Honoring Ancestors – Cemetery Walks

Over the last few years, Kaliyah and I have lost each of our parents. I have taken over the family genealogy and combined with our religious path of honoring our ancestors, we have started walking in cemeteries to visit ancestral graves. Continuing another hobby of Kaliyah’s late mother, these cemetery walks include volunteering to take pictures of headstones for Find a Grave.

What is an Ancestor?

Traditionally an ancestor is a blood family member with direct lineage of which a person has descended – a biological parent, grandparent, great grandparent, and so on. Modern beliefs have included satellite family members, and adopted family members as ancestors. This opens up the ancestral line to include siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and just about anyone that has been included as part of the family.

Some religious practices have further expanded “Ancestors” to include people who have had an impact on a persons life, regardless of family relation. For example, a dear friend known for decades who passes would become an ancestor. They could be represented in a memory box or ancestor altar. Some people collect prayer cards after the passing of someone they cared about; perhaps putting them in their bible or picture box.

Finding Graves

It can be a tedious task to find graves of ancestors, and loved ones. Many cemeteries have burial records available online, as well as maps to guide people. Unfortunately, most cemeteries do not make it this easy.

Find A Grave is a great resource for finding information on burials, however it is made up of memorials created by volunteers and tends to not have burial location information beyond the cemetery name. This is not a knock against Find A Grave – I appreciate the offering and I volunteer my time to help populate data and photographs. The issue is that only information which is publicly available tends to make it into the memorials. If the cemetery doesn’t make records available, not much else can be done.

Saint Casimir Cemetery walk - Kaliyah posting a grave photo.
Kaliyah posting a headstone picture from Saint Casimir Cemetery on Find A Grave

Even when there is information available through some sources, it takes a lot of work to piece the information together and find the graves that we seek.

During our cemetery walks, Kaliyah and I will check for photo requests on Find A Grave. Typically we’ll prepare in advance, checking if site records and maps exist online, but sometimes we’ll do it right there in the field. It seems that church cemeteries are the most common to not have online information, while many of the commercial cemeteries might.

German Protestant Cemetery

Kaliyah has several ancestors at German Protestant Cemetery in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. To prepare for this cemetery walk, I had a lot of work to do. This cemetery does not have a website, and they haven’t made records publicly accessible online.

I managed to find on a genealogy archive website, scanned copies of hand-written burial records dating from 1851 through 2005. These records are largely complete, but definitely missing some information. In some cases the name written in the record wasn’t the name of the deceased, but instead their spouse or parent – Mrs. John Doe or John Doe’s baby, for example. They also abbreviated names sometimes, like Wm for WIlliam and Chas for Charles. Then there are the records which don’t have the burial location, just the date (maybe) and name. As can be imagined, these and other variables made the review difficult. At least in most cases we could find out which section of the cemetery the person was buried, as well as the lot and grave number.

I’ve got the grave site information, but we’re still not ready for the cemetery walk, because there aren’t any maps available online to lead us to the correct location in the cemetery. While clearing Kaliyah’s parents estate, we found a book of headstone information for the cemetery, collected and compiled by Phillip A Rice. The book was published in 1994 and is no longer in print. It was mostly a lucky find. The book gave row by row information for each headstone present at the time – and has an index. The map in the book only described the methodology they used to move row by row, but didn’t correlate at all to the scanned burial records.

We thought we were ready for our first walk at German Protestant Cemetery and made our first trip up there. Turns out we were wrong. We managed to find many of the graves, but we couldn’t find several of them.

German Protestant Cemetery has several divisions and inconsistent handling between each. These divisions are referred in the scanned records as Old Cemetery, New Addition Old Cemetery, New Development Section A, New Development Section B, and New Cemetery – plus they had since added the Garden Section.

Map of German Protestant Cemetery

It took me three trips to the cemetery to make this map. With each of these cemetery walks, I wrote down landmarks, like the fences, large memorials, vegetation and roads, plus the nearby headstones. I compared the headstone information with Rice’s book and the scanned burial records. Satellite imagery was used to help place the roads and start the map. From there I populated the other data. With one more cemetery walk, we were able to verify the map, with a few minor changes.

I am sharing the map here for anyone that is visiting the cemetery, in hopes of making their walk easier. The map may be redistributed free of charge, with attribution to Silverwing Family.

Hatboro Cemetery

Not far from where Kaliyah was raised is Hatboro Cemetery. She only has a couple relatives in this cemetery, but her mother spent a lot of time ensuring graves had memorials with pictures on Find-a-Grave. Recently, when I was handling some picture requests and adding new graves, I came across a lot of her work. It’s an honor to follow her footsteps.

USGenWeb offers a master index of burials for this cemetery to 2001. I use this information and the map I generated from other available maps to find graves.

Coins on Headstones

Each time we visit a National Cemetery and some other cemeteries, while walking around we’ll see coins on top of headstones. Most commonly we’d see pennies, but once in a while we’d see a higher denomination coin. It didn’t take a lot of digging to find more information on this practice.

Veterans will leave the coin on the headstone of graves they visit as a respectful message to show they visited. According to the Wounded Warrior Project, the denomination may vary based on the service relationship of the veteran to the deceased. These coins are periodically collected by the cemetery to help with costs for maintenance, burials, or care of indigent soldiers.

Similar observances of respect include leaving stones on the grave marker.

Distressing Conditions

During our cemetery walks, it is nearly inevitable that we will find toppled headstones. We find this distressing, particularly because these cemeteries promise “perpetual care”, but then fail to deliver. One of our ancestor headstones has been toppled over for so long that it has completely sunken into the ground and is starting to be overcome by the surrounding grass. We don’t have the ability to raise the headstone, due to its age and weight, so it remains in the ground and we trim the grass when we visit.

Toppled headstones we've encountered during cemetery walks.

In the above picture, you can see a headstone lying at a diagonal, almost done falling to the ground. At the other end of the same picture is a headstone that has fallen face down and is completely sunk into the ground.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.