Speaking of the Dead

Even when our interview opportunities do not provide much detail into our family history, there are many other ways to start building their story. With a bit of sleuthing, we gather much of our information from the bits of clues our ancestors left behind.

The condition of the cemetery, grave, or headstone should be taken into consideration. For instance, when we find our ancestor interred in a long-forgotten and neglected or non-public cemetery, this may be an indication that they were buried by nearby neighbors or family. It also shows that they may have been too poor to afford a proper headstone. I have one such instance where no marker existed but there were other indications of a burial.

Many years ago, I visited the Conner homestead in Overton County, Tennessee. A cousin who was showing me around pointed to a non-native plant growing near an out-of-place rock that he believed to be the grave site of Elizabeth Dennis Conner, the first wife of my 4th Great Grandfather, James Cornelius Conner. It was found amongst a clump of trees a good distance away from the homestead and cemetery. While my direct ancestors were each buried in the family plot or across the road at Old Bethel Cemetery, I am still searching for more information on her death and burial.

One way may produce results is by thoroughly searching those interred in the family cemetery. When an ancestor is buried in a church cemetery, we can look for church membership directories and parishioner lists within the dates indicated on their headstone. We can also deduce a rough idea for the date of marriage based on the grave marker and consider the church as one possibility to hold the early marriage records before they were recorded on the county level. Walking through the cemetery and finding the headstone of a relative can narrow the timeframe in which to search for our ancestors but can also lead to other clues.

When we visit during Memorial Day or Veterans day, we can easily spot any ancestors who served by the flags placed by veterans groups. Personal items and flowers usually indicate living relatives regularly visiting the cemetery. There may be local family members we were previously unaware of.

Visiting national cemeteries can often help us to learn more about those who were killed in action by locating groups of their fellow fallen who served in the same unit. An ancestor with a military marker can lead to an abundance of otherwise unknown information.

The symbols carved onto a marker can indicate various important facts related to the lives of our ancestors. They are a great way to point to unit histories, bounty or warranty land deeds, pension files, as well as muster rolls. Many headstones will also indicate the religious preferences of our ancestor.

These markers provide a wealth of other information we may otherwise overlook. For instance, I found Masonic symbolism on the grave marker of an ancestor. It was the only indication of his affiliation I was able to find. Occasionally the marker itself is shaped in ways that are significant.

One of the most prolific grave markers I have seen is the headstone of 2nd Lieutenant Nathaniel Grigsby who served during the Civil War which includes an epitaph of his indignation toward those he felt responsible. His marker shows why it is important to check all sides of a headstone, especially if irregularly shaped. When we do not know where our ancestor may have been buried, we can consult the state databases for death certificates of our ancestor or their descendants.

Tennessee State Death Certificate for G.W. Conner #31908, Tennessee State Library and Archives; Nashville, Tennessee; Tennessee Death Records, 1908-1959; Roll #: 13

The death certificate of my 3rd Great Grandfather, George Washington Conner not only lists his residence, birthplace and date of birth, parents, occupation, informant, date and cause of death, as well as location of internment and date of burial. He was buried by his neighbors from Monroe, Tennessee and listed as married at the time of death, indicating his wife was still living at the time.

The death certificate also can provide much information about our ancestors that would often be overlooked. On most death certificates after 1900, the coroner indicated the cause of death in words as well as a three or four digit code. This is the International Classification of Diseases which has had many revisions since its inception. It is important to ensure what revision would have been in place at the time to obtain the code that is designated on the form. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, a new classification was developed for deaths caused by terrorism.

We should also consider the style of the marker and if it fits within the time period of the death. Given that he was interred by neighbors, G.W. Conner’s date of death shown on the grave marker can only be speculative without further evidence. In this case,¬† several of the markers are likely to have been placed at the same time and further exploration of similar stones in the family plot will be conducted to find their origin.

While headstones and death certificates are an excellent way to determine the birth and death of an ancestor, it is the dash in between where we should focus our research and build their story.