Find an Ancestor’s Grave

A complete guide to locating
a grave in a cemetery

While finding a loved one’s grave is easier today because of improved technology and information sharing, it can still involve a lot of guesswork and detective sleuthing. Many people consider genealogy research a fun and interesting pastime because it can reveal fascinating details about their ancestors, especially if they can locate their gravesites.

Visiting the graves of your ancestors can be a poignant and powerful experience. For many, it helps them gain perspective on their place in their family lineage and pay homage to family members they never had the chance to know because they lived generations before them.

If you haven’t yet embarked on a search for your ancestors’ graves, this is your opportunity to find out how to fill in the puzzle pieces. If you’re ready, follow the information below to help locate your loved one’s grave in a cemetery.

What information should you collect about the deceased?

Before you set out to find your ancestor's grave, collect as much information on them as possible. At a minimum, try to locate vital records information such as:

  • First, middle and last names
  • Any aliases they may have used
  • Country, state, county and city of death
  • Date of birth
  • Date of death
  • Names of spouse(s) and children
  • Names of parents and siblings

If you're unsure of this information and don’t know where to start, try searching census records, hospital death records, and newspapers around the date of death that may have published their obituary.

What online resources are available to help in
the search for information?

If you are having trouble finding information on your ancestor, many online resources can help piece together a picture of their history and hopefully lead you to find their gravesite. You can research essential records such as birth and death certificates, divorce decrees, marriage licenses and wills online.

However, local organizations typically create these databases, so the amount and type of information can vary. These documents are not part of federal records, so they aren't held by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The National Center for Health Statistics page on the CDC’s website can help locate birth, marriage, divorce and death records that reside with state and territorial agencies. The information that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has collected from census records might prove helpful in uncovering the jurisdiction you need to search to locate your ancestor's vital records.

A wealth of niche databases also exist to locate information, and any additional knowledge about your relative's life could pay off. The following are a few of some more focused databases to search. You can find more on the NARA website:

  • Marriage Registers of Freedman: Marriage records for freed slaves and other records about slave families
  • Births, deaths and marriages of American citizens overseas
  • Casualty lists from the U.S. military
External websites with related information:

How do you search for a grave?

Once you have enough information on the deceased to search for the grave location, use the following resources to do more detective work. These online sites have been in existence for many years:

  • Find A Grave was established in 1995 and contains information provided by various contributors. It hosts gravesite data for more than 170 million individuals. Sometimes, the person who contributed the gravesite information also uploads a tombstone photograph.

  • Billion Graves claims to be the world’s largest searchable GPS cemetery resource. It offers basic information for free and additional information for a fee.

  • Interment is a cemetery search engine based on data collected from government entities, churches, and genealogy and historical groups.

Each site works relatively the same. Once you navigate to your chosen site, enter the requested data and perform a search. The basic pieces of information you will need are as follows:

  • First, middle and last name
  • Dates of birth and death (can be within a few years, give or take)
  • The burial state and country location

The more information you can supply, the better, such as an alias or maiden name, if your initial search doesn't turn up any records. You may also have better luck if you know the exact year of birth or death instead of a range.

How do you locate a grave in a cemetery?

You might have thought your search was done once you found the location of your ancestor’s grave. However, finding the actual grave in the cemetery is a different matter. Thanks to the Internet, you can do quite a bit of research online for individual cemeteries.

  • Search the cemetery website. First, try to perform a search for the cemetery online, and see if they have an official website. Many cemeteries have a cemetery map on their site that you can search to locate your relative's gravesite.

  • Call the cemetery. You can call the cemetery directly if they don’t have a website and ask if they have a location map you can view. You can also provide the deceased's name and see if the staff can help you locate the grave.

  • Visit the cemetery. Still no luck? Well, now it’s time to pay an in-person visit to the cemetery. Speak to the staff at the front office and see if they have a method to search the grave sites. Ask if they have a cemetery map or other records, such as cemetery plot receipts, that they can search for you. You can also tour the grounds of the cemetery and look for the grave site yourself.

How do you find an unmarked grave site?

You might have uncovered information about your ancestor’s death that lists the cemetery in which they are interred. However, if you checked with the cemetery and couldn’t locate the grave, don’t give up.

While possible, finding a relative's unmarked grave is a bit more challenging. If you’re still trying to find the cemetery they’re at, gather as much data as possible, focusing on where and when your relative died. Then contact the county where the death occurred and speak to funeral homes in the area. You can also try visiting local cemeteries and asking to check their cemetery maps.

Search the following resources to see if a specific cemetery was mentioned:

  • Obituaries
  • Family records
  • The individual’s death certificate
  • Old newspapers
  • Family letters, photo albums or other documents
  • Records from local churches

If the cemetery is very old and no longer has anyone in charge of managing it, check with local historical societies or archives to see if they have burial records for the cemetery.

Many cemeteries and communities didn’t keep detailed records in decades past, but you never know what could turn up until you ask—so don’t give up. The knowledge you gain could be well worth the effort.

Tools for cemetery management

At Axiom, we have a variety of cemetery tools that make it easier for cemetery management personnel to help families locate the graves of their loved ones, including an easy-to-use, mobile-friendly tool with self-service abilities, such as viewing deceased and service information, accessing walk-to-grave directions, seeing a visual map overview of the cemetery, and accessing a gallery of images.

Additionally, we offer kiosk software that can be placed at various locations throughout your cemetery that can help visitors locate a deceased person using a search and list function and provide walk-to-grave directions.

Axiom cemetery management software is engineered for cemeteries of every size. We take away the headaches of running a cemetery so you can concentrate on what matters most—providing the best service to grieving family members and delivering peace of mind during an extremely difficult time.