Is my ancestor’s grave marked with a tombstone?

6 Jan
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Tears in my Eyes ~ Bleeding Heart by Julia Adamson

Is my ancestor’s grave marked with a tombstone?

To answer this query, “Is my ancestor’s grave marked with a tombstone,” it is necessary to determine the cemetery used for the burial site. As genealogists start researching by moving from the “known” towards the “unknown” locating a person’s place of burial can be researched in this same method. It is best to consult with relatives, family records, cemetery and church records, newspaper obituaries, professional genealogists and historians. In this way the cemetery can be located, then the next step would be to contact the local infrastructure department, church or private individual who maintain Saskatchewan cemeteries.

Once the internment location has been found, through research it may be that the burial site is unmarked. The plot may not have received a tombstone perhaps due to neglect, inattention, or hard times. The cemetery itself may have a policy of no tombstones such as at Forest Hills Memorial Park in Berks County, Reading, Pennsylvannia. In some cases the family or the person themselves may request no tombstone. Steve Jobs, Apple Inc. founder, has no tombstone. The internment sites of notable comedian John Belushi, and American author, H.P. Lovecraft, remain unmarked, and the family erected a cenotaph in a separate location.

Descendants may decide to erect a gravestone upon discovering this ancestor in their family tree, and honour their ancestor with a memorial. Genealogy societies such as the African Atlantic Genealogical Society (AAGS) joined with the he American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) to honour the unmarked gravesite of Eubie Blake, an African American composer. In researching notable local figures, societies, historians or agencies first must contact family descendants to receive permission to erect a tombstone. A similar project honoured and memorialised the unmarked gravesite of blues guitarist, Tommy Bankhead, by the Killer Blues Headstone Project in St. Louis.

For most of Saskatchewan’s cemeteries volunteers from various agencies have initiated their own cemetery projects to record burials. It is then possible to search internet grave registries to locate internment sites. There are global sites such as Find a Grave, Internment.net, or the Cemetery Junction Directory. In Saskatchewan alone several agencies have come together to compile listings of cemetery burials. These agencies are listed at Saskatchewan Gen Web – Cemetery Records – Obituary Records Just a very few agencies recorded at the aforementioned site are the Ancestor Recognition Project – Cemetery Preservation: Online Digitization, Canada Gen Web Cemeteries Project, City and town infrastructure departments, Odessa Library — a German-Russian Genealogical Library, Doukhobor.org, GRHS (Germans from Russia Heritage Society), International Internet Genealogical Society Library, Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, Rural Municipality offices, Saskatchewan Cemeteries Project, Saskatchewan Mennonite Cemetery Finding Aid, Saskatchewan Genealogy Society and branches.

In Saskatchewan the Genealogy Index Search listing is online by the Government of Saskatchewan eHealth Vital Statistics division providing searchable information on “births registered with Vital Statistics more than 100 years ago, and deaths registered more than 70 years ago”. The burial index is searchable online available from research done by Saskatchewan Genealogy Society SGS members from their volunteer cemetery transcription projects. Many of the SGS transcriptions have been put on microfilm and are held with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Family Search centre.

It may aid the individual to search in the family biography / local history books published locally in the province by various communities during the province’s 50th anniversary celebrations (1955), 75th anniversary, (1980) and 100th anniversary (2005). Indexed books can be searched through the Saskatchewan Resident’s Index SRI or Our Roots Nos Racines to see if there are any family names within these resources. The local history committees who came together to write these books are an invaluable source of information as are the local museum curators and librarians.

If the town or placename that the individual resided is unknown, check the homestead records to determine the legal land location (address) for the pioneering family residence. Pinpointing this location on a map will indicate the closest rural placename and the nearest large centre. Entering these placenames in a library catalogue may assist in finding the relevant local history / family biography book. At times these books will also profer cemetery listings as well as biographies of the local residents submitted by the families themselves.

Locating the homestead on a map is actually very wise to assist narrow down the closest or most likely cemetery for the family to adopt. For instance the Rural Municipality of Excelsior #166 maintains 40 cemetery records and Sliding Hills RM #273 maintains 49 cemeteries. On average a rural municipality encompasses 9 townships each 6 miles by 6 miles square, so the RM itself would be an 18 mile by 18 mile area unless boundaries were altered due to population or natural boundaries such as rivers. Such a cemetery density would offer the family a choice of cemetery locations close to their homestead. They may opt for a church yard corresponding to their religious beliefs, desire to be interred in family plot, or choose a town or city plot if the final years were spent residing in an urban centre near senior’s or healthcare resources.

Without a cemetery transcription nor photographs of headstones available, it may be fruitful to ask the assistance of a professional genealogical researcher or some kind soul on the local mailing list or query board for the relevant region of Saskatchewan to check the cemetery for the ancestral burial site. If this is the case, do not expect an answer during the winter months. Between the months of October and April, snow covers the ground making traipsing through cemeteries difficult, and rendering headstones buried beneath the snow invisible to the sight.

To determine if a person is actually interred in a specific cemetery it would be helpful to consult church records, newspaper obituaries, cemetery burial certificates, census records or perhaps family records.

Cemetery burial records are held by the local administration; city or town authorities usually handle cemetery queries in their infrastructure department, parks and cemeteries. Similarly cemetery plot maps, and internment certificates are held by the rural municipality, the civic administration overseeing private rural farm and ranch lands, unorganised hamlets, unincorporated areas, localities, villages and former towns. Burial registers are held by religious denominations officiating at churchyard burials.

If the cemetery plot is located on private land, it is necessary to contact the private land owners for access to the site. This can be done by contacting the rural municipality office and purchasing an RM map of the area.

At times the cemetery may have unmarked graves, and cemetery owners may indulge in ground penetrating radar surveys to find and document all historic internment sites. If a cemetery has a paper trail, such as death certificates, or obituaries to show that an internment had taken place in the graveyard, then radar technology or grave dowsing may help to locate any unmarked sites.

In regards unmarked older cemeteries, it is necessary to contact the local historians for information and directions to a cemetery. For public cemeteries, a local resident would be able to offer directions to a cemetery currently in use. A rural municipality map purchased from the rural municipality would demark cemeteries, townships, ranges along with current roadways.

If a researcher is fortunate in finding the cemetery gravestones photographed online or the cemetery transcribed on the internet, that may help in locating the gravesite, unless the name is not listed. Such may be the case for the Ogema Cemetery in the RM of Key West 70, located in the northwest quarter of section 22 township 7 range 22 West of the 2nd meridian where both a cemetery transcription and tombstone photographs are online from two different agencies. If the ancestor’s name is not listed from either of these listings, but does indeed show up in the provincial genealogy index search where the Government of Saskatchewan eHealth Vital Statistics division indicates “births registered with Vital Statistics more than 100 years ago, and deaths registered more than 70 years ago”, then it would be wise to follow up with further research.

In the case of Key West 70 there are 27 local cemeteries, which are listed at in at least two sites online; Canada Gen Web or the Saskatchewan Genealogy Society Cemetery Index . Another note to consider is that the town of Ogema is located in the southeastern portion of the rural municipality there is a chance that the family may have chosen a cemetery in a neighbouring RM such as Norton RM # 69 to the east, The Gap RM # 39 to the southeast, or Bengough RM # 40 to the south.

If one encounters such an experience of finding the death certificate in Saskatchewan with the Vital Statistics division, but no record of the ancestral name in the expected cemetery listings, it may be necessary to apply for the death certificate from Vital Statistics and or the burial (internment) permit from the Rural Municipality or in the case of this example, the Ogema town office. Most rural municipalities, cities and towns have their own individual websites online along with their contact information. The Government of Saskatchewan also has the Municipal Directory System online with contact information. MySask.com and Canada 411 are two online phone (and address) directories.

Officially civic registration of births, marriages and deaths did begin in 1905 with the formation of the province, registration did not become a regular practice until 1920. The government system to register deaths began in 1888 when the area was still part of the Northwest Territories. These early records of the Northwest Territories may be included in the Saskatchewan Provincial Archives or Manitoba Provincial Archives (Hudson Bay records) vital records collection. If the family chose to be buried in a churchyard, the church burial registers may indicate where an ancestral loved one may be found. If the deceased were registered under the terms of the Indian Act, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) maintains the Indian Register containing dates of birth, death, marriage and divorce information.

Equipped with a date of passing provided by the provincial EHealth genealogy index search another venue opens up. It becomes easier to follow up on an obituary search in an historic newspaper. However as indicated previously if families did not regularly register for a death certificate in the early pioneering years, they may not run an obituary, especially if the passing occurred in the dearth of winter, 40 degrees below zero, no plowed roads, actually no formal paved roads at all, and only horse and buggy for conveyance, or ox and cart. However, there were newspapers, and indeed some obituaries were run. Newspapers were published in the Northwest Territories in the late 1800s serving all of northwestern Canada. As settlement expanded out west, additional local newspapers sprang up across the province. Some these newspapers can be researched online as a few historic newspapers have been placed online by Google News for instance. Various editions of historic newspapers are held on microfilm in the provincial archives and public library system.

Additionally, with the known departure date, application can be made to the Saskatchewan Law Courts to search for wills, letters probate, letters of administration, estate titles which are held in the Wills and Estates Registry dating back to 1883. If desiring to erect a gravesite marker on an unmarked grave, it may behoove one to check if there is a will to honour any requests made by the departed if they wished to lie in an unmarked grave.

So in this way, by starting with the known, and working towards the unknown, steps can be taken to determine cemeteries in the locality where an ancestor resided. Searches can be made of transcriptions made by local residents to determine if the internment took place in a cemetery in the region. Many of these transcriptions are coming online. It is wise to investigate several regional cemeteries to cover all the bases. Without an ancestor’s name listed on a transcription made from tombstones, local church or civic registries can be consulted for historic burials in unmarked gravesites. Additionally the death certificate can be ordered from Vital Statics, Ministry of Health. Without a primary source document, to show that an ancestor was buried in the cemetery, it may not be possible to erect a tombstone, in such a case, perhaps a bench, cenotaph, a tree planting or commemorative sign could be placed in the cemetery honouring the relative and acknowledging their unmarked gravesite.

Article written by Julia Adamson

Bibliography

Saskatchewan Genealogy MagazineSaskatchewan Genealogy Web : Sask Gen Web E-Magazine
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