Tombstones and Cemeteries

There was a time in my life when I would never have considered looking at tombstones, or wandering through a cemetery, a pleasurable pastime. However, cemeteries are excellent sources of family history information, and can provide linkages between different generations, and between different family members within that generation.

When searching in a cemetery, it’s a good idea not only to take a photo of the individual tombstones that are relevant, but to photograph each one in the context of the other stones around it. Families often bought a number of cemetery plots together, and obtaining photographs of the surrounding tombstones may lead to added bonuses when you do further research.

I recall visiting a country cemetery here in Canada where I knew, from using the Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid, that several of my relatives were buried, including some in my direct line. When I got to the cemetery, I kept finding name after name engraved on the tombstones that I knew was connected to the family. When I got home and uploaded the photos to my hard drive, I realized, to my great surprise, that I had taken 200 photos of headstones in that one graveyard alone!

Tombstones can tell you a great deal more about an individual than just their name and that of their wife, and birth and death years. The following headstone is an example. (This gravestone is difficult to read when it is this small. It also is an excellent example of why it is better to take photographs of tombstones in the morning, when the sun is in the east, rather than in the late afternoon!) A transcript of the inscription is beside the photograph:

Headstone – John Fife and Eliza Carter.
Fife Cemetery, Peterborough County, Ontario.
Owner: Sue Fenn
Gravestone – John Fife and Eliza Carter” style=

Born Aug 31 1797
in Kincardine, Perth, Scotland
Came to Otonabee 1820
Died Mar 26 1884
His Wife
Born Aug 2 1798
in Queen's County, Ireland
Died Oct 6 1871
Their dau. REBECCA
Born Sep 11 1826
Died Oct 28 1912
I am so glad that our Father in heaven
Tells of His love in the Book He has given.
Wonderful things in the Bible I see,
This is the dearest, that Jesus loves me.

Erected in remembrance by their grandchildren.

This one tells you not only the town and county where the husband and wife were born in the UK, but when the husband came to Canada (Otonabee is a township in Peterborough County, in the province of Ontario). It gives exact dates of birth and death, in contrast to many tombstones, which list only the years of birth and death.

There is also a verse of a well-known hymn on the stone, which gives some indication of their religious faith. Note as well the Scottish thistle at the bottom left. There is a leaf emblem of some description on the bottom right; whether that is a symbol of Canada, or whether it is an strand of ivy, which is very common in cemeteries in the UK, I am not certain.

I see also two sheaves of wheat – one on either side of the lettering. John Fife’s brother, David Fife, is credited with having started the Red Fife strain of wheat, a hardy, rust-resistant strain which later was used across Canada.

David Fife started with only a few precious seeds of the hardy strain, and each year he grew more of it. It would appear that other family members, all of whom were farmers, were assisting with the growth of the seed so that there would be a more plentiful supply.

At the very least, the wheat sheaves on the stone signify that there is something more to look into!

Another example, again of a Fife family member, reads as follows:

Isaac Fife Headstone.
Fife Cemetery, Peterborough County, Ontario, Canada.
Owner: Sue Fenn
Isaac Fife tombstone

Isaac Hutchison Fife
1847 - 1935
His Wife
Margaret Tucker
1868 - 1935
His Grandchild
Marion Tinker
His Grandmother
Jennett Becket
1783 - 1865

This second example gives numerous clues about five generations. That is:

  • it tells us that Isaac Hutchison Fife married Margaret Tucker, and gives theirs years of birth and death;
  • they had a daughter, who married a man named Tinker;
  • Isaac and Margaret’s daughter had a daughter, named Marion Tinker, who died young and was buried in this plot;
  • Isaac Hutchison Fife's grandmother was named Jennett Becket at her death (thus confirming the relationship between Isaac Hutchison Fife and Jennett Anderson Becket, which before this had eluded me);
  • Isaac Hutchison Fife’s mother must have had the maiden name Becket.
  • His second name, Hutchison, is likely indicative of a maiden name in the family. (Having checked my records, I see that his paternal grandmother was Agnes Hutchison)

A third example is the MacTavish tombstone:

MacTavish Headstone.
Fife Cemetery, Peterborough County, Ontario, Canada.
Owner: Sue Fenn
MacTavish headstone

The MacTavish headstone, pictured above, tells the story of a woman, Marilyn Plunkett, who married first Quentin Dantzer, who died in 1958, and then Donald MacTavish, who died in 1970. While it is unlikely that both men are buried in this grave, Marilyn, who was still alive in 2009 when the photo was taken, wanted to document both of her marriages on her headstone.

Many headstones also will provide information on stillbirths or children who died very young, which may not be documented anywhere else:

James Humphries headstone.
Fife Cemetery, Peterborough County, Ontario, Canada
Owner: Sue Fenn
Humphries headstone

This stone also illustrates that a number of family members can be buried in the same plot, along with their spouses. In many cases in this cemetery, all four sides of the headstone were engraved with the names of family members buried in that plot.

The Neilson commemorative plaque, attached to a rock, and above which the name Neilson is roughly scratched into the stone, is transcribed to the right of the photograph:

Neilson commemorative stone.
Fife Cemetery, Peterborough County, Ontario, Canada
Owner: Sue Fenn
Neilson commemorative stone

Erected by descendants in memory
of John Neilson 1773-1837 & Janet
Weir 1774-1829 of Lanark Parish, Scotland, emigrating in 1818 &
settling in Otonabee in 1820 with
sons James 1797-1870, Andrew 1799-1840
William 1801-1873, John 1803-1835
Archibald 1805-1884, David 1807-1882,
Robert 1809-1883, & Hugh 1811-1891

The Neilson commemorative plaque provides information on when John Neilson and his wife, Janet Weir, came to Canada (1818) and settled in this area (1820). It lists all of their children and their years of birth and death. An excellent piece of genealogical information!

And, of course, there are always the “creative” stones – those with a touch of humor, which also disclose some aspects of the person’s personality:

Steele headstone.
New Liskeard Pioneer Cemetery, New Liskeard, Ontario, Canada
Owner: Sue Fenn
Steele family Headstone

Ancient, Weather-beaten Stones

No doubt you have seen some really old stones in a cemetery, in which the lettering is very faint, and the stone is overgrown with moss, making it very difficult to read. Here is an example:

Unreadable headstone.
Shouldham All-Saints Cemetery, Shouldham, Norfolk, England
Owner: Jill Fenn
Unreadable Headstone

The above photo was taken in England recently, and is actually fairly legible in places. (That is, some letters can be made out if you look at it very closely. Mind you, my mother-in-law, who took the photo, and I have had some friendly debate as to what exactly those letters say!) Some stones are in far worse shape, and no letters can be deciphered at all. I found this to be particularly true in England, where many of the tombstones in past years were made of limestone, which has deteriorated over the centuries to the point where they cannot be read.

Tombstone Rubbings

In cases such as this, many people have taken to doing tombstone rubbings. This involves removing as much moss and dirt as possible by spraying with water from a spray bottle, and then gently cleaning the surface with a cloth or other implement (such as a brush with soft bristles) that will not hurt the stone. Then, take a large piece of fairly thin paper and tape it securely to the stone with masking tape.

Once the paper is firmly taped in place, the tombstone can be “traced” using a large black crayon. The indentations where the letters are, of course, will show up as white letters on the black background. This will make the tombstone readable, and you can take your “copy” of the stone’s inscription away with you.

Before starting such an undertaking, however, you might want to check with those who manage the cemetery to make sure that it is alright to do this, in order to avoid any unpleasantries while in the middle of the project!


In summary, then, while most headstones give only summary information about a husband and wife and their years of birth and death, there are also a good number which provide information regarding family relationships, religious leanings, children who died very young, country and county of origin, interests, occupation, and so on.

Again, even in those which provide only summary information, the neighbouring stones likely contain similar family names, and reveal familial relationships that are not immediately obvious by looking only at the headstone in isolation.

Cemeteries therefore can be fascinating places to visit!

Tombstone Transcriptions - Aids in Finding Ancestors

There are numerous projects afoot all over Canada, the US, and the UK to transcribe and photograph the gravestones in various cemeteries, and post them online. Some websites have only the cemetery where the person is buried; others have transcriptions, while still others have both transcriptions and the accompanying photographs. All are very helpful in finding where ancestors were buried. However, unfortunately, there is not one central place to look.

In any event, here are some resources that you may find of interest. If you have a favorite that you use, or if you know of others for specific regions of Canada, the US, or the UK, please let me know , and I will add it to the list.

  • Alberta Family Histories Society- is collecting transcripts of Canadian genealogical records of all descriptions. Once on this page, if you click on the province of your choice, and then on "Deaths", you will find a page with a searchable database for transcriptions in that province.
  • Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid - A searchable database of interments in Ontario, Canada cemeteries, this database contains over 3 million entries, and tells you where each person is buried. It does not, however, provide transcriptions.
  • British Columbia Cemetery Finding Aid. A sister database to the Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid.
  • The Canada GenWeb project – aims to list all cemeteries across Canada, along with links to transcriptions of tombstones, indexes, and photographs, where known.
  • Find a Grave - a site based in the US which allows registered users to upload transcriptions of gravestones, as well as photos. It appears to be international in scope, although the main countries represented (going entirely by the list of countries on the website, and how they are organized in the search function) are the US, Canada, and the UK.
  • – Records for the US, Canada, UK, Irish Republic, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and more. This is a library of cemetery transcriptions, where individuals can submit their transcriptions from a particular cemetery for addition to the list.
  • Cemetery Junction – Offers lists of cemeteries in the US, Canada, and Australia. Where transcriptions are available, there are links between the cemetery and the transcription.
  • History from Headstones - Headstone inscriptions from Northern Ireland.
  • This website, Federation of Family History Societies in England and Wales, talks about a CD called the National Burial Index, Third Edition, which includes burials in England from 1538 to 2008. It is a database of 18.4 million entries recorded in English and Welsh burial registers - parish, nonconformist, Roman Catholic, Quaker and cemetery. Still, coverage is incomplete. It can be purchased for 30 pounds.

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