Cemetery records are the paper records kept by the cemetery board, church, or caretaker. They detail who has purchased each cemetery plot, where the plot is located, and who is buried in that plot. These records are not always available to the public, and with rural cemeteries they can be very difficult to find. But when found they can yield much more information than a cemetery (see 'how do I use it' below). Church burial registers are also cemetery records (see Church Records).
Cemeteries are memorials to the dead and recognizable by the headstones, columbariums and crypts. Not everyone buried in a cemetery has a memorial, therefore if you don't find someone in a cemetery don't assume they're not buried there before checking the cemetery records.
Be aware that cemetery records and cemeteries are records of burial, not records of death! Keep in mind the current trend of funeral preparations - there are quite a few cemetery memorials with the names and birth dates of living persons, they're very much not dead but the memorial stands in readiness for the day when it will be needed.
Before searching for cemetery records you must first locate the cemetery. Some cemeteries no longer exist - they may have been moved to make way for a new building or road, or they may even have been built over (eek!). In order to do this you must first know the area you're researching - what township? What county/district? Plus you should also know the religion of your ancestor and the approximate date of death. Some cemeteries were strictly for the denomination its church served (i.e., Anglican, Jewish, etc.), other cemeteries were considered "public" or "non-denominational" and were cared for by the village, town or city. Also look to family members - where were other relations buried? Look at both sides of the family, sometimes people were buried near their in-laws.
If a cemetery was denominational - look to the church archives for burial registers (see Church Records).
If a cemetery was public or non-denominational - look to the village, town or city. Write to their local cemetery board and ask where the records can be found.
If the cemetery is still in existance check the phone book. Larger city cemeteries can be found in the phone book (if they're in the phone book they're also listed on Canada 411 - see links) and you can call and ask about their cemetery records and where to direct your inquiry.
Having trouble locating a cemetery? See our 'where can I find it' section below.
Cemetery Records are sometimes all you can find on an individual who died in Ontario within the past 72 years. Therefore they can be very valuable resources and should never be ignored when conducting a search. Yet... they can also be misleading, so take the information with a grain of salt and ALWAYS seek another source to back up the data provided from a cemetery record. (Keep in mind that the person you're seeking likely did not do funeral preparations, therefore they did not provide the information about their own birth, birth place, etc., and the informant may have incorrect information.)
Cemetery Records can be used to determine approximate dates of birth and death, and sometimes will provide clues to family members. In some cases dates given are far from accurate. Gravestones were not always put in place immediately following a death. They were sometimes placed several months or years later when it could be afforded or when the remaining spouse died. Dates given on the gravestones should always be checked against Burial Registers, Funeral Records & Vital Statistics Records to confirm that they are indeed correct. Please note that during the Depression years (1929-1945) very few graves had stones placed immediately.
Most cemeteries are open to the public and anyone wishing to make the trip can walk through. There are private cemeteries though that require permission before visiting. Just because it's a cemetery doesn't mean it's open to anyone. If it's located behind a fence with a closed gate -- assume it's private! If it's located in what looks like someone's cornfield -- assume it's private! Ask before visiting.
When visiting a cemetery, keep these things in mind:
Don't use shaving cream, chalk, graphite, bleach, etc. Pretty much avoid any kind of chemical - they will react with the stone and cause it to deteriorate.
Don't make a rubbing of the stone. Not only does the force of rubbing harm the stone, but the chemicals in the paper and tape can also cause damage.
Don't rub dirt into the stone, it may be organic but it can also degrade the stone.
Don't lean or sit on the headstones.
Some cemeteries are open only from dawn to dusk, others have stricter hours.
Some cemeteries don't receive regular maintenance (some older or rural cemeteries receive none at all!) so you may find comfortable clothing & shoes that are not adverse to dirt are best.
Use a flashlight or mirror to enhance the writing on a stone. Held at the proper angle they work better than shaving cream!
If taking photographs visit the cemetery before 10am or after 3pm unless it's an overcast day. If the words on the stone are difficult to make out, try different angles or wet the stone with water. And be sure to make a written record of the stone in case the photo doesn't turn out.
Take notice of the headstone - is it large? small? Is there a statue or picture of something on it? (for instance, it's not uncommon for a statue of a lamb to appear on a child's grave). The larger and more extravagant the headstone, the more likely the family was well off.
Are there any insignia's on the stone? Perhaps it indicates that person was a member of an organization (Orange Society, Masons), served in the military, or was a particular religion.
Decoration Sundays - Some cemeteries have "decoration" days where they invite friends & relatives of those buried in the cemetery to visit to place flowers on the graves and make donations for the upkeep of the cemetery. If you know where a relative is buried, contact the cemetery and ask if they have such an annual event. Then attend the next one and start networking! If you live too far away, ask if you could send a letter to be passed along. Be sure to include an SAE & 2 IRC's.
Keep in mind not just to check the gravestone of the person you are seeking -- check those buried around him/her. They may be related!
Information provided can be just the name of the person and date of death, but on some gravestones you get information such as date of birth, wife of / husband of / child of / sibling of, places of birth & death, date of marriage, etc. And on rare occasions you get much, much more -- a stone in Woodhouse United Cemetery in Norfolk County has a four generation descendancy chart!
If possible, contact the cemetery or the caretaker of the cemetery to see if they can provide further information. Cemetery offices often have more information than what is written on the stone. One cemetery I phoned told me not only what was written on the stone, but the name of the next-of-kin at the time of this person's death, and the exact location of burial. In regards to cemetery caretakers, after two trips to a rural cemetery and spending two hours looking for the burial place of a great-uncle, a caretaker pulled out his map of the cemetery and found him in minutes. He was buried in a plot purchased by a neighbour (who was also buried in this plot!) and without a headstone. Had the caretaker not had this information, I would have never found my great-uncle.
There are about 7000 known cemeteries in Ontario. Some of these have been transcribed and indexed by genealogy/history groups/societies and are available for purchase through the group or society specific to the area where the cemetery is located. When seeking a cemetery look first to the genealogy groups in the area you're researching - there's a good chance that they'll not only know about it, but have a transcript available for purchase as well. You can also check at your local library and FHC for cemetery transcripts on microfilm - the Archives of Ontario microfilmed the cemeteries transcribed by the Ontario Genealogical Society and you can request these films through inter-library loan.
Locating a cemetery office or caretaker is a harder task. First try contacting the genealogy groups & societies in your area of research. If that proves fruitless you could try writing to the government office in that area, Canada 411 (see links), or writing to the Ontario Association of Cemetery and Funeral Professionals.
For both cemetery records and cemetery transcripts it's hit or miss. There are quite a few cemetery transcripts online with more appearing each day (see the GenWeb site that covers your area of research for links).
There is also the Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid which is an index of over 2 million invididuals listed in genealogy society cemetery transcripts. You can search by surname, then write to the genealogy society for further information (be sure to read the OCFA FAQ! It answers any questions you may have about using OCFA effectively).
Other resources that you can use if you can't locate your ancestor in a cemetery, or if a cemetery record doesn't exist:
Funeral Home Records
CanadaGenWeb’s Cemetery Project
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