of the cemetery’s 478 acres, first discovered Green-Wood through her interest in bird-watching.
“I was captivated by the beauty of Green-Wood and wanted to know everything about it,” Raymond recalls. She began to go on tours offered by the cemetery, soon becoming a volunteer who welcomed visitors and manned the cemetery’s book cart.
Her dedication was rewarded when, in 2007, Raymond became an official Green-Wood Historic Fund tour guide. Early on, she created three unique routes for the trolley tour, and for over a decade has given hundreds of walking, and private, tours.
Raymond’s knack for storytelling has garnered her scores of glowing reviews on Tripadvisor, as well a reputation as one of New York’s most popular tour guides. She is also a professional vocalist, who has sung with such legends as Rock and Roll’s Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and was in the chorus for the late tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.
Sometimes billed as “the singing tour guide,” Raymond has been known to break into song at a gravesite, to the delight of those on her tour. One of those gravesites is that of Leonard Bernstein on Battle Hill, which occupies the highest point in Brooklyn and is a favorite spot of Raymond’s.
“I would call it a trifecta. There’s the remarkable Civil War Monument erected in 1869 by the City of New York, the statue of Minerva, the sister statue to the Statue of Liberty, and the grave of our beloved maestro Leonard Bernstein.” And, she says, “you can’t beat the view of the New York City skyline from that vantage point.”
Whether you’re taking a guided tour, or mapping out your own self-guided walk, here are some helpful tips from Elkins and Raymond to get the most out of your tour.
“People come into the cemetery and look around. They may recall a name or two, but sometimes tourists don’t know the significance of what they’re looking at. That’s where a guided tour comes in. A tour guide knows the grounds and the stories behind the monuments,” Raymond says.
“Findagrave.com and BillionGraves.com are websites that have indexed thousands of graves from cemeteries around the world and are easily searchable,” says Elkins. BillionGraves.com also allows you to record the GPS coordinates of a headstone, along with the headstone’s information, to make it easier for others to locate.
Don’t be a passive spectator. If something catches your interest, or you have a question, make sure to ask your guide. They welcome your interest.
“I’ll find something interesting written on a headstone, then I’ll go and look it up,” says Raymond, who, while traversing Green-Wood’s public lots came across the grave of an early 20th century cyclist whose stone monument noted that he “died from exhaustion” after winning a race.
Whether those interests are legendary movie stars, natural disasters, world wars, inventors, organized crime figures, or sports figures, there’s likely a tour for that interest.
It is practical to have some numbers. How long is the tour? What’s the terrain like? Is there a trolley or bus alternative to walking? Needless to say, wear comfortable shoes, bring water, and don’t forget the sunscreen.
Costs vary from cemetery to cemetery. Members of historic funds often quality for a discount.
If you’re planning to be in New York this spring, Raymond will be giving tours on April 17th at 1 pm & April 30th at 7 pm, and on May 8th & May 30th at 1:00 pm. Head over to https://www.green-wood.com/calendar/ for more details. And as one Tripadvisor reviewer recommends:
“Make sure to ask for Marge when you book, she’s like a walking history book!”
How often do you visit your local cemetery? What is the primary reason to go? Have you been on a cemetery tour? Do you think you’d go to one if available in your area? What would you look for? Do you have a favorite cemetery? Please share with the community!