How to Search a Cemetery, Respectfully

How To Search A Cemetery, Respectfully

When it comes to locating a relative or ancestor in a cemetery there are a few things I’ll call “cemetery manners” or “cemetery etiquette” that I believe everyone should know.  Here are a few tips on how to search a cemetery, along with some do’s and don’ts.


To begin, you will not need to start at the actual cemetery. Before you visit the land where your ancestor is buried, start your search online. Below are resources on How To Search A Cemetery.


Online resources

The bulk of my ancestors graves are located in the State of Florida.  Fortunately for me Jim Powell has done a great job in creating an online Search the Virtual Cemetery application.  Jim and his extended family, have done much fieldwork documenting most of the historical cemeteries in Alachua County Florida. His online search includes the cemeteries that his group has photographed and the transcriptions from the 1966 DAR books.  But for those you looking for ancestors not in Alachua county – take heart!

  • is a great place to begin.  Search using the names and birth/death dates of the person you are researching, just as you would any other Ancestry search, only instead of pressing the [search] button to get all available data, we want to limit our search to death records.
  • Another good starting point is with Find-A-Grave.  Find A Grave is a free resource for finding the final resting places of famous folks, friends and family members.
  • There are also good resources available at
  • includes free information and grave photos. For cemeteries, it often gives the exact plot location.
  • There is also, TombFinder. It uses web and mobile technologies to easily pinpoint your loved one’s grave and also celebrate their life online.
  • Also, see the Online Cemetery Records and Burial Indexes from
  • If your loved one was a US Veteran, there is the National Cemetery Administration’s Nationwide Gravesite Locator.

Finally, there a number of other online genealogy and virtual cemetery websites and State websites.  However, online research will only get you so far.  You may eventually want to take a trip to the actual cemetery.


3 Tips on Cemetery Etiquette

When visiting a cemetery, Good manners or etiquette will serve you well.  Here are three things you should keep in mind in order to honor the dead and the living. These 3 tips on cemetery etiquette are here to help to keep you from being insensitive, breaking any laws, and generally, to make sure you enjoy a peaceful experience.


1) Follow the Rules

The only way to do this is to know the rules.  So you must make contact, get permission, from the mangers or owners of the cemetery property!


Contact the funeral home and/or the cemetery.  Tell them who you are looking for and what you are hoping to find.  Most cemeteries have a sign posted near the entrance listing rules specific to the property such as opening and closing hours.  Many cemeteries are open from dawn until dusk. Try not to remain in the cemetery after dark.


A few months ago, I got word of a reunion happening in my hometown.  This was a great opportunity to go back home and visit the grave sites of my grandmother and mother.  I had not been to the cemetery for many years. I discovered a “cemetery society” web-page for the cemetery, used the contact info available on the site to contact the owner. Within a few days she emailed me back with the news that she had located my ancestors.


In addition, since grave sites do not come with street addresses, I would need some assistance in locating the graves.  She was very responsive and offered to meet me at the cemetery when I got in town.  Once there she walked me to the sites.  As I mentioned, cemetery often do not come with named/marked streets and grave sites with addresses, so having a guide is important.


2) Walk and Drive with Care

The 2nd tip, is to drive and walk with care.  Just because you see a clear line of site to a monument or headstone you want to visit, you might not want to just head out in a straight-line walking to it.  Careful inspection of the terrain might reveal hidden grave sites, holes in the ground left from moved or even vandalized tombstones, or other trip hazards.


Follow the roadways and don’t drive your vehicle on the grass. Drive slowly, and watch out for people who might not be paying attention. If the lane is narrow and another car approaches, offer to move your car until the other driver can get through.


3) Respect and Document the Graves

Don’t touch any monuments or headstones; this may actually cause damage to the memorials, especially older ones. Never remove anything from a gravestone, such as flowers, coins, or tributes that have been left by family or friends.


You should document the resting places of the people you are researching.  But this should be done thoughtfully and with care to both offer respect to the deceased and to avoid damaging the memorials.


Tombstone rubbings are prohibited in some areas.  A state, county, municipality or a cemetery itself can set rules regarding tombstone rubbings.  Be sure to find out what is allowed in the specific location you are visiting.

Historic cemeteries and those popular with tourists will often prohibit tombstone rubbings because of the potential deterioration damage that repeated rubbings of a stone can cause over time.

There are other ‘common’ documenting practices that you should avoid when documenting the cemetery you are visiting.  Primary among my list of ‘don’t s’ is something a well meaning visitor to one of my relatives has done.  To better see the writing on the stones, they have rubbed chalk on the stone.  As you can see from the photo, the writing is easier to read as the letters stand out better in the image on top, compared to the image of the same stones below, but this is not good idea. Chalk is not biodegradable,


To better view the writing on gravestones, I’ve encountered suggestion involving the use of  shaving cream, baby powder, chalk or flour dusted onto the front of the gravestone.  The problem with such methods is this.  Flour promotes mold growth, and shaving cream leaves an acid residue that eats away at the stone. And remember, no matter how well you believe you wash away your dusting material when you’re done, gravestones are full of nooks and crannies into which these materials can deposit and continue to do damage over time.  It is important that you do not cause harm to the graveyard you are trying to document!


Instead of rubbing or powdering a stone, try water.  Pouring clean water over an old stone may be all it takes in some circumstances. Wetting the stone makes the inscription appear darker.  For the best solution however. take along a good digital camera.  Use that iPhone, iPad, smartphone, or camera and take lots of images.  Even subtle shadows can be emphasized in most digital software packages.


I would like to end this section about respecting the graves by addressing an issue that many times can cause stress and even guilt.  That is the issue of the unmarked grave.  You have contacted the cemetery officials, you have been careful to observe all the rules, and you get to the gravesite only to discover that your ancestors grave is ‘unmarked.’  There is nothing to document or photograph but a patch of grass.


The Unmarked Grave

An unmarked grave is one that lacks a marker, headstone, or nameplate indicating that a body is buried there. In cultures like ours here in America that mark burial sites, the phrase unmarked grave has taken on a metaphorical meaning. As a figure of speech, a common meaning of the term “unmarked grave” is that the person buried here is consigned to an ignominious end.


While the typical gravesite in the United States is marked with a permanent memorial marker ( placed within a year of burial), there are plenty of cases in which a grave remains unmarked for much longer. Maybe for decades.  The  reasons for the unmarked grave are usually as valid as they are varied.


There can still be a bit of stigma attached to an “unmarked grave.”  In times past, criminals were deliberately placed in unmarked graves so that no honor could be bestowed upon them, even in death. On the other end of the spectrum, we find many celebrities and famous people, buried in unmarked graves as a deterrent to vandalism, trophy hunters, and unwanted attention from fans and the general public.


My point is this; there should be no shame in finding your relative or ancestor in an unmarked grave.  During your visit, you may decide to leave behind a flower or a photo, or some other token on the clear site. You may choose to purchase a marker if you would like, or you can leave the site undisturbed, at peace, and unmarked.


To recap, begin your search online using virtual cemetery data sites, burial and death records.  When you decide to visit a physical cemetery, consider these three tips in order to honor the dead and insure a safe and positive visit.




  1. My name is Gwen Hawkins. I am in search of my maternal grandfather. His name is James Haley Burton. He passed away when my mother was very young. He has SEVEN kids and NONE of them know where he is buried. My grandmother divorced him and did keep up with his burial or family, thus none of the kids know the family nor the location of his body. I have researched and found out that he is buried in Alpha- Omega Cemetery in Henderson, NC. But I have reached a road block for his is one of the unmarked graves at this site. I have searched and searched for a number of the cemetery to see if they have records that states where he is buried there, but I can’t find the number only the owner is “Independent”. I really would LOVE to give my mother the ULTIAMTE Mother’s Day present so she could give her father a overdue father’s day present… A Tombstone. Can ANYONE help me or direct me where and what I needed to do.

  2. Hi Gwen – good to hear from you. This is a very interesting question. As you probably know from my own experience, I was able to find the cemetery owner for the burial grounds I was researching in looking for my own relatives by going to the Facebook and website of a group who was organizing a cleanup of the neglected cemetery. If no such group is caring for the Alpha Omega Cemetery then we’ll have to look elsewhere.
    To determine ownership of any piece of property, the definitive source is the county clerk and/or county assessor. The information may be available on the county government’s website. If not, you can call or visit their offices. When you search it is helpful to have good locational information (such as Section, Township, and Range) before contacting the county clerk or county assessor.

    In NC, a lot of the county assessors have online searches. I tested a search of “cemetery” in Durham County’s real property records search ( and got several results, including a few with “no known owner.” Unfortunately, even the ones that don’t say “no known owner” don’t seem to give much information about ownership, although they might have location/parcel data. This information can make it easy to track down in the county clerk’s office.

    There’s a page at that indicates the State Archives have been gathering data on abandoned cemeteries that can be viewed at the Raleigh office. So, both the county clerks in the relevant counties and the State Archives material might be useful in figuring out who owns, or last owned if abandoned, a particular cemetery.

    I went to the Vance County Tax Search website at and entered “cemetery” in the [business name] field.
    See the image below of the results I got.

    This record does not show an owner, but a trip to the Vance County Clerk’s office might get you the information you need.

    If this does not prove successful, let me make a suggestion based on something your said. You told me that “I really would LOVE to give my mother the ULTIAMTE Mother’s Day present so she could give her father a overdue father’s day present… A Tombstone.”
    Your comment made me think of something a friend of mine did a few years ago. He was looking for an ancestor’s grave and was unsuccessful at finding it. He like you, did find the cemetery. So what he did was to scoop up a small bit of dirt from the cemetery into a little jar. He made a label for the jar and gave it as a gift to his mother. She keeps it on her fireplace mantle and it has become a wonderful keepsake for her.
    Good luck!

  3. Were you able to find any additional info on the Alpha-Omega cemetery? In a similar situation :). Many blessings.

  4. Hello! Were you able to find any information on the Alpha-Omega cemetery? In a similar situation :). Many blessings.

  5. Adam Golightly


    My sister has been thinking to go searching the cemetery for names that she can recognize on the right headstones. She would really like to get some help restoring any headstones that are in the family with the help of a professional. I liked what you said about how water can make an inscription darker with the right rules in order to be a lot better.

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