Gravestones can offer a tremendous deal of valuable information in the form of elusive birth and death information, and if you’re really lucky, an interesting epitaph. If you’ve been searching for Canadian ancestors and can’t find their cemetery information, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Many people with family in rural areas of Canada regularly pull out their hair when they hit a dead end without a gravestone in sight. Luckily, a few years ago my father took a trip to Canada in search of our Ontario ancestors, and while there learned some valuable things about finding Canadian burial grounds. While his adventures were in Ontario, these findings might also apply to other areas of Canada and the U.S.
You must first consider when your ancestors died. Modern Canadian legislation puts limits on where you can be buried. This means if you’re looking for someone who died in the 1920s or later, this probably won’t apply. Instead you might want to start looking at death registration and obituaries. In fact, by 1900 most of the provinces were recording vital statistics. Look first at the civil registration records where your ancestor died to see if you can find information about where he or she was buried. The registration page may offer nothing in the way of help on finding a gravestone. If that’s the case, you’re ready to move onto the next step.
Next, you will want to look into your ancestor’s land. Backyard burials aren’t just used for effect in movies. Sometimes, especially with children, people were buried near the homestead. Unfortunately, this may mean there is no surviving grave marker. But don’t dismiss finding their land. If the land is not still in the family, be sure to ask permission before pulling on your hiking boots and jumping someone’s fence. Not only do you have to be careful of large dogs, but you could end up dodging gunfire, or get in deep trouble. The current landowner may also know where that funny little bunch of stones is in a little corner of the property. Of course, if your family didn’t own land that was unfarmed, you may not want to worry about this step.
In some rural places in Canada, when transporting a body to town was too difficult, or the cost of a grave plot not economically feasible, people would often bury their dead in family burial grounds. The trick is the burial ground may not have belonged to their family. Often wealthy families, or even those with an already established graveyard, would allow their neighbors to bury on their land. If you have already searched for a potential graveyard using all the basic tools of the trade without success, you might consider looking at the land your ancestors owned and their neighbors’ lands.
If you’ve tried these two steps, it’s time to expand your search. We’ll talk about how in part 2 of this article next week.