Why Not To Rely on Obits, Death Certificates, and Cemetery Records When Adding Memorials to Find-A-Grave March 28, 2019

Apologies for the long blog post title, but there is a reason for it. Find-A-Grave has one major rule when it comes to adding memorials. The surname has to match the surname on the headstone. The first name, middle name, any nicknames, and maiden name don’t have to match the headstone. For example, your great-grandfather was J. C. Jones on the headstone, but you know he was named John Calhoun Jones and went by the nickname “J. C.” , then you are free to add this information in those names fields. However, suppose his headstone was misengraved Jnoes. Under Find-A-Grave rules, you have to add him as Jnoes although one would hope the admins would make an exception in cases like this although they probably won’t.

Where it gets tough is women who remarry, but don’t update the surname on their headstone. While the obit, death certificate, and cemetery records may all show Mary C. Smith, the headstone has Mary C. Johnson (who may be husband 1, 2, 3, etc., but not the last husband or ex-husband). For those who rely only on obits, death certificates, or cemetery records, they would incorrect add her as Smith. End result you could wind up with Mary having two memorials (Smith and Johnson) when  she should only have the Johnson one. It gets worse if she was married several times and has all of their surnames on her headstone (Smith Johnson in this example) because under the current search parameters, the site only searches for the first surname (Smith) and you wouldn’t find her using a search for  Johnson.  You would find her under a search for “Smith Johnson” if you knew to look for her that way. It gets more confusing when you have a hyphenated name in one or more places. For example, if Mary had been born a Jackson, later marrying a Smith before marrying a Johnson, then her maiden name is Jackson, but if her name on her headstone is Smith-Johnson, then it should added as Smith-Johnson although Smith isn’t her maiden name. If the name was Jackson-Johnson on the headstone, you wind up with Jackson as a maiden name and Jackson-Johnson as a surname even though she may never have gone by that name.

I bring up this topic because I see too many people using obits, death certificates, and cemetery records to add memorials to Find-A-Grave. It works great when the headstone surname agrees with the record used to add the person, but too often in the cases of women, they don’t although there are times when a male surname is wrong for various reasons. I also bring it up because obits and death certificates frequently don’t record the correct cemetery. In the case of death certificates, it may say Bethesda Cemetery, but is only referring to a cemetery in the town of Bethesda and not specifically the town cemetery that is aptly named Bethesda Cemetery.  Another issue is when the person filing out the death certificate is given a cemetery, but the family later changes its mind. See similar things with obituaries although in addition to the above situation with death certificates, an obit may rely on a less common name for the cemetery or list the wrong town and/or county. It’s somewhat rare, but some cemeteries cross county lines and are on Find-A-Grave in County A although most of the cemetery is in County B. Depending on who wrote the obit as to which county is recorded in the obituary. Where it gets more confusing when there are several cemeteries in the county with the same name. For example, St. Peter’s Cemetery could be one of several in many counties and unless you know which St. Peter’s, you could be adding them to the wrong cemetery.  Let’s take it a step further and you have several St. Peter’s Catholic Cemeteries in the county. Ran across one where the person added a person to a Lutheran cemetery, but it was the wrong Lutheran cemetery on several counts. First, it was a different Lutheran denomination (one was ELCA and the other cemetery wasn’t as evidenced by both cemetery signs). Second, it was the wrong St. (St. John when it should have been St. Paul). Third, it was the wrong county by 80+ miles. Had they bothered to read the obit they added, they would have known it was the wrong cemetery based on counts two and three.

I was transcribing headstones on BillionGraves and comparing them to Find-A-Grave when I noticed a few more issues.

In one case, the cemetery record had them dying in 1951, but being buried in 1931 and the contributor added them using the 1951 death date. From the headstone, it shows 1931 so I am guessing a transcription error on the death date in the cemetery record or when it was added online which is a common problem with this cemetery as it often has somebody being buried months before their death date (died February – December, but the burial date is January of the same year). In other cases, the surname on headstone doesn’t match cemetery records because the woman remarried and nobody changed the headstone surname. My favorite is a local who has her maiden name and all five (5) husbands’ surnames on the headstone. In theory, she should be listed with all five married surnames since the rule they enforce is all surnames on the headstone should be part of the surname field.  Hopefully, the soon promised upgrade (which was supposed to roll out to beta testing December 2015) will address this issue although I don’t think they have considered it. Another option would be to add  a LNAD (Last Name at Death) field similar to that used on WikiTree and by some genealogists.

An example of wrong cemetery (obit vs. actual) is a local who was supposed to be buried in Cemetery A, but I found the headstone in Cemetery B. Based on the cost of being buried in Cemetery A and the fact he is buried in Cemetery B’s Potter’s Field, I suspect price was why he wasn’t buried as planned in the obituary. Thankfully, he died before the obit chasers started adding memorials from obits, but I am seeing a growing case of wrong cemeteries and wrong surnames from the obit adders. If there were an option to include cemetery from other sources as a separate category, then I would be in favor of adding obits, death certificates, cemetery records, etc.  as a valid choice. It can be important to know that Cousin John who you thought was buried in Cemetery A based on obit or death certificate, but is actually buried in Cemetery B in a different county since you aren’t looking for John in the right place.

For death certificates, I ran across a person who was added to a World War I memorial, based on the death certificate stating Town Cemetery and the only town they could see on Find-A-Grave was the World War I memorial. However, he was born several years after the war ended and his name wasn’t on the memorial. I found an obit and asked the manager to check with the cemetery in case he wasn’t buried there. As fast as he was moved to the cemetery in the obituary, I doubt the manager bothered to check with them. Another issue with death certificates is when a family member reports they are going to be buried in Cemetery A and it gets added to the death certificate, but the person is subsequently buried in a different cemetery that may not even be in the same town. Or, the person was later moved to a different cemetery.

The above doesn’t take into account when a person is moved from the original cemetery. One of the most interesting cases of a person being moved after death was a lady who was originally buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in Wichita, Kansas. She was moved within the cemetery at least once after her original interment. She was later dug up, moved to Los Angeles, California for a few years. Then brought back to Maple Grove and buried in a different spot. Only to be dug up again a few years later, moved to Salt Lake City, Utah before being reburied in Maple Grove one final time in yet a different section. When I checked with the cemetery, they originally didn’t have the new plot information because they thought the last reburial was the year she died so they had her as a different person until I let them she was the same person. Does she have headstones in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City? I don’t know, but she doesn’t have a headstone in Maple Grove although there is a slab next to her current resting place which indicates at one time she did. Suppose you only knew she was buried in Los Angeles or Salt Lake City without knowing the Wichita connection. You would be looking in vain for a grave that no longer exists.

Another problem is when obits list multiple towns and counties for the same cemetery. In one example, I found twelve (12) obituaries for one very small cemetery, but the cemetery was reported as being in six (6) different towns in a three (3) county area in the various obits. It took a while for me to find the correct location because it’s a very small denomination and the church is so small it doesn’t have a mailing address or phone number. Using Google Maps Street View, I eventually found the cemetery.

I appreciate and understand that some cannot make it to cemeteries and choose to add names using obituaries, death certificates, and/or cemetery records. However, under Find-A-Grave rules, the surname has to match the headstone and too often they don’t when adding memorials from these sources. It could be hyphenated in one place and not hyphenated in the other, or you can have multiple name differences between the sources. Throw in the number of times obituaries and death certificates have the wrong cemetery and it becomes a bigger problem. I even came across a headstone from Cemetery A incorrectly being added to Cemetery B in a different county. The headstone was unique enough that it wasn’t a case of a cenotaph in the other cemetery unless somebody spent a large amount of money for a full-grave cover and a twin for the second cemetery.

A somewhat separate issue is when you use the upload photos feature on Find-A-Grave and there are several cemeteries nearby and Find-A-Grave adds it to the wrong cemetery based on GPS. This can also happen with BillionGraves and in both situations if a cemetery hasn’t been added it moves the GPS-tagged image to the nearest cemetery on the site. Wichita has a handful of large cemeteries next to each other (across the street or next to each other) so this happens a bit more than in areas where the cemeteries are not that close.

About ICT Genealogist

Originally from Gulfport, Mississippi. Live in Wichita, Kansas now. I suffer Bipolar I, ultra-ultra rapid cycling, mixed episodes. Blog on a variety of topics - genealogy, DNA, mental health, among others. Let's collaborateDealspotr.com
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