In pursuing cemetery records, nothing, but nothing, is as satisfactory as finding a rock-solid, clearly carved gravestone. Even one that is cracked, worn, and lichen-covered -- but still mostly readable -- is a triumph. On the other hand, many times we must make do with someone else's view. Yet even finding a written record can mean a giant step back in our family history.
Cemetery Records Come in Various FormsObviously there are the stones themselves. Then there are transcriptions of the stones. Thirdly there are records kept by those who maintain the cemeteries. A few words about each:
Even though you find two or three transcriptions of gravestones, it is still important, if you possibly can, to visit the cemetery itself, or at least get photographs of the stones. Recently I used a very nice transcription, by Esther Whitcomb, listed below. It gave me the maiden name of Pierson T. Kendall's first wife, Lucinda Kilburn. Wanting to know more about her, I checked Worcester County probate records and found a guardianship for a Lucinda Kilburn. This led to Wendell in Franklin County, where her father was a minister and left a nice probate record identifying his daughter. Months later I finally visited the cemetery in Sterling and found to my astonishment that her gravestone not only named her parents but also said they lived in Wendell! The other records were still worth finding, but if she had not inherited property from her grandfather in Worcester County, I would not have found her parents via that route. The moral of that tale is that if you are compiling a transcription of gravestones, please include all the information on the stone.
The same row of gravestones also confirmed that her son Charles B. Kendall was indeed the man of that name who had died in 1876. Since the transcription was in alphabetical order, I had not been able to tell whether Charles B. belonged in that particular family.
How Does One Find Cemetery Records in Massachusetts?The answer to that question is about to get a lot easier. David Lambert, an NEHGS librarian, has been compiling his Guide to Cemeteries Located in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for about twelve years now and plans to publish this year. This will include not only information about the cemeteries themselves, but also a great many references to published transcriptions and manuscripts. In the meantime, there are other avenues.
To locate a cemetery itself, many of the suggestions below for locating transcripts will be helpful. But it may be a good idea first to locate the land where the person lived. If you discover he lived near the edge of a town or county, it will be a good idea to look in neighboring jurisdictions. Good topographical maps will include cemeteries on them. Newspaper death notices may mention a cemetery. The town clerk, an historical society, or reference librarian can refer you to the cemetery commission or office.
Consider both the time when the individual died and his or her religious affiliation. Early residents will probably be in old cemeteries, but not necessarily. Graves have often been moved. In Massachusetts the most dramatic example is when the Quabbin Reservoir displaced many old cemeteries. Both vital and cemetery records of the extinct towns are at the Dam Headquarters.
Cemeteries may be known by two or three different names. I went into the Athol library one day many years ago, pointed to the name of a cemetery in the published Athol vital records and asked, "Where is it?" No one knew. Try the local historical society or ask until you find a knowledgeable person.
To locate transcriptions of gravestones or other types of cemetery records:
Some More Helpful ReferencesOn cemetery records in general:
Some Finding Aids for Massachusetts Cemeteries
Massachusetts Transcriptions Covering Multiple Towns