Explore Final Destinations to Enliven Ancestor Stories


Do family history buffs and genealogists have an opportunity to discover vibrant lives buried deeply in cemeteries? In a word, “yes.”  We can learn a lot about our family members there. Absent information about an ancestor’s death and burial, we leave an incomplete family story. Sometimes our genealogy research actually begins in a cemetery.

Cemeteries such as Mount Holly in Little Rock, often called the Westminster Abbey of Arkansas, feature many historic prominent political and military individuals’ burials. Mount Holly is well known for its yearly re-enactments and has the distinction of being on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic Fort Smith National Cemetery, also on the National Register, is also known for interments such as those of the “Hanging Judge,” Isaac C. Parker. Check out this video to see more of Fort Smith National Cemetery.

It’s a Grave Situation

Arkansas has many cemetery resources to check in addition to those in national databases. You can browse more than 1 million gravestone photos from across the state at Arkansas Grave Stones to find ancestors. Explore Family Search, too, for state cemetery information.

Some forward-thinking Arkansas tourism regions are sensitive to the increases in heritage tourism and genealogy travel that reflect the growing interest in DNA research and identity.

The 15-county Arkansas Delta Byways regional tourism association, led by Dr. Ruth Hawkins at Arkansas State University, has created “Tombstone Trail: Final Destinations,” a fetching booklet showcasing famous or important burials in Arkansas, sometimes in little-known cemeteries. Thirty-two cemeteries in the Delta are featured of the more than 700 documented graveyards in the Byways region.

The booklet says, “Cemeteries offer insights into historic events and the social and political lives of communities. They allow us to pay homage to long-dead heroes and villains. Many provide outstanding examples of funerary art and architecture, while some reflect the vernacular. They can often be places steeped in natural beauty, offering a retreat for solitude and reflection.”

RELATED: Exploring Heritage Travel 

Genealogy: Finding and Negotiating with Cemeteries

Luckily, diligent local history research and helpful databases may provide us with church records, death certificates, and obituaries. This is critical family history information, as it puts a period on a person’s life. Cemeteries themselves sometimes keep this information.

In what cemetery was the final resting place? Does it still exist/operate? Does it have additional information about ancestors? Are there headstones that would provide us with information about other family members as well? Are there ways that we ourselves can pay it forward to help other researchers with the information we’ve..well..unearthed?

Sonny Rhodes of North Little Rock discovered that the answers to most of those research questions is “yes.”  He explains:  “One night last June I had quite a serendipitous experience while looking for information about one of my maternal great-grandfathers on Find A Grave. His name was John Thomas Allison and he’s buried in Union Cemetery at Pine Bluff. One of my earliest memories is of visiting that cemetery for a cleanup.”

He continued: “It was late and I had already gone to bed and, propped up on my pillow, I decided to Google his name on my phone. Next thing, I’m looking at a picture of his headstone and then, scrolling down, I see this: “Son of Henry Leonardus Allison and Martha Dandridge Chapman Allison.” Suddenly I have found two great-great grandparents I had no idea existed. Plus, I found names of a handful of other relatives from bygone eras who I had no idea about.”

Rhodes later took his daughter, Abby, to the cemetery. “It was a great little adventure for us and a wonderful surprise to find these ancestors, buried in a tidy little cemetery behind a tiny little country church. I think Abby and I both now have been infused with a greater desire to learn more of our family history.” Rhodes’  research and genealogy travel to the actual location –  a cemetery  – paid off in ancestor stories.

It’s a delight to find our ancestors’ resting places in cemeteries that are still operational. (Neglected or defunct cemeteries provide special challenges.) Sometimes, even after we’ve located a cemetery and have found that other relatives are also buried there, cemeteries do charge fees to retrieve that information. Think of this: cemeteries exist day-to-day for interments, and owing to the transience of the American population, many families of the buried neglect to pay annual fees required for cemetery upkeep. Cemeteries – like most genealogical and historical institutions now – need funding.

Honoring Our Loved Ones, and Its Challenges

What happens if headstones have disappeared or were damaged over time, and we’d like to replace or erect one? Genealogy comes into play.

Check carefully the specific cemetery provisions about enhancing grave plots or erecting headstones because states, municipalities, church graveyards and other cemeteries may have requirements that affect this. http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/Preservation-Services/arkansas-cemetery-laws

It’s usually easier and less expensive to erect headstones or even simple “memory stones” (that have an ancestor’s name, and birth and death dates), to mark their existence, in smaller cemeteries. There,  oversight is often less structured and more casual than at larger graveyardsThis can cost as little as $25.See a helpful list about cemetery considerations here

Some cemeteries require deeds to the plots to be able to enhance them. But what if the deeds have been long lost? Some burial grounds require proof of genealogical information related to you and the deceased, and they may require that, say, all living grandchildren agree or a stone may not be erected. 

How We Can Pay It Forward to Document Our Family Members

Cemetery issues often stir up strong emotions as we yearn to honor immigrants and other ancestors whose lives made our own possible. One largely hassle-free way we can both recognize our ancestors and help other family historians find them is to add newly-discovered interments to databases such as Find a Grave or Billion Graves.  There are other such local sites and even sites at individual cemeteries. These often require that we establish individual accounts.

By adding our relatives and any documented information we have about them that would help others (such as parental and marital information), we use our own genealogy research to pay it forward for others who discover them later. (Note: Please do not add unverified ancestor information to cemeteries.)  This is the ancestor “light at the end of the tunnel,” as we contribute to genealogical and historical information to pave the way for our very own descendants. Cemeteries are wonderful ancestor archives.

RELATED: Learn more about crowd-sourcing your genealogy at AY Magazine!

Jeanne Rollberg is a genealogist with American Dream Genealogy and Research who serves also on the boards of the Arkansas Genealogical Society and the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives. She teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas.

(Photo courtesy of Mount Holly Cemetery website)

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