If a statement says a grave is unmarked then how do they know it's there?

+12 votes
311 views

Here I go displaying my ignorance again, I suppose.  I'm working farther back in time than I usually do and when I get to pre-1900, I have found several profiles I'm working on that have Find a Grave records that indicate they are buried in an unmarked grave.  How does someone know that someone is buried there if the grave is unmarked??????

Here is one example:  https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/25596351 (I have not yet added this profile - still gathering sources in preparation for doing so).

in Genealogy Help by Gaile Connolly G2G6 Pilot (908k points)

7 Answers

+16 votes
 
Best answer
As Mr. Bourn said, modern cemeteries usually have an office or director that keeps plot records of who is where in the cemeteries.  However, further back in time (pre-1900), a large number of cemeteries did not have that advantage, particularly rural ones.

If one has a good family oral tradition, family history will often pass on grave locations, sometimes a death certificate will indicate the cemetery of burial, things like that.  However, you are correct in your implication; any of that information may be incorrect.

One of my great grandfathers burial is only listing on his death certificate, but no one can verify it.  A 3g grandparents are "known" to be buried in a rural cemetery but no real indication of which part of the cemetery.  They now have a stone marker (courtesy of my mother who is 93) but I have indicated it as more of a memorial on their Find A Grave page.

Hope this helps, take care!
by Art Black G2G6 Mach 4 (44.2k points)
selected by Gaile Connolly
Art, I have exactly the same situation in my family. Oral tradition, late gravestones, memorials in the cemetery. If those kinds of evidence are the only evidences for a grave, them I have to go with that.

I remember my grandfather pointing out “gravestoneless” graves and telling me who was buried there. Many years later upon visiting the cemetery, behold! Gravestones for all four relatives. (But I was never assured they got those stones over the right graves. Still, they matched what Grandpa said.)
Art - and Pip - I have to go with this answer and assume that the Find a Grave entry was made by a family member, especially because there is so much other information about birth/death dates/places and other family members - I guess "oral tradition" is what this is.  That page and an online family tree agree completely and are the only places where I have been able to find all this information, although it hardly qualifies as a source, but I'm just going to have to use it, along with a caution that it is not reliable.

All the other answers are absolutely fascinating - Natalie said it best - that it's a real education!  THANX very much to y'all!
+17 votes
lol, I had this very discussion at a cemetery office just yesterday.  The real answer is that they have plots recorded, but for some reason, the plot owner never secured a headstone.  The cost of the plot can be exhorbitant, the stonework can be a surprising cost to the living relatives.
by Brian Bourn G2G5 (5.7k points)
Or if it was a common grave. Then there never would have been an intent to get a headstone or even a separate plot.  I have several ancestors who have their burial properly recorded in the cemetery books but the location is just "common grave."  I see this in my English family quite a bit.
Brian - and Crispin - these are also good explanations for possible reasons Frederick's grave is unmarked, but don't explain how someone would know a particular person is buried there, as well as have all the additional information about Frederick's life and family members - there is no obituary or death record (that I could find) that the information could have come from.

THANX to you both!
Well - for my England relatives I had to go directly to the cemetery to request a scanned copy of their burial records.  This was not online, ever, and it costs money, so people don't always upload or share.  Remember there is so much more out there that is NOT digital yet!
I have a cousin whose grave is unmarked because the person given the money to purchase the stone absconded with the funds!
+13 votes

Some graves may be unmarked now but were once marked. They may initially have had simple wooden crosses bearing the name which have since rotted away. I've seen iron markers that have rusted away. In one churchyard, cattle gained entry and knocked over many headstones. Some of these were then stacked together against the churchyard wall! I even know one church which removed almost all its gravestones!

by Martin White G2G6 Pilot (141k points)
Hmmph!  and I thought that it was only in ancient times and/or places where groups of people were persecuted that cemeteries were desecrated.  I guess there is no end to the reasons why graves become unmarked.  THANX for the education, Martin!
Natural disasters can take out markers too. Flooding along the Ohio River damaged several of my husbands relatives gravesites.
+11 votes
To complicate things more, there are some privately owned cemeteries
that have the right to sell you a plot for a certain number of years, then
dig you up and dump your stone and bones somewhere and resell the plot.
I have read horror stories of descendants coming to a grave site and not finding their forefathers and no one knowing where they can be located. A new stone and body will be in the plot.  I think the states are beginning to crack down on some of this.
by Beulah Cramer G2G6 Pilot (294k points)
edited by Beulah Cramer
How absolutely awful!!!  Is this what's meant when we say it's enough to make our ancestors turn over in their graves?
Gaile, yes! This is going to happen more and more as cemeteries run out of room. In MA, every town is required by law to have a town cemetery for use by its residents. Small towns didn't necessarily plan for use hundreds of years later. My town just installed a columbarium last year and will need more. The last bits of land for the cemetery are going to fill up in the next decade or so.
Some cemeteries are now selling  small plots for cremains.  You can put
far more than one person in a 3X8 spot sectioned off into 18x18 or so
spots.  There is even talk of burying standing up in the far future.
And my mom complains that it is a waste of land! Gimme a break!

For me, cemeteries are a sacred place. When I’ve heard of the things that Beulah described, it makes me so angry.
Burial is as varied as culture. In modern Greece, for example, you usually rent burial plots for some number of years (3 to 5) then you get the bones back. Not a permanent thing. Land can be expensive. Old cemeteries have had really burial books lost. My dad was a cemetery commissioner in a small town and there were books missing. Once the stones get lost, the location is lost. Sometimes lists still exist without being placed on a map.
I'm learning quite a bit in this thread. Thanks, WT'ers!
As the price of a plot continues to escalate many are reverting back to ways that were more common a century ago.  There is a revival towards "green burials".  Some believe cremation as practiced as far back as the Stone Age is the solution.  Others prefer the new wave of natural burial where a radio I.D. tag is all that will remain years after time comes for someone to go to the earth.  The days of being embalmed and encased are likely ending in the foreseeable future.  Hopefully records will all be required to be digitized in a fashion that will survive.
Beulah - and Doug - your insight into burial customs is a real eye-opener for me.  Thank you so much for it!

I am reminded of what I learned about New Orleans cemeteries - they're above ground storage containers, effectively.  They can't be below ground because they would be flooded frequently.  After some number of years, when all the contents have decomposed, the containers are re-used for other burials, but I don't recall what they do with whatever bones remain from the former occupants of a container.
As I recall, they repackage the remains and shove them to the back of their slot to fit in another burial.

European cities have long histories of expansion and redevelopment, the cemeteries of one era covered over in the next.

 London has several Roman cemeteries, that were  built over, only to be rediscovered and excavated in recent times. But there are much later cemeteries that fell into disuse and are now 'lost'http://www.derelictlondon.com/long-lost-burial-grounds.html

The  18th Century Parisians adopted a novel approach to dealing with centuries of burials.https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombs_of_Paris

But even in the countryside , old gravestones become neglected, illegible and sometimes dangerous.There are many churches where the older stones have been moved to the edge of the churchyard.

 Sometimes the churches themselves have become disused and sold for conversion . My own ancestor's parish church is now a private house.The area with standing gravestones remains as a graveyard but my ancestors and most of the village were too poor to afford stone markers. Its highly possible that their remains, if any are left, are now in private grounds. (I visited a chapel conversion the other week, most of the known graves had been relocated but 4 graves from the early 20th C remain under the patio)

+5 votes
Many cemeteries are using ground penetrating radar to search for graves.  Especially in older cemeteries that were never plotted.

I have several family cemeteries  (ranging from  25 "marked graves"  to 2,000 "marked grave")  where it's obvious there's a grave because of the ground depressions.   In these cemeteries,  we know particular relatives are buried  (for example my GGG Grandfather Elisha Wise) but there's no on living family member that remembers where the grave is.

These problems weren't caused by fraud,  mainly because after the Civil War many families were too poor to have  stone headmarkers.
by Peggy McReynolds G2G6 Pilot (442k points)
I have a local cemetery which has an "Indian Section". Most of the markers in that section were wooden and have since rotted away.
+2 votes

Couldn't help but think of this post, when searching by surname in a cemetery I found a memorial where birth is unknown, there is a death date but no picture, but it had this great comment on the memorial:

Gravesite Details ae 66 yrs Believed to be in unmarked grave. Date of death may be internment, based on sexton records from cemetery.

by Kay Knight G2G6 Pilot (418k points)
+2 votes
Not sure if this applies to exactly what you are asking, as far as location. I recently contacted a historian, Monument Director of Sales, and Cemetery, to locate family members who were unmarked.  All of these gentlemen are very honorable, long time residents, and up in years.  Not internet handy.  They looked up manually and confirmed hand written documents, and one fellow, drove out and used hand rods, or dowsing rods, and found the dimensions, by hand and located them all.   I am familiar with this, and its a skill still used to find water, electric and other things in the elements.  There are actually clubs, that do this, and teach others, like manual/natural metal detecting. This is how its been done for 1000's of years.  Science and tradition still exists..!
by Carla Vollenweider G2G Crew (440 points)

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