Moving Beyond Headstones

Filed in On The Hunt, Skill Building by on 19 September 2012 1 Comment

Moving Beyond Headstones

There is an old genealogical adage that goes something like this: “Not everyone in the grave is on the headstone and not everyone on the headstone is in the grave.” The trouble with headstones goes beyond this simple admonition. Inscriptions may not be accurate. Where someone is currently buried may not be where they were first interred. Relying solely on a headstone, while sometimes necessary has the potential to lead your research astray.

Consider the Source

Unless a receipt of purchase is available, we cannot know who commissioned a headstone. Without that key piece of information, we are unable to assess whether the purchaser had direct knowledge of facts inscribed. While we generally assume a surviving spouse or child would procure a headstone this is not always the case. Cousins, nieces or nephews, family friends, churches or even fraternal organizations may take the responsibility of marking a grave. Each of whom have differing degrees of knowledge about the facts inscribed. In cases of re-interments, headstones may be inscribed decades after a person’s death. It is essential we source headstone information using other records and resolve any conflicts.

Death Certificates and Obituaries

Death certificates are a great source for burial information. Burial date and location of the initial interment are attested to and signed by the undertaker with direct knowledge of these facts. But death certificates only go back so far. Obituaries are also wonderful leads. Unless they come with a by-line though, they suffer the same shortcomings as headstones – we don’t know the source of the information or the credibility of the writer. That being said, what obituaries reliably tell us is where and on what day a burial occurred.  By way of example: W. R. Cathcart’s obituary tells us he was buried in Trinity Church. Later we discover, via his wife’s obituary, he was re-interred at Elmwood Cemetery1,2. Simply finding W. R. Cathcart’s headstone would not have given us a complete picture of his journey to his final resting place. Next step, request the interment card for this couple from Elmwood Cemetery

W R Cathcart, Catherine Kelly Cathcart

 Interment Cards

Interment cards, like the undertaker’s affidavit on a death certificate are strong sources. These records are kept by the cemetery detailing the lot, section and grave number of each burial. Interesting details abound on these cards. Who purchased the graves in question? Were lots transferred between owners accommodating additional family burials? Names not inscribed on a headstone may be found on the interment cards.

Scandinavian Cemetery Burial Record

This interment card from The Scandinavian Cemetery Association of Rockford Illinois3, although a transcription, is an excellent example of the types of information available on these cards: The number of graves purchased, when and by whom. A possible given name of the baby buried here. The relationship of Selma Samuelson to Chas. Samuelson (his wife) is inferred. Take a look at the headstone photo below. 4

Scandinavian Cemetery

While difficult to make out in the photo, this headstone reads “MOTHER”. The ‘Diagram of Lot’ on the interment card designates this as grave number 1, assigned to Amanda Johnson. The name and date of the burial on the internment card are excellent data points for further investigation.  Death records and obituaries will be my first stop toward accurately placing Amanda Johnson within the Samuelson branch of this tree.

Headstones mark the final resting place of our ancestors. Headstones for the diligent genealogist however, mark a new beginning towards the accurate account of our ancestor’s lives.

Copyright (c) 18 Sep 2012, Rorey Cathcart

1) “Col. W. R. Cathcart Dead.”, The State (Columbia, South Carolina), 14 Nov 1898, p. 5, col. 5; digital images, ( accessed 15 Mar 2012) Historical Newspaper Collection.

2) “Death Unexpected [Mrs W. R. Cathcart…].”, The State (Columbia, South Carolina), 25 Oct 1917, p. 10, col. 3; digital images, ( accessed 9 May 2012) Historical Newspaper Collection.

3) Scandinavian Cemetery Association (Rockford, Illinios), Burial Record, citing Chas. Samuelson, Section 11, Lot 26.

4) Scandinavian Cemetery Association (Rockford, Illinios), Amanda Johnson headstone; photographed by Philip Cathcart [address for private use], 19 Aug 2010. [Headstone reads MOTHER].

About the Author ()

Professional genealogist and lecturer. Located in Charleston County, SC. Special research interests in South Carolina, Southern States, Irish Heritage and Migratory Patterns. Researcher for Genealogy Roadshow on PBS seasons two and three.

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  1. William Richard Cathcart Burial » I Hope to Speed | 29 November 2012

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