Some people find cemeteries morbid. I think they are utterly fascinating. Headstones often contain data about ancestors that cannot be found correct anywhere else. Before many people were literate, few records existed about those who lived before us. Because of illiteracy, many of the records are incorrect. The inaccuracies do not escape cemeteries but are less likely to be placed on the most important dates of a person’s life.
Visits to cemeteries can help a genealogist or family historian learn information there would be no other way of knowing. Enumeration books can help but usually only with name and date. Cemetery trips allow you to see which relatives were closer to each other by who is buried next to whom. For example, a 1980’s enumeration book for Randolph County Arkansas has my great-great grandfather’s first cousin listed. A trip to the Thomas Cemetery in 2010 did not reveal any sign of where this long-ago cousin is buried. On a second trip to the cemetery I noticed the headstone of their uncle. Next to his headstone was a pile of rocks from a broken headstone. I examined the dates engraved into the stone and wrote them down. A comparison in the cemetery enumerations showed an exact match for my great-great grandfather’s cousin. If I hadn’t known his cousin was this man’s nephew and unmarried at the time of his death, I may have missed where he was buried. Cemeteries are excellent locations for learning new details about families you may not glean from other places. Family members who were close are often buried near each other.
Another story of learning further ancestry by a cemetery visit happened a few years earlier. My grandmother told me the name of the cemetery her great-grandmother was buried in. An inquiry to a notation in my grandma’s great-uncle’s bible led me to where her great-grandfather was buried but I knew no other information. The visit to this family burial plot led me to notice a stone of someone I did not know. Recently, I learned about using baby powder to sprinkle over headstones where the enumeration has been worn away. I went to the store and purchased some baby powder, came back to the cemetery, used the powder and the name Harriet Clark appeared in front of me. A trip home revealed the previously unknown Harriet to be the stepmother of my grandmother’s great-grandfather. Previously lost to history, I now knew another ancestor. Learning who Harriet was led me to confirm my grandmother’s great-great grandfather’s identity and even as far back as her great-great-great-great grandfather.
Both of my major finds were in older cemeteries in rural areas. Many people may wonder why this is relevant but those who love genealogy and family history understand. Cemeteries in this area of Arkansas often go abandoned or are destroyed because of no upkeep. One example is Sanders Cemetery, near the Randolph County and Lawrence County, AR area. It may not be accessible for much longer. During the early part of the twentieth century, Sanders had a church and many congregants lived in the area. The location of Sanders Cemetery is difficult to find. A trip last fall with my dad left us unable to get back to the location because farmers were watering their crops and the roads were flooded. One of these farmers informed us the state had given control of the area back to the farmers who owned the fields near it because there is no money for upkeep on the roads going back to the cemeteries. We also learned an elderly man cares for Sanders without payment because the large number of children buried there tugs on his heart strings.
A little distance up the road was another family burial plot. I would not have recognized it as such but my dad who lived in the area as a child remembered. A search led to one tombstone and the same headstone enumeration book showed others were there although I did not find them until another visit. Also on this visit, I came across a nasty looking snake that made me question my sanity in even being in the area. I was stunned this previously well taken care of cemetery was listed on Google Earth when I got back home. Certainly this cemetery was abandoned but enough was left for there to be access to the headstones and useful information for a family historian. The only problem is for how long?
The idea for this article came from my dad. When we were unable to gain access back to Sanders it really affected him. My dad and I have a lot in common with interests in family history. He told me of how several times he had women come down to where he farmed in the 1980’s and ask where a cemetery was only to have to say it was no longer there. One lady told of her little brother who was buried there and as she spoke she teared up. A descendent of someone buried in that cemetery may never have the benefit of knowing where his ancestors’ final resting places are and may miss clues that otherwise would have led him to learn of additional ancestors.
Why am I telling you about cemeteries falling to these contingencies? Most people do not care but those of us who love learning about family members in the past are losing one of the most important ways to do that. As we left the Sanders area that day, my dad had tears in his eyes. My dad remembers when the area had several houses and a church with a cemetery nearby. All that remains now is the cemetery and with no access it will not stay long. Genealogists are losing a vital resource. My dad lost the one remaining consistency with what was in the location when he lived near there—Sanders.