Digging up information on your ancestors:  Cemeteries as sources


Gillian Leitch

I love visiting cemeteries.  I know that this statement will make me sound particularly odd, but bear with me.  Cemeteries are the most amazing places to understand the lives of our dearly departed, and more importantly the lives of those they left behind.  You only have to read the inscriptions, the symbols on them, the statuary around them, and then also look at the size, material and placement of them to get what powerful things are being said.  They are an excellent source of information for the historian, family or otherwise.

There are a number of considerations you should make when researching the grave of someone.  The first is the cemetery itself.  Look into the history of the cemetery, does it tell you something about the deceased?  Is it attached to a specific church or congregation?  If so, it is clear that this place might have had meaning to the deceased, particularly if there were other burial options available.  Is it an expensive cemetery- posh?  It might indicate that the person buried there was a part of the elite, or of good financial standing.

Check the cemetery records to see if there were choices in where the person could be buried within the cemetery itself.  Were they offering lots in certain sections at certain times, or was the entire field available from day one.  For example I was curious to find out why certain members of my family were buried close to one another, I thought  that this was an indication that the family members wanted to be buried close to one another, but not close to their father, who was buried in another section of the cemetery. (see Matthew Hicks burial posted 1/19/2010; Wright family plot posted on 3/8/2010; and Corley burial posted 2/28/2010)

Cuddy Monument, Montreal

This wasn’t exactly the case.  The portion of the cemetery where he was buried was no longer available, and all new sales for the period they purchased were in the same section.  And further checking of the dates indicated no pre-planning for this, as they bought their family plots on the death of the first burial in the plots.  They were close together, which might indicate a bit of choice, but as they were limited in their options, it was most likely random.

Was the plot pre-purchased, or was it, as I saw in the case I mentioned above, a matter of buying as needed?  Pre-planning shows that the deceased were concerned with where they were buried.  It would show that it was the deceased doing the planning and not the survivors.

How big is the plot?  Did the purchaser intend to bury just themselves there, or was it a family plot?  This is indicative of a desire to keep the family together, and perhaps a bit of establishing a family presence somewhere.  In the end, how many family members actually are buried there?  Is the plot full, or did other members choose to be interred elsewhere?  For example, one person I researched, Michael Morley, purchased a huge plot at Notre Dame des Neiges in Montreal. (see the blog on the Morley Crypt, posted 4/18/2010)  On the site he built a pretty substantial mausoleum, with the family name engraved on the top.  Only three people are there, although he and his wife had a fairly large family.  What does that say about the person who bought the plot, and the people who came after?

How is the grave or plot marked?  Did the family or deceased choose a showy headstone, a mausoleum or a plain marker?  This says a lot about the people who made these decisions.  Are the materials expensive, luxurious, do they stand apart from other graves in the cemetery?  Did they choose to decorate the area with any statuary?  Are the decorations especially religious?

How are the names placed on the marker?  Are certain names more prominent than others?  Were titles or jobs placed within the information on the marker?  What about national origins, dates and places of birth?  Did they mention parents or siblings not interred there?  Are some people buried there missing from the monument?

There is this one family plot at Notre Dame des Neiges in Montreal which is most illustrative of the ideas of name, title, decoration and placement.  It is a double plot situated beside the Monument des Patriotes.  It is the plot for the family of Sir Lomer Gouin (B66).  [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lomer_Gouin ]  It is an impressive monument that is a semi circle of columns in the classical Greek Style with a bust of Lomer in the centre.  The plot is full of his family but the main monument is to him.  The others interred there are listed on a step leading to the main monument just off the path.  So what does this say about the family?  About Lomer?  It says in many ways that the important one is Lomer, and even successive generations have not tampered with the monument itself, instead choosing to honour the rest of the family in a noticeably more modest manner with just their names and dates of birth and death inscribed on a flat stone.  Even placed beside the Monument for the Patriotes which is tall and quite imposing, the Gouin monument makes a mark.  A serious contrast to it is the family plot of the Corley family, which lies just off to the side and behind one row.  There is a simple flat marker for the husband and wife Timothy and Margaret Corley, and to the side one for Hugh and Virginia Leitch, but little else.  There are eleven people in this plot.

By asking yourself these questions you can get some interesting information about the families and the lives of the people the monuments honour.  They tell a story, and with a little digging into the circumstances or context of the burial, you can have a clearer picture of these people buried in a cemetery.  Not so creepy after all?