Genealogy, I am Doing It…Plotting a Trip to the Cemetery
by James W. Petty, A.G., C.G.R.S., BS (Genealogy)

This series of articles “Genealogy – I Am Doing It…” are intended to provide families with activity ideas they can use to introduce genealogy and family history to one another as an interesting and enjoyable family experience.

Everyone who searches for their ancestors’ names in genealogy and family history, hopes to discover new information each time they visit the Family History Library, or go on a research trip. But not every genealogy effort produces fruit. Fruit comes only after weeding, clearing, digging, planting seed, nurturing, and pruning-then comes the harvest and fruit. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaking about our responsibility to do genealogy, states: “You might say that our effort is not to get everyone to do everything, but to get everyone to do something.” (Church News: Mar. 26, 1988). Our goal then is to help you discover the “somethings” you and your family can do, and enjoy it at the same time.

What does a trip to the cemetery mean to you? Does it conjure up dark visions of lost spirits? The traditional place of haunting? Or is it a reminder of death, with mournful memories of the past? Row upon row of lost dreams, broken relations. Is it a place where parents always weep or gathered in somber consolation? Does a cemetery trigger feelings of unpleasant quiet; the incredible seriousness of life, and perhaps even a little fear? Or does it make you feel joyful!

I’ll bet “joyful” wasn’t the adjective on the tip of your tongue, was it? How about happy, intrigued, or inspired? Those are all words that express my feelings. I love to visit cemeteries. For one thing, cemeteries are often the most beautiful parks or gardens in any city I am in. Lovely flowers often abound. For some people the flowers around grave sites represent expressions of loss and sadness. It reminds me of the analogy that some people see a glass of water as half empty, while others see it half full. When I see flowers on grave sites I think of the great love so many people have for one another. A cemetery isn’t a place of loss; it is a place of fulfillment, where children of God have completed their life’s missions and journeys, and have moved on. The ancient Romans called the Spirit World – “The Elysian Fields”. It was a place of joy, of reuniting, and a place of hope. Cemeteries are simply mortal reminders of those fields of hope.

As a genealogist, a cemetery to me is a fascinating history book, full of small stories of people and families, and communities. The graves tell me about individuals loved and missed; about accomplishments and personal interests. I am reminded of the variety of religious faiths, and of the faith of the religious in their expressions of trust in Heavenly Father. Cemeteries tell of immigrants from far off lands, leaving the homes of their forefathers, and traveling across oceans and plains to find a place where they might live joy with their beloved spouses and children.

I am reminded of a beloved great, great grandfather, Samuel Eames, who is buried in a small pioneer cemetery on the outskirts of Plain City, Utah. A tall marker stands over his grave bearing the inscription “Samuel Eames, 1790-1868”. It is not a place of sorrow, but rather is a place of victory. In a letter to his children in 1861 (who had already emigrated to America) he wrote: “My Dear Children…I have bean in the church of the Latter Day saint now more than 20 years and was never cut off nor disfeloship. I have bean baptized 4 times and ordained to 4 diferent offices, thank God for it… I ask you my dear Brothers and Sisters in the name of God to take my case in to consideration and do all you can to help me and my son and family to come out of this wicked and dark country, for I cannot make myself contented to die here… I remain your umble Brother and father Samuel…Mickel Church Esley, Herefordsheer, Old England.” Samuel and his family finally left their “wicked and dark country”, arriving in Salt Lake City on August 20, 1868. He died seven weeks later on Oct. 15, 1868. When I visit this small farm cemetery I invariably find myself weeping, but it is with tears of joy and love for a man and a history I am proud of.

Cemeteries are archives of genealogical information. They often contain names, dates, and places of birth and death, and even marriage, that predate modern records. Tombstones are often inscribe with details about their lives, and some even preserve portraits, and poetry illustrating their characters. Visiting cemeteries to locate the graves and markers of our relatives also helps us to relate to them and to realize a connection to other relatives and the places where they lived. I remember visiting a cemetery in York County, Pennsylvania, and after recording the information from the gravestone, looked around at the church, and farmlands surrounding this site, and was drawn to the sound of a huge flock of quacking geese noisily flying toward the distant horizon. This was something foreign to my experience, and I realized with fascination that it was a part of my ancestors daily life.

In a churchyard outside of Baltimore, Maryland, on a winter’s day, in a howling freezing storm, I discovered the grave of a grandmother, Mrs. Rachel Thompson, of whom the family had long forgotten her maiden name. She died in 1825, and the marker stated that she was the daughter of Christopher Mutchiner. Next to her I found her father’s grave, noting that he was born in 1734, and died in 1820. The weather was so bad that my fingers were almost too cold to write, but I was so thrilled to discover this new information that I could endure anything to obtain this new name.

When my family and I visit a cemetery there is always a contest to see who can find a particular relative first. We scatter across rows of markers looking at the faces of the past and reading about those who have “gone before”, until one of us shouts out “I found them!” We taught our children when they were young to come to the cemetery prepared to clean and trim around the grave site, and make it a place where others can come and enjoy visiting our family. But I have always taught my children to enjoy a cemetery. We have games such as finding the oldest grave, or the oldest person. We solve mysteries such as …who belongs to who? We find history in markers of young men who served in military service in various wars and gave their lives for principles of freedom and faith. We look for funny and interesting names, such as finding our “Smellie” Scottish relatives (They always say it is pronounced “Smiley” which I believe is true, because I always feel “smiley” when I see their name).

In addition to our “games”, my children have always enjoyed simply playing on the broad parks that cemeteries are found in. Some people I have known discourage any playing in a cemetery as being disrespectful. After all, cemeteries are often regarded as almost religious shrines, where there should be a reverent attitude. We have taught our children to be reverent and respectful, but to also view these places with happiness. In my imagination, I think of the joy my deceased relatives might have to have their great grand children playing joyfully around them.

We look for famous names of history at cemeteries, and tell stories to one another about these heroes of our past. The Salt Lake City Cemetery is an especially fascinating and favorite place to visit. My ancestor Thomas William Winter, my Mother’s great grandfather who joined the Church in Bath, England, and became the first bishop of the Salt Lake City 6th Ward, is buried there. Coincidentally, his grave is next to that of my wife’s pioneer ancestor, Samuel Comstock Snyder. A couple of rows away from them is the marker designating the grave of President John Taylor, and near him the graves of Jedediah M. Grant, and his son President Heber J. Grant. Visiting these people reminds us of their service and testimonies, and it lifts our hearts and strengthens our own faith.

Cemeteries should be places of peace, hope, and joy. It is the world that teaches otherwise. Those who don’t have the gospel in their lives fear death, and the graves that represent death. They mourn and suffer because they don’t know that Heavenly Father lives, and loves us, and that we return to live with Him. Brigham Young, at the funeral of his Sister Fanny Murray, exulted in her passing into the Spirit World, into Paradise. He recognized that she had moved on to a place and a condition of joy, and he praised her and rejoiced for her.

When you plan a visit to a cemetery, prepare by gathering equipment and information. For equipment, take gardening tools with which to clean and trim the plants and landscape around the family gravesites. You may want to take flowers to place or plant around the markers. Also take a stiff brush to clean off the marker. Be sure to bring paper and pencils to record inscriptions, and also chalk in case faint letters need to be highlighted. For information, gather what information you know about the people and ancestors you are looking for. Pictures and other illustrations will be of interest to your family when you find the grave, and it will help them mentally and emotionally connect with their ancestor and the information they discover about them. Take a camera for pictures, both of the graves, and also to record the family experience.

We often take a small picnic lunch that we can spread out after we have cared for the grave sites that we came to visit. Caring for markers and surrounding plants teaches our children to be reverent and respectful. The lunch allows for a time of pondering about our loved ones in a pleasant way, and our activities there with our children teach not to fear these Elysian Fields of the present.

2002 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.