In his 1881 classic play Ghosts, playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote about a family haunted by figurative ghosts from its own past. As we prepare for the upcoming Halloween season of ghosts, ghouls, and specters what better place to seek the ghosts of our own history than in graveyards? In past issues of this publication I’ve written about various sources for locating information regarding one’s genealogy. Eerily enough one of the most interesting I’ve found is a cemetery.
My Great-Grandfather Michael Stephany was a veteran. Appropriately enough he’s buried at a military cemetery. I found a lot of valuable information about him from visiting his grave. His head stone at BeverlyMemorialCemetery listed him as being from Pennsylvania and as serving in the First World War. The crucifix engraved on the headstone indicated that he was a member of the Christian faith. It had his rank listed as Private First Class. He served in the 313th Field Artillery of the 80th Infantry Division. Of course, it had the main pieces of information every genealogical researcher longs for: his dates of birth and death.
Cemetery records also contain a wealth of information. I found out from my 4X Great-Grandfather Joseph McClay’s death certificate that he worked in the liquor business. This was a great find, because I’ve always been curious as to where I inherited my long standing interest in the liquor industry. (Admittedly, my ancestor worked in the distribution end of the business whereas I’ve been more drawn to the consumption end of it.)
Curiously enough, he and his wife, Mary, both have the unusual distinction of having moved after they passed away. They were both interred at OddFellowsCemetery in Philadelphia in the 1870s. Their graves were moved in the early 1950s when the land was converted into a housing project. It’s horrifying that even in death one can’t escape the reach of government.
The most fascinating thing about visiting graveyards is that you never know what you’re going to find. I learned this when I visited my great-grandmother’s grave. My great-grandmother Violet Bishop Connelly was the family historian. She knew all kinds of things about our ancestry. She said that the city of Coatesville, PA was named after one of our relatives. She told the family that we were related to the famous explorer Zebulon Pike. She even found that we were related to two presidents of the United States (William Henry and Benjamin Harrison) and a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Benjamin Harrison). In addition, her Great-Great Grandfather Ichabod Bishop played a role in the American Revolution. Her Grandfather, William Henry Harrison Coates, served in the American Civil War. Some of her ancestors immigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s. When I found out she was buried in a Bishop family plot at OaklandCemetery in Philadelphia, I figured there was going to be this huge monument to the Bishop Family; something rivaling the types of monuments one would find in Washington, D.C.
I called the cemetery ahead of time and got the section and location of the family plot. My dad also found the deed to my great-grandmother’s plot. I headed over there one Saturday afternoon with my father. In spite of all this information we had we ended up wandering around for at least a half-an-hour looking for it. It took a kindly groundskeeper who went out of his way to go to the front office and get maps and a burial card to take us to the grave. Wouldn’t you know it, the grave was unmarked! There were seven members of the Bishop family buried there. There was a marker that only had two of their names (her brother’s and sister-in-law’s): not my great-grandmother’s or even her parents’! This was one of the biggest disappointments of my adult life.
The thing that bothered me the most about this experience was that I don’t have any idea why her grave is unmarked. I would have thought that someone so interested in genealogy and history would leave something so that future generations of the family can find where she’s buried. My great-grandmother had three children: two of whom are living. Unfortunately, age and memory don’t permit them to tell me why. I asked two of her grandchildren and they didn’t have any idea why there’s no marker either.
One clue I did find was that whenever I ask anyone to describe my great-grandmother the first word they always use is humble. I learned from the Ghost Tours presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown that orthodox Quakers didn’t have grave markers because they believed them to be a sign of pride. I know my some of my great-grandmother’s ancestors were Irish Quakers. That’s one possible reason why there’s nothing identifying her grave, but unfortunately I’ll never get a definitive answer as to why.
While it may sound macabre to some, visiting cemeteries and reviewing cemetery records can provide a wealth of information to genealogical researchers. As I know from my own personal experience, the results can be scary or even unexplained. But aside from the wealth of data we can gain from this, let’s face it: paying our respects to relatives who have gone before us is just the right thing to do. If I may paraphrase the greatest philosopher who ever lived, a man named Yogi Berra, you should visit your relatives’ final resting places. If you don’t they’re never going to visit yours.