08:55 AM

The Sociology of Cemeteries

Information gleaned from cemeteries can provide very insightful details about our ancestors summarized Helen Shaw from Rockport, ME, in her presentation on The Sociology of Cemeteries at The National Genealogical Society’s 2014 Family History Conference in Richmond, Virginia.

Shaw explained that the type of cemetery our ancestors are buried in, the location of the cemetery, the location of the tomb, the style of headstone and symbolism on the headstone can all add rich clues to the sociology of an ancestor.

For example, public cemeteries (owned and managed by a municipality) are usually economical and therefore common locations for mass burials (war, mass tragedy, and epidemic casualties), paupers, and military burials. Private cemeteries, or private sections in public cemeteries, are usually exclusive to families, a church, synagogue, religious communities, and fraternal organizations. Institutional cemeteries also exist, and are associated with prisons, poor houses, orphanages, and sanatoriums.

Socio-cultural clues can often be derived from when and where your ancestor died—what cemeteries existed in the locale and the financial ability of the family to preserve or move the relative’s body if their death was a long distance from home or the family residence.

Family connections can be made to others buried in a family plot or within proximity of an ancestor’s tomb. Headstone symbolism and the type of cemetery can tell what the relative’s religious persuasion might have been at the time of death, their ethnicity, military or public service, occupation, and even group affiliations (think Elks Lodge, Lions Club, Masons, or Fraternal Order of Police).

Good online resources for cemetery information are:

This presentation was given by Helen A. Shaw, MA, CG at the 2014 NGS Family History Conference