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July 14, 2014

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Memorial stones don’t always offer solid proof

We make a lot of assumptions about our ancestors and their burials.

And oftentimes we’re wrong. We can use clues offered by memorial stones to determine where an ancestor’s remains lay. But headstones do not always mark burials. And many burials do not bear headstones. Several examples that follow remind us that memorial stones prove nothing; they merely offer clues.

Veterans cemeteries contain memorial stones for soldiers without bodies—for example, veterans who were missing in action and presumed dead or whose bodies could never be recovered. My father died in 1977. His memorial stone at Arlington National Cemetery does not mark his burying place. His stone stands at attention among rows of similar stones, erect on an Arlington hillside that is far too steep to allow burials.

Despite the fact that his body is not there and was never there, our national cemetery is where I find my father when I wish to visit him.

Many cemeteries contain “duplex” headstones that mark intended resting places of spouses. One-half of the stone marks the deceased spouse’s death; the other half names the surviving spouse with date of birth—date of death to be carved later.

Occasionally, however, the remaining spouse remarries and is subsequently buried next to the later spouse, leaving the second half of the “duplex” headstone permanently waiting and vacant. The unoccupied half usually gives no indication of the survivor’s subsequent marriage or place of death or burial.

Pious Quakers in the early nineteenth century considered engraved memorial stones to be a vanity—survivors marked graves of deceased family members with bare pieces of slate, if they marked them at all. Visitors to the Friends burial ground at Crum Elbow Meeting House in Hyde Park, New York, will find rows of unmarked, vertical slate shards across the back of the cemetery behind the meeting house. Most of the slender, upright slates measure less than ten inches in height; many are only three to four inches tall. The arrangement of the stones in long, neat rows indicate probable early Quaker burials. I suspect two of my Quaker ancestors lie in those rows behind the meeting house, but I’ll never know for certain.

Many families could not afford to mark the graves of their loved ones. My grandmother’s mother died May 25, 1906, in South Bend, Ind., when my grandmother was four and her brother was five. The South Bend Tribune reported the death of Emma Housekeeper and her subsequent burial in South Bend’s Bowman Cemetery. Emma has no memorial stone.

The six-grave plot that contains markers for Emma’s father-in-law, two brothers-in-law, and a sister-in-law also holds two empty spots. The spot closest to the fence is likely Emma’s place of burial.

Undated sexton’s records show that Emma’s husband, E.F. [sic, T.] Housekeeper, purchased the 20-foot lot with six grave spaces. However, from May 28, 1906 to May 18, 1907 he paid a burial bill of $17.75. Housekeeper’s first payment on May 28, three days after his wife died, indicates that Edmund Thornton Housekeeper buried his wife in an unmarked grave in the Bowman Cemetery plot where his parents and brothers later came to rest. Edmund subsequently remarried and was buried in Colorado beside his later wife.

One memorial stone might suffice to mark several burials.

Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn contains a famous marker simply engraved “The Babies.” Cemetery records and cemetery tour guides reveal that the single stone marks the graves of eight children that died from 1863 through 1883, sons and daughters of pediatricians Abraham Jacobi and Mary Putnam Jacobi.

Memorial stones don’t always mark graves, and burial sites don’t always bear markers. Memorial stones simply represent another clue genealogists may use to trace deceased persons.

Stefani Evans is a Board-Certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News 2275 Corporate Circle, Suite 300, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected]

This story was originally published Oct. 8 in the Home News

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