April 12, 2012
Up until the last century, it was common for a family to maintain a private cemetery on their own property. While there are many private cemeteries in the northern U.S., the south has the north outnumbered. It’s estimated that Tennessee alone has at least 20,000 private family cemeteries.
*Funeral homes usually keep old records listing where burial took place.
*Genealogical and historical societies.
*Land surveyor’s office
*Courthouse clerk of court office (search land deeds)
*Death certificates almost always list burial site
Topographic maps are USGS (United States Geological Survey) and this free site can be found by going to www.topozone.com and list the GPS coordinates for a cemetery. They are supposedly able to pick up cemeteries with as few as five tombstones. Personally, other than getting the GPS location off of the maps, I find these hard to decipher.
My best source for private cemeteries has come through the local historical society maps. I was able to purchase a map of my birth county from 1906 listing the owner of each parcel of land. Many small cemeteries were clearly marked on this map.
I found this ironic as I watched construction through the years turn up these “unknown” cemeteries. If the builders had checked these old maps, they’d have known they were about to dig up someone’s ancestors!
With the popularity of genealogy, many counties are digging up old maps and selling copies to those doing family research. It never hurts to ask a historical society if any old maps are available. The one I purchased was $7 and was a wealth of information in finding old cemeteries.
One piece of advice I can give on these maps is to take a yellow highlighter and circle the churches. It makes the entire map easier to navigate since most churches are on the same property, even if rebuilt after the map was produced. Then take another color of highlighter and circle the private cemeteries. This tip will save you many hours of trying to place where the cemetery is today.
There are many online sites that offer driving (including GPS) directions as well as old photos of private family cemeteries. “Cemetery project” Or “family cemeteries” are both good terms to locate the sites compiling this information. Another good site iswww.findagrave.com. This method is especially useful for searching for cemeteries in other counties and states. There’s even a worldwide base atwww.uscemeteryproj.com/world/world.htm. Their goal is to record every cemetery in the world.
Land records obtained through the Clerk of Courts office as well as property listed in wills, which can be obtained in the Probate Office will often give good directions to where an ancestor lived.
Family cemeteries were often located on hills or in wooded areas. Be very careful when investigating. Never trespass on another’s property, use the buddy system when possible, and be aware when it’s hunting season in the area.
There are thousands of unknown cemeteries still out there. The families have died out or sold the land and moved away. Sometimes only a rock is used to mark a grave. Many of these forgotten links to the past have been found by accident. Should you ever stumble upon a forgotten family cemetery, time permitting, document any of the names that are legible and upload that information to an online cemetery database. With the natural destruction of graves as well as vandalism, it’s important to preserve as many graves as possible for future generations.
There’s one problem I’ve personally experienced in locating family cemeteries that I want to publicly protest on this article. The moving of cemeteries. I never thought hundreds of graves from one cemetery would be allowed to be relocated under the guise of progress.
Back before I began doing genealogy as a teen, my mother showed me the Burriss-Eskew cemetery in Anderson County, SC. The old plantation house was being torn down to build the Anderson Mall. Generations of the Eskew family were buried nearby in a beautiful little family cemetery, once located at the corner of Mall Road(now Martin Luther King Boulevard) and Clemson Boulevard. This cemetery had more than 100 people buried there and was a fenced in property that had fallen into some disrepair. Mostly just overgrown with grass and weeds.
The property owners decided to have all cemetery occupants relocated to Salem Baptist Church. This is probably the church the family attended as it’s only a mile or two from the old home-place.
There was also an old “poor house” cemetery located a few miles from the old Eskew home-place. Some say the graves found while doing construction to build the Anderson Civic Center belonged to the Poor House residents. Others said they were slave graves. Regardless of who these people were, their graves were also disturbed and moved.
These days the graves are just as often left undisturbed and a business built around them. Sometimes a small fence and a plaque are put up with the history of the cemetery.
I feel this is a much better option than moving a person from their final resting place in the name of progress.
Much of my grandfather’s family is buried in a private cemetery in Oconee County, SC right next to the lake. I would love to buried there. It’s a peaceful place overlooking a vast meadow. Experience on this subject leads me to the conclusion that within the next century the area will be ruined by the construction of condominiums and townhouses.
Once the matriarch of a family dies and the land is sold to outsiders, the family has little control over the removal of a cemetery. If the new owner can afford to have the caskets exhumed and reburied, the only option available for the remaining family is the option to rebury the family member in a public cemetery or graveyard.
I wanted to bring up the subject of moving cemeteries because it’s very likely you’ll come across this dilemma in your research.
If you can’t find a relative in a public cemetery or church graveyard, chances are you’ll learn they were buried on private family property. And if you find the cemetery is no longer there, it’s either been moved or construction done over it.
In my opinion, a historical society is the best source for learning the location of private cemeteries and also what happened to those cemeteries that were moved.
I believe a person should be allowed to remain at their chosen place of burial. Anything else is disrespectful.