RESEARCHING CEMETERY RECORDS
Tewksbury Public Library
RECORDS OF DEATH
Bodies in transit
Wills, administrations, and probate
Funeral, memorial, and prayer
Funeral home records
Monument makers’ records
Obituaries and death notices
Social Security Death Index
• Modern death certificates may include information
as to whether or not an autopsy was done.
• In order to access these records you must be able to
prove that you are next of kin.
• Autopsies are usually performed when the cause of
death is uncertain, questionable or suspicious.
• It is rare that a family Bible will include a place of
burial, but they most often include a place of death.
• If you are uncertain if a family Bible exists:
- Ask your relatives, even the far reaching ones.
- Check the internet
Body in Transit/Burial Permits
• Permits are needed when relocating or burying a
• Records for transportation and burial are more
common in the 20th century.
• For deaths at sea, information was sometimes
recorded in passenger lists. They are listed
sometimes next to the original record or on the last
• If a death occurred as a result of uncertain or
unusual circumstances then a coroners' report may
• Coroner and medical examiner files are available to
the legal next of kin and those with written permission
from the next of kin from the Office of Chief Medical
Death Certificates/Death Registers
• Death certificates are statewide official documents
that record people’s deaths.
The states began collecting this information in
different years. Massachusetts started in 1841.
• The more recent the death certificate, the more
information it is likely to contain.
• Some cities, towns, and counties kept death
registers, which might predate statewide registration.
Funeral, Memorial, and Prayer Cards
• Funeral and memorial cards became popular in the
• Currently they are most often issued by the funeral
home or church.
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Funeral Home Records
• Funeral home records are private so the content and
accessibility will vary greatly.
• Guides for locating funeral homes
“American Blue Book of Funeral Directors”
“The National Yellow Book of Funeral Directors”
“The Red Book”
• Other sources
National Funeral Directors Association
Cremation Association of North America
Jewish Funeral Directors of America
• Institutions can include; hospitals, sanitariums,
asylums, almshouses, and prisons.
• Many of these institutions keep records, but the more
recent records may be restricted by privacy laws.
Monument Makers’ Records
• These would be private business records.
• A New England resource could be Harriette Merrifield
Forbes’s “Gravestones of Early New England and the
Men Who Made Them, 1653-1800”.
• These are supplements to the federal census for the
years 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1900 (though the
only state that still has copies of the 1900 census is
• If your family member belonged to a organization,
society, church union or other group there may be a
listing of the recently deceased.
• These listings often appear in the organizations
Obituaries and Death Notices
• Not everyone has an obituary or death notice
published in a local paper.
• They vary greatly in the amount of information
• Some are written by family/friends of the deceased
others are written by newspaper staff with
information provided by the funeral home.
• If someone died in an accident or unusual death,
also look for a news article.
• Obituaries and death notices can be found more
frequently online, but most are found through the
local papers at local libraries.
Social Security Death Index
• The Death Master File (DMF) from the Social Security
Administration (SSA) currently contains over 89 million
records and is updated weekly.
• Family Search and Ancestry.com have SSDI records.
Wills, Administrations, and Probate
• These records will give a place of death, but not a
time of death.
• Sometimes they will mention a funeral home that
expenses should be paid.
• These records can be found in county courthouses.
• Regional guides such as “Massachusetts
Cemeteries” by David Lambert.
Find A Grave website (http://www.findagrave.com/)
City Directories (for names of cemeteries, funeral
homes and monument makers)
Cemetery plant maps
Town Hall – cemetery commissions
• Most soldiers during the Civil War and wars previous
to that were buried where the death occurred.
• It was on July 17 1862 that fourteen national
cemeteries were established. Army crews sought out
the remains of Union soldiers to have them reburied
in the national cemeteries. Nearly half were not
found. Confederate soldiers buried in national
cemeteries were those that died in Union prison
• There are now 131 national cemeteries in the United
States. For a list and more information visit
• Find A Grave (http://www.findagrave.com/) is one
of the most popular, but there are other excellent
African American Cemeteries Online
Funeral Net (http://www.funeralnet.com/index.php)
Planning Your Visit
• Spring and Fall are the best times to visit a cemetery
(especially if it is neglected and overgrown).
Wear long pants, a long sleeve shirt, sturdy shoes and
Bring paper, several pencils, and a camera.
Write down names, dates, and inscriptions exactly as
they appear on the stone.
Sketch any symbols.
Make a note of the physical relationship between
tombstones. Nearby graves could provide
• Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. Your Guide to Cemetery
Research. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2002.
Family Search Cemetery Wiki.
Find A Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/
Gilson, Thomas E. Carved In Stone: The Artistry of Early
New England Gravestones. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan
University Press, 2012
Kull, Andrew. New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s
Guide. Brattleboror, Vt.: Greene Press, 1975
Rogak, Lisa. Stones and Bones of New England: A Guide
to Unusual, Historic, and Otherwise Notable Cemeteries.
Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 2004
Yalom, Marilyn. The American Resting Place. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008
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