How to Find a Grave in a Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is a notable American monument with over 400,000 burials spread over 200 acres in Arlington, Virginia. Every year, the ancient cemetery holds around 3,000 military funerals.

Time stated that New York is battling to keep up with the rising mortality toll from COVID-19. The mortuaries have had no option except to transport the bodies to Hart Island before police can find their family.

However, not all of them are forgotten, as many people are still dedicated to locating the graves. Hopefully, the following advice may help you reconcile with a lost loved one.

How to Find a Marked Grave in a Cemetery

1. Collect Information About the Deceased

Local newspaper obituary records may occasionally reveal the deceased's final resting location and date of death. Often, most newspapers' archives have been digitized and made available for free on their websites.

Most likely, you already have copies of the person's death and birth certificates in your possession, so you won't need any more documentation to find the grave. If all else fails, the church records of the deceased are also a great option to consider.

These records may be a goldmine of information for your family history inquiry. Suppose you're having trouble finding relatives who lived before federal and state registration requirements.

In that case, church records are a fantastic place to start. Many churches maintained detailed data on their members, including vital information, particularly if your loved one died and was buried at that church.

Ask your family if they have any old Bibles; they could contain their own history and personal data that'll help you out.

If you have no idea when your relative passed away, land records might help. Land records aren't likely to provide vital information such as birth and death dates for your family history research, however.

Still, they may send you in the right direction or give you an indication of the time of the deceased's death. The nature of the property transfer might disclose whether they were just selling or had passed away.

2. Check Online and Paper Resources

People could learn about their ancestors' lives and character traits from old newspaper stories. Obituaries have been around since the 1800s, but they became standard practice by the end of the 19th century, so your ancestor almost certainly had an obituary published about them.

If you think your ancestor wasn't well-known enough to be included in a local newspaper, you'd be in for a surprise. The cause of death may also be included in the newspaper, although this isn't always the case. 

Search Tip: Search the local and nearby regional newspapers 3-4 days before and up to two weeks after your loved one's death to verify that you have the exact death dates. In case they made an error, you can use the obituary entry as a reference while on your search.

You may also want to look into estate sales and death notifications to discover a family member's death in the newspaper. While an estate sale may require some digging, it may be the key if you're running into a brick wall that you can't seem to get beyond.

Additionally, military records are an excellent source to find out about the death of relatives who served in the military. Their death certificate and the name of their children or widow are frequently found within the pension records.

Generally speaking, officials record the names and occupations of the city's or town's residents under the city directories. Sometimes, they would even include the person's year of death.

Occasionally, city directories provide a list of people who have died in the previous year. Since the cause of deaths could've been written down, be sure to grab the opportunity!

3. Contact the County, Town, or State Along With the Funeral Home

Don't worry about it, even if you don't succeed with the options mentioned above. Obtaining this information may still be done in several ways.

You could list the place where your relative's funeral was held and contact them. These are the people who are most likely to be able to tell you where your relative's grave is. You may have to call many times, but you could get this information.

Make an appointment to see a county clerk's office if you can't locate the right funeral home or it's no longer open. To speak with someone from the Vital Records Department, make a request.

Though you might be charged or have to prove your relationship with the family, in most circumstances, they can tell you where your loved one's last resting place is.

Besides that, you can also use probate records to complete the puzzle. These documents refer to court procedures that outline the decision and distribution of the dead individual's goods and assets to their dependents.

In fact, they're a lot more useful in family history research since they're highly extensive compared to other death documents. They usually disclose additional family members and their relationships, which can be valuable to the search.

Due diligence is always essential when reviewing them because some linkages may be altered or absent. At the same time, objects might have been recorded in deceptive ways.

Let's say that a kid died or wasn't included in the probate records for whatever reason. In that case, they might not be included in the paper, but it doesn't imply they didn't exist.

Another thing to remember is that just because the dead person remarried doesn't indicate that the deceased person's spouse or wife is the children's parent.

If you don't know when your ancestor died or don't have any paperwork proving it, the U.S. census records might be a good place to start.

Go through the census records to ensure they weren't missed or misrecorded during the census. Suppose that the individual suddenly disappears from the census.

By this point, there may be further information and search options, so don't give up hope.

Since the census contains marital status, if the loved one's husband died, their status will most likely be recorded as "widowed."

When this isn't possible, you could look into their children's census data as an alternative step since parents occasionally move back in with their children when a spouse dies.

4. Contact the Cemetery

When confronted with endless rows of graves in a big cemetery, this step might be much more daunting than it first seems.

Fortunately, there's a simple method to avoid wasting time Googling for hours on end. Most modern cemeteries, if not all, have an online presence.

You should be able to readily find the grave of a loved one using their search option or map. Don't be scared to call them if the cemetery doesn't have a website.

In most cases, there's a staff member who can answer your questions.

5. Visit the Cemetery

The cemetery sexton is in charge of maintaining the grounds. In addition to doing regular care at the cemetery, the sexton retains records of all burials.

Be mindful to ask whether there are any markers on the grave so you don't unintentionally come upon someone else's loved one.

There is often writing that you might miss at first glance and gravestones of relatives nearby. Don't dismiss flowers or other signs that a burial has been cared for—they might be vital indicators that descendants exist and continue to visit.

You may dig around the roots of adjacent trees if you like since headstones were occasionally put near trees to keep them from sinking into the earth.

6. Find the Grave

Examine at least one grave for markings on a burial vault or gravestone. Remember that the older the vault, the more likely markings will be left behind.

Moreover, check for a rapid shift in vegetation from weed to grass or wildflowers in areas where no one has mowed for years. Also, keep an ear out for signals of animals, such as squirrels and rabbits, which may suggest a nearby gravesite.

A 2011 study discovered that burial sites in China help improve vegetation in the vicinity, while other researchers found similar cases in cemeteries in Turkey, Bangladesh, and Ukraine.

How to Find an Unmarked Grave in a Cemetery

1. Complete Steps 1 to 3 Above

The previous tips in the case of locating a marked burial are also applicable in this scenario. You'll need to gather as much information as possible, particularly where your relative died.

If your family member's remains are buried in a cemetery, there are various unusual methods of locating the grave. The idea is to find out where your loved one was put to rest.

Unfortunately, in many cases, this information is just not available. Even certain communities and regions simply didn't invest in record-keeping, making it challenging for all to pinpoint a gravesite.

So long as you got the correct basic information of the deceased, then you don't need to worry too much.

2. Locate the Burial Location

Scraping or formal excavation is a better approach to finding a burial in a plot compared to grave digging.

The latter requires excavating an inhabited grave until the coffin or burial is destroyed or damaged. As a result, burial diggers can't always identify whether they've dug through an existing grave; thus, human remains are sometimes discovered in borrow heaps or back soil.

Meanwhile, formal excavation deals with controlled dirt removal to discover potential burial sites.

A broad, toothless backhoe is used to carefully take away the dirt in flat levels, a few inches at a time. That way, an archeologist may search the soil of a grave shaft (a filled-in grave hole) for evidence.

Once they find evidence of burial, they will do scraping where they'll chart the details before leaving it be. The technique usually terminates far above the burial if a shaft is visible. Plus, this is typically used to verify other grave locating methods.

3. Visit the Grave or Location (Find the Unmarked Grave)

Before looking for unmarked graves, familiarize yourself with the cemetery's regulations. Many old cemeteries outright prohibit digging or metal detecting due to ethical concerns.

Give it your best shot by using ground-penetrating radar (GPR). GPR works by sending a radar pulse into the ground and recording the returned signal.

This is because the signal returns slower than it went in, and the signal strength varies based on the substance it is reflecting on.

To capture data, a GPR specialist moves an antenna across an area. This data is transformed into a two- or three-dimensional subsurface picture in a computer.

The burial shaft and the vault or coffin will be seen under ideal conditions. However, even normal circumstances may only reveal the top portion of the grave shaft, which may still need scraping or some other technique of verifying the data.

To keep track of your progress, take photographs of the surrounding region and all the nearby gravestones. This is only a precaution for when evidence is lost so you get to keep the pictures of adjacent cemeteries and other odd items that might still be useful.

Get Educated About Your Family History and Past

After you've walked around the cemetery, you may relax in a neighboring rocking chair or on an old-fashioned bench and pay respects to the graves, elevated headstones, and flat markers for a while.

At one time, a visit to the cemetery or graveyard wasn't thought of as morbid in nature. Instead, it was seen as a place to pay your respects to your ancestors while reconnecting with family roots.

One thing that stays the same is death, and it touches every life somehow. Still, new generations will always be ready to carry on and make a better life for the family.