Secrets of a Successful Cemetery Sleuth

Seeking out the gravesites of the world’s most notable people is a versatile pastime with a variety of different approaches. Whether you want to visit just one or two gravesites or develop a full-blown gravesite-hunting hobby, you’ll need some help getting started. Here are some general guidelines.

First, graveyard terminology, especially the unusual Greek- and Latin-derived words, can be puzzling. I’ve listed a few of the more common ones.

Cenotaph: A monument or other memorial that honors someone not interred in that location.
Columbarium: A structure for aboveground interment of cremated remains (ashes). Instead of incorporating large chambers, as in a mausoleum, it has slots known as “niches.”
Epitaph: The inscription on a gravestone, niche or crypt.
Mausoleum: Another structure for aboveground interment with full-size chambers (crypts).

Next, every organized cemetery, columbarium and mausoleum uses a grid system for interments. Some gravesite directions may include references to landmarks and geographical features, but most citations for above- and below-ground interments are just a multipart designation by section, row and plot (or similar words).

Before visiting a cemetery, try to determine the layout in advance. It greatly expedites onsite searching. Large and historic cemeteries often feature charts and maps on their websites, but if not, check the grounds for a chart upon your arrival. They’re usually posted near an entrance or caretaker’s building.

Don’t assume a cemetery will have 24-hour access. Most large cemeteries are fenced and gated, and gate times could vary by season.

Remember your cemetery etiquette. Keep your pets on a leash and clean up after them. If you’re part of a group, keep your voices and activities low key. Use care around the markers; older ones are quite fragile. Obey restrictions regarding tributes, and don’t engage in souvenir hunting.

Despite the rules of etiquette and the structure of advanced planning, there’s still plenty of room for spontaneity and serendipity in cemetery sleuthing. Investigating the circle of life we’ll all make eventually is actually quite inspiring – definitely not a “grave” matter!

Searching the Internet
A wealth of information can be found at the premier website for online gravesite searching: www.findagrave.com. It offers many free search options, and although it depends on user contributions for information, the site has a “checks and balances” system to regulate accuracy and mischief. The biographical information there is often more extensive than guidebook citations, and you can even leave virtual “flowers and notes” at a subject’s online record.

The quickest way to find the gravesites of famous people buried right here in the Finger Lakes is to search by name. From the homepage’s options list, select “Famous Grave Search.” The next page has an entry field: type the full name (order doesn’t matter) and submit. A list of records will appear on the next page. A “hit” usually appears at the top.

While gravesite information may appear on this screen, don’t stop there. Click on either the subject’s name, or the “read more” (if available) to bring up the full record, which contains the entire biographical sketch and often photos of the notable and/or gravesite.

At the bottom left of the full record is the entire gravesite citation. Clicking on the cemetery’s name brings up further information and search options, including a map feature and access to records for other interments of note in the same cemetery (options subject to availability by case).

Registration at the site isn’t required for searches, but you must register (it’s free) to contribute information and use some other features. For the “ad-adverse” there is some site sponsorship, but it’s relatively mild.

To launch a new search, or to double-check citations, first do a broad Internet search because the information may be there, just not in a gravesite-tracking database. Next, try these sources: offices at cemeteries and houses of worship, funeral homes, libraries, newspaper offices, historical/genealogical societies and municipal offices (city or town clerk, etc.). You may need to contact multiple sources in multiple communities. Also, don’t expect to make instant or direct contact every time, especially in small or rural locations. While phone or e-mail access usually applies, sometimes it’s snail-mail only.

Pitfalls to avoid
You may have noticed that I’ve never used the phrase “final resting place” in this article. That’s because they aren’t always final! In 2002, the remains of comedy legend Lucille Ball were moved from California to her hometown and mine, Jamestown, and re-interred. I would not have known if my mother, who still lives there, hadn’t forwarded a newspaper clipping to me about the event. Some guidebooks still cite the original gravesite location.

Internet gravesite tracking should minimize “the re-interment problem” because Web records are easy to add and correct. Indeed, “Lucy’s” citation at Find A Grave is updated. Books aren’t as timely as Internet sources, but the Internet isn’t 100-percent foolproof either. I strongly recommend double checking any source of gravesite information. Book citations can be confirmed online; online citations can be confirmed by checking other online sources, if available.

As you continue pursuing this pastime, you may find that even though someone had a traditional interment, there’s no gravesite information. Or, a record may exist, but gravesite access is controlled.

Someday you may need advanced strategies for finding interment records and gravesites. Encountering restrictions can lead to a judgment call. Many argue that death and gravesite information is public record, which should have no restrictions. I understand this, but also have empathy for the surviving family members. Here’s my opinion on restricted gravesites: Respect the wishes in place and find another, more accessible visitation site like the person’s birthplace or workplace. However, if you really want to find a gravesite, refer to Where Are They Buried? How Did They Die? It provides detailed suggestions for skirting many restrictions.

Beyond the grave
Sometimes an entire cemetery is worthy of study, like Rochester’s Mount Hope. Free guided walking tours are held on weekend afternoons from May through October; special expanded twilight and various theme tours are also conducted regularly, even in winter, for a modest fee. Visit www.fomh.org or call 585-461-3494.

Some communities devote entire museums – often a former residence – to the deceased. The Rochester area offers two: the George Eastman House Inter­national Museum of Photography and Film (www.eastmanhouse.org, 585-271-3361), and the Susan B. Anthony House (www.susanbanthonyhouse.org, 585-235-6124).

If you can’t find a dedicated location, look for a regional museum that might have an exhibit pertaining to a notable dead person. Call in advance to confirm hours of operation.
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Famous Finger Lakes Burials
• Susan B. Anthony, social crusader, Rochester
• Louise Brooks, early-Hollywood-era actress, Rochester
• Frederick Douglas, abolitionist, Rochester
• George Eastman, Kodak founder and philanthropist, Rochester
• Hal Roach, Sr., producer of the “Our Gang/Little Rascals” comic shorts and other films, Elmira
• Harriet Tubman, Underground Railroad heroine, Auburn
• Carl Sagan, scientist and author, Ithaca
• Rod Serling, “Twilight Zone” creator/writer/host, Interlaken
• Francis Tumblety (a.k.a. Francis Tumuelty), Jack the Ripper suspect, Rochester
• Mark Twain, humorist and author, Elmira
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Good books
Despite their drawbacks, books sometimes have an edge over the Internet because not all gravesites are cited online. Books are certainly interesting and complementary sources, and if you don’t have Internet access, searching can be done with books alone.

Here is a list of titles I have found helpful.

Buried Treasures in Mount Hope Cemetery Rochester, New York; A Pictorial Field Guide by Richard O. Reisem and Frank A. Gillespie
This well organized gravesite guide chronicles our nation’s first municipal Victorian cemetery. It’s available for purchase at the cemetery’s website, www.fomh.org.

Tombstones: Seventy-Five Famous People and Their Final Resting Places by Gregg Felsen.
Brief passages of thoughtful text accompany artfully composed large, full-color photos. Out of print, but worth finding.

Where Are They Buried? How Did They Die? by Tod Benoit.
An astounding 450 profiles of notables, from all walks, interred worldwide. Benoit is an experienced “privacy buster.” I don’t condone the advice, but his bold methods and adventures are interesting!

Final Curtain: Deaths of Noted Movie and TV Personalities by Everett G. Jarvis.
Still available for purchase online, but not updated since 1998. Why reference it? Before Find A Grave and many fancier guides, you couldn’t find a celebrity’s grave easily without Final Curtain. If you enjoy notable gravesite searching today, thank the visionary who compiled this. It’s the granddaddy of all the guides.


by Mary Jane Bowman