African American Cemeteries
Cemetery records often give more information than church burial records and may include the deceased’s name, age, date of death or burial, birth year or date of birth, and sometimes marriage information. They may also provide clues about an ancestor’s military service, religion, occupation, place of residence at time of death, or membership in an organization. Cemetery records are especially helpful for identifying ancestors who were not recorded in other records, such as children who died young or women.
Information recorded on tombstones is of primary importance. Often, this information has been transcribed, indexed, and published and is found in manuscripts and books in libraries and archives. The Family History Library has copies of some of these books. Go to www.familysearch.org and click on Family History Library Catalog. In the Keyword search enter "African American Cemeteries."
Use cemetery records to:
- Find reliable death dates and other information
- Find family members burried in the same cemetery
- Find children who died young and were not listed in other records
African American Cemetery Customs
After the Civil War, freed slaves began at once to establish their own communities and churches. During the years before the Civil War, slaves were often buried in a designated place beyond family plots so that tombstones marking their graves are rare. Often only field rocks or wooden crosses, which soon decayed, marked their graves.
Many tombstones are made and inscribed by hand. This does not necessarily mean that people were too poor to afford more elaborate markers. Rather, the use of temporary markers of stones, wood, or shells ensures that the cemetery is always available, never full, and people can always be buried with their kin. Elaborate markers are rare in black cemeteries and may indicate customs based on religious beliefs or an acceptance of death that is realistic and cannot be relieved by spending sums of money on markers--particularly when the living may be in need.
African-American cemeteries are not landscaped as Euro-American cemeteries are. They have depressions or mounds and no attempt is made to make grass grow over the graves nor to create special vegetation. Trees are native, not specially planted, and are neither encouraged nor discouraged. Rather than the park-like setting with formal landscaping often found in Euro-American cemeteries, the African-American cemetery does not attempt to romanticize death nor create an artificial landscape.
Family plots do not traditionally exist in African-American cemeteries and placement of graves seems rather random. You will see many indentations and mounds that do not have markers. The markers may have disappeared over time or graves may never have been marked. While black cemeteries may appear to be neglected, this is often not the case at all, but is a reflection of a philosophy of death and burial.
Most African American cemetery records were created after 1865. They may contain:
- Birth date
- Death date
- Place of birth or death (rarely)
- Age at death
- Relationships of family members
- Occupational information (such as military service)
- Associations joines (such as a school fraternity, etc.)
- Parents' names (rarely)
- Try to find the original sexton's records, which usually have more information than published cemetery records or indexes.
- Ask for a map of burial plots, and see if any relatives are buried near your ancestor.
- Look at tombstone inscriptions for information that may not be found in cemetery records.
Searching Cemetery Records
Before searching you must know:
- Your ancestor's name
- A death date (exact, if possible, but at least an approximate year)
- Place of death (town or county)
- Name of cemetery where buried
- Family History Library and family history centers
- Public libraries (often in one-of-a-kind transcripts of local cemetery records)
- The cemetery where your ancestor was buried
Family History Library Catalog
Use the Place Search in the Family History Library Catalog to find topics and records related to a specific area, such as a city, county, state, or country. If you are having difficulty locating a smaller area, you can start at a larger area (e.g., country) and then identify the smaller areas (e.g., states) by clicking the View Related Places tab.
The following steps will help you find records for a specific locality in the Family History Library Catalog.
- Go to www.familysearch.org
- Click Family History Library Catalog under the heading Search Genealogy Records & Library
- Click Place Search.
- Type the locality (put the smaller place in the top field and the county, state/province, or country in the bottom field).
- Click Search.
- Click the locality that most closely matches the one you want.
- Click a topic, such as Cemetery records.
- Click a title to see more details. The record may be in a book or on a film.
- Click View Film Notes to see the film numbers.
Tip: Once you have clicked a specific locality, you can click View Related Places to find localities related to the place you typed in step 4.
To find cemetery records and locations on the Internet, see www.findagrave.com. This site:
- Lists over 150,000 U.S. Cemeteries
- Includes maps to cemeteries
- Links to record transcriptions of 60,000 cemeteries
- Is searchable by individual name of person
Another useful site is www.cemeteryjunction.com, which:
- Lists over 38,000 U.S. cemeteries
- Gives cemetery addresses
- Gives links to transcribed cemetery records
Book and Periodical Sources
To find books and periodicals that have cemetery records, see the Periodical Source Index (PERSI), which can be accessed at www.ancestry.com (a subscription website). The PERSI provides the most comprehensive index to article titles in U.S. genealogy and local history periodicals
Access is free of charge at the Family History Library and family history cfenters with Internet access.
- The Cemetery Record Compendium: Comprising a Directory of Cemetery Records and Where They May Be Located, John D. Stemmons and E. Diane Stemmons, 1979. (FHJL book 973 V34s; fiche 6126201.) This book lists cemetery records at the Family History Library as of 1979, including periodical articles, which are not listed in the Family History Library Catalog. It is arranged alphabetically by state, county, town, and cemetery name.
- Index to Limited States Cemeteries, The Genealogical Society of Utah, 1988. (FHL films 1206468-94.) This source gives cemetery locations and call numbers of cemetery records at the Family History Library, including periodical articles, which are not listed in the Family History Library Catalog. It is arranged by state, county, and cemetery name.
To find cemetery addresses or phone numbers only, see:
Cemeteries of the United States: A Guide to Contact Informaiton for U.S. Cemeteries and Their Records, 1994. (FHL book 973 V34ce.) This book:
- Lists over 22,000 U.S. cemeteries (operating and inactive)
o Location or mailing address
o Phone and fax numbers
o Clerks' contact information
o Years of operation
o Religious and other affiliations
* Alphabetical by state, county, and cemetery name