How to Find a Grave in a Cemetery in Simple Steps

Published August 18, 2020
woman carrying flowers on cemetery path

Whether you're a genealogist or simply want to pay your respects, knowing how to find a grave in a cemetery is a useful skill. Don't get overwhelmed by the rows of headstones. There's a simple process that can help.

1. Start With What You Know

If you're looking for the grave of an ancestor or trying to visit the resting place of someone you knew, you need to start with what you already know about the person. Ask yourself the following questions and jot down your answers:

  • What is the person's full name?
  • What is the date of death? Do you also know the birth date?
  • Do you know the city and state where the person died?
  • Do you know the person's religion?

2. Research to Find More Answers

If you know only some of the answers, you can do some research to find out more. Use what you already know to help. Look up the person in local and state death records, as well as family Bibles and other texts. Then look for newspaper obituary archives, which can be among the most valuable tools in finding a person's final resting place. Often, the obituary will list details about the funeral or memorial service, as well as the cemetery being used.

3. Find the Name of the Cemetery

If you know a lot about the person but don't have a cemetery name, there are some ways to get it. These tips can help:

  • Find out how many cemeteries are in the town. In many small towns, there may be only one or two.
  • Check when the cemetery was used. Some older cemeteries stopped accepting new burials after a certain point. This can be a clue.
  • Consider the person's religion. Some cemeteries are for only one faith, so this can help you narrow your search or rule cemeteries out.
  • Try an online tool, such as the very helpful Find a Grave. Volunteers have noted information from headstones all across the world and compiled the data for you to search.

4. Contact the Cemetery, if Possible

Many cities and towns have cemetery associations or groups that handle the burial arrangements at cemeteries that are still in use. Simply search for the contact info for the specific cemetery you are visiting and get in touch. This is one of the best ways to get directions to specific section coordinates for the grave you are visiting. Many cemeteries even have maps to help. This process won't work with small cemeteries that are no longer being used, but it's very helpful with large cemeteries.

5. Try an App

Just like with most things, there's an app to help you find a grave in a cemetery. The website Billion Graves is similar to Find a Grave, but it includes GPS coordinates for the graves. The free Billion Graves app let's you volunteer to add photos and coordinates, but you can also use it to find a specific grave in a cemetery. Not all graves have been recorded by the group, but it's worth a try if you are struggling to find a grave. The app works for iPhone and Android.

6. Use Stone Materials and Dates to Help

If you have the cemetery name but can't find the grave using an app or a cemetery map, you can use some other clues to help. Most cemeteries have the oldest graves in a certain section, often the very back, and then work out from there. If you know the person died around the time of the oldest graves, start looking there. You can also use headstone materials to help, limiting your search to stones made of materials that were popular when an individual passed away. Gravestone Preservation reports that certain stone types were popular during specific times:

  • Slate - Popular in New England and in many of the oldest cemeteries, this blue-gray stone was popular from 1650 to 1900.
  • Marble - Mainly used between 1780 and 1930, marble is a beautiful white stone that often softens with age and exposure to acid rain.
  • Granite - Used since 1860, granite is a speckled stone that comes in a variety of colors.

7. Be Methodical

Finally, the key is to be methodical in your search. Divide the cemetery in sections and walk every row. It's easier if you have someone to help you walk the rows in the cemetery, but you can do it alone too. Just glance back and forth, looking for the name you need to find.

Take Some Time When You Find the Grave

Cemetery research is an important part of genealogy, and it's also useful for finding graves of lost loved ones. When you do find the grave, take note of the headstone inscriptions and other important information and make space for yourself to sit in silence for a while.

How to Find a Grave in a Cemetery in Simple Steps