Category: Genealogy

September 17th, 2012

Finding Your Eastern European Ancestors

Much of the population of the United States and Canada is descended from Eastern European ancestors. Countries that can be considered Eastern European are; Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Lithuania. Out of America’s population of nearly 300,000,000 approximately 13.5 million claim direct ancestry to these countries. Unfortunately due to language barriers and inaccessibility, finding ancestral records in such places can be overwhelmingly dreadful, and many genealogists are apprehensive about even trying to find their Eastern European ancestors.  It is completely understandable how one can be intimidated by research in these countries, but it can be conducted if we have access to genealogical data such as; our ancestor’s name, approximate time period in which they lived, and the location of any genealogical events related to them.

Anyone possessing all three of those pieces of information could actually find their relative quite quickly. Civil registration and Church records are the most commonly used documents for searching Eastern European ancestors, though in many of these countries the general public has no access to them. Fortunately for Genealogists, most of the immigration from Eastern Europe occurred during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and there is a good chance that those records may be available for your ancestor.

The First Steps

The best place to begin searching your Eastern European ancestors is at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. They host a collection of more than two million rolls of microfilm, many of those being filmed civil registration and church records from East European countries. You can view the catalogue at, and get access to all of the records at the many Family History Centers located around the world. Once you access the microfilms you can search the records. Don’t despair that they are in a foreign language, as the names are listed using the Latin alphabet, so you will be able to recognize them.

Continued Strategy

Your strategy for finding Eastern European records whether you search them in person, by microfilm or by mail correspondence will rely on you knowing where to locate the required documents. Many records were recorded in the synagogue or church which your ancestor belonged to, so knowing where they lived is of the utmost importance. Before you even look overseas however, check local Immigration and Naturalization records first.  It is possible you may find names, dates, or the name of the location from which they migrated. Continue your search in local Census reports, BDM records, draft registrations, and even personal family papers. The more information you have before continuing your research overseas, the greater your chances of locating your ancestors will be.

If you find relevant records listing a genealogical event in Europe, you’ll then need to locate your ancestor’s synagogue or church. Many villages did not have their own place of worship, often one village served as a hub for a collection of villages in a particular area. Therefore your ancestor may have has to travel to a different place from where they lived, so you’ll want to extend your research to at least a 20km radius. You van locate villages that had a church or synagogue by using a gazetteer for the required region. You can find many of these gazetteers in the Family History Library (FHL), some of which are; the Magyarorszag Helysegnevtara Ket Kotreten (Hungary), Spis Miejscowosci Polskiej Rzeczypospolitej Ludowej (Poland), Administratives Gemeindelexikon der Cechoslovakischen Republik (Czechoslovakia), and the Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Połskiego (Poland and surrounding territories such as Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine)

Although the gazetteers are written in the local language, the FHL provides instructions in English on how to use them. They generally provide the location of the place of worship to which each village belonged. If you know your ancestors religion, the search is of course much easier. Many of the churches and synagogues also contained birth, death, marriage, and baptism records. Though many of the early records were recorded in Latin, later records will be in the native language of whichever country your ancestor resided in.

It is indeed a challenge to find Eastern European ancestors, but the same genealogical strategies hold true for any ancestors search. You must be patient, thorough, and imaginative, always keeping an eye out for potential clues and bits of data that may lead you further in your search. Stay organized, keep your focus, and be mannerly when dealing with foreign clerical workers and administrative workers. Many speak English, and some may even be willing to help you in your quest to find your European ancestors. Good Luck, and as always, Happy Ancestor hunting!

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August 20th, 2012

Family Tree Fun on Facebook

How Social Media is Expanding Interest in Genealogy

We spend much of our time as genealogists sleuthing around looking for elusive records and ancestors, and that in itself is what I call fun! There are others however, (probably not serious genealogists – yet), who are having fun on Facebook with a Family Tree inspired game called Family Village. It’s pretty amazing; Facebook has actually gone the whole mile to make this game authentic, and you can view actual genealogical documents like census reports and marriage licenses, and obituaries as you go about uncovering your ancestors and finding out facts about them. It’s family history fun at its finest, and as long as it doesn’t distract you from your actual genealogy research, can be a great way to have fun and practice those investigative skills you’ve learnt while researching real family members.

Family Village is based on similar principles to other Facebook games such as Farmville and City Ville. The goal of the game is to build a thriving village and fill it with family members. It’s pretty interesting that the first thing they do is to ask you to confirm that the birthday Facebook has for you is correct. Next you enter your place of birth; then they look for a historical newspaper that was printed on that day in time. Once you finish creating the character that will be you in the game, you can view your historical document. Mine was the Post-Standard newspaper from Syracuse, New York on the day of my birth. I’m not telling my birth date, as then you will know my age! I expected just a headline or something, but I could read the entire 26 pages of the paper, I thought that was cool, and I was already hooked.

As you continue Family Village you go about amassing your fortune, buying houses and other material things, assign jobs, and even emigrate or immigrate family members. As for the genealogical records and documents, you of course collect and store them to develop your family history. As with most Facebook games it is quite addictive and competitive, but under the proper supervision could be a great way to get young people interested in Genealogy and familiarize them with some of the procedures like record research and collection. One woman who played the game as it was being tested used the game (unintentionally) as a springboard to begin a genuine family tree. She found an actual obituary for one of her uncles and another for a grandmother, and so began seriously researching her genealogy and developing her family tree.

Genealogy is going Global!

The Family Village game on Facebook is new, but of course family trees are not. Everyday more genealogies and pedigrees are being published online; it’s no wonder that the pursuit of genealogy has branched out into the realms of social networking. Genealogy is by its nature a networking endeavor; it is just made for the internet, and vice versa. Genealogists are about as social a group as you can find, so making use of social media is a kind of natural progression. If you haven’t already, visit, which is probably about the best example of just how social, and generous genealogists are. For those of you unfamiliar with WikiTree, it is a collaborative project modeled after Wikipedia, and all content is added by contributors. Its aim is to create a global family tree, and so far there are more than 1.4 million genealogical profiles created by over 27,000 contributors.

And believe it or not, Twitter has become a major tool for both genealogy marketers and those looking to begin building a family tree. Individual users are posting questions about records searches and other genealogical issue, while genealogical sites such as, and a host of smaller sites use it regularly to announce new editions to their genealogical arsenals.

There is also, a site that I’ve only recently become familiar with. It was created to help family historians who might come to a dead end in their research. It encourages users to find out as much as they can about their families by tapping into the memories and minds of their relatives, then create a tapestry of that accumulated knowledge on a web page created automatically by Tpstry. The collection of each user takes the form of a digital magazine, with people, places, images, and events sections accompanied by a timeline for important dates in the family history.

There is a page for each entry that displays every question that has been answered about them, and images of family members are tagged similar to those on Face book for quick identification of relatives. Best of all the service is free, and if it keeps growing at the rate it is, will make a great tool for future genealogists. Why not add your own memories by creating a helping to create a massive database for future genealogists.

Speaking of the future, I just have to tell you about Timeless Footsteps. They market a product called Footprints, which are business card-sized placards that are affixed to a tombstone and read with the latest scanning technology. Each placard contains a unique code that can be scanned with a Smartphone or other type code reader. That code then directs the viewer to a web-page that includes genealogical and biographical information about the deceased, and of course links to any social media pages like Facebook or Twitter!

Genealogy is definitely advancing rapidly. When developers of technology specifically target genealogists with specialized products, you get an idea of just how huge genealogy has become, and how much more room there is for it to grow!

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August 13th, 2012

How Accurate is Your DIY DNA Test?

Do-it-yourself DNA tests have become big business, and not just for genealogists. Many people are now relying on them for medical information – to find out for instance if they are susceptible to specific hereditary diseases. There are many companies selling these home DNA test kits, and they are even used as a form of entertainment at what are being called “spit parties”. Spit parties are basically social gatherings where a group of people meet up with their home DNA test kits. They all give their samples in this social setting before sending their kits in to the company. When everyone receives their results back they meet again to discuss them.

It’s all seemingly harmless fun, unless of course someone finds out they are related to an unsavoury character, or worse their current partner! Of course the chances of the latter occurring are virtually nil, and it is harmless fun; except for those who are using home DNA tests to bypass the medical profession. Experts believe that there are many potential dangers of doing so.

Hopefulness or Hype?

One of the greatest dangers associated with the marketing and selling of DIY DNA kits is the false reassurance regarding a potential risk. For example; a woman who is informed that she lacks the mutation that leads to breast cancer could forego regular mammograms. A man who is told his genetic make-up makes him unsusceptible to heart disease may not exercise, or indulge himself in an unhealthy diet. It is so important to keep DNA test results in perspective, and separate hopefulness from hype. Just because your genetic make-up lowers your risk of inheriting a particular disease or condition does not exempt you from it.

Probably the greatest danger of these home DNA test kits is that they are not regulated by any federal law. The companies who sell them are not overseen by any agency, and as such one must consider the quality and accuracy of information received from them. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has little or no authority over the companies who sell the kits, and if there is no kit sold and the company has its own lab, there is no drug agency approval required. The tests are considered so potentially harmful if the results are misused that New York and California have sent countless cease and desist orders to genetic testing companies. The companies are informed that they need special licences to solicit DNA specimens, but most find loopholes in the law that allow them to continue their business.

So Are These Tests Even Reliable?

Generally scientists rely on four criteria for assessing the value of a DNA test. They are;

  • Analytic Validity – Whether the test has reliably and accurately measured what it aims to assess.
  • Clinical Validity – Whether it is capable of detecting potential risk of disease.
  • Clinical Utility – Whether something can be done to correct a discovered risk.
  • Ethical Validity – Whether or not the test violates moral, legal or social principles – perpetrating a stigma or encouraging discrimination.

Experts such as Katherine Wasson of the National Cancer Institute seem to think that come DNA tests are lacking in all four areas. She stated in the journal Ethics and Medicine that; “the potential harms outweigh the potential benefits of such tests,” and went on to explain that the results for individuals are too variable and unpredictable, as they are influenced by lifestyle and environmental factors. “Even if a person has a genetic mutation associated with a particular disease or condition, this does not necessarily predict when it will develop, if at all, or its severity,” she and her co-authors stated. They went on to say that most home DNA tests vary in their accuracy and ability to identify who will or will not get what disease, and especially that “currently, this information is not available for many direct-to-consumer genetic tests.”

If you wish to avoid certain diseases, prevention by adopting a healthy lifestyle and avoiding exposure to toxic substances is the best way to go – regardless of what a home DNA test might show. It has been proven that the mass produced interpretations of certain companies fall way short of what one might learn from a certified geneticist or even your doctor. Using a home DNA test to trace your ancestry is one thing, depending on them for a life dependent medical analysis is quite another.

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August 6th, 2012

Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey

I just heard about this organization in Ireland that is using genealogy to try to reinvent the Irish economy. It is so cool I just had to share it with you, and even if this project doesn’t help the Irish economy, it’ll do a lot of good. In fact, the organization, Ireland Reaching Out (IRO), is saving a lot of people the trouble of tracing their family trees and doing it for them, all in the hope that they will come to Ireland by invitation, and think about returning to their ancestral home to help boost the economy and Irish morale. It may seem a bit far fetched, but some of those who were invited to the first of IRO’s Week of Welcomes have been quite affected by their experience.

It all began when people around the United State began getting mysterious text messages stating that the sender was trying to connect with members of a particular family. Each text contained genealogical data linking the receiver to their Irish heritage. All together, around 30 people who received these texts ended up travelling to Ireland this summer to experience first hand the towns and villages their ancestors came from. I think this is a really unique endeavour, and those who participated confirm that with their sentiments.

A lecturer at Fordham University in New York, James R. Kelly, suspected that his family had originated in southeast Galway, but he wasn’t sure of the exact location. On arriving in Galway, he was introduced to Michael Fahy, a retired teacher and local historian. In no time at all Mr. Fahy had unearthed evidence that James’ grandfather (also James Kelly), came from a village near Abbey in Galway, where he owned a small farm. Mr. Kelly was overjoyed with the experience, and spent much of his time meeting and embracing people he feels may be long-lost relatives. Of Mr. Fahy he said, “He was like my guardian angel the whole week, he took me down to Abbey and found my ancestral home.”

James Kelly was but one of the many people affected by the efforts of IRO, whose motto is simply “Come Home.” The organization spent a year tracking down and preparing for the return of the initial descendants of who they refer to as the Galway exiles. There is a Gaelic word for those who left Ireland – deorai – and it means exile or wanderer, as though they had no choice but to leave, and really could never put down roots anywhere but their homeland. That idea lies at the core of Ireland Reaching Out.

IRO Board Member Mike Feerick, one of the founding members of IRO says this of his project; “The project is based on a very simple idea: Instead of waiting for people of Irish heritage to trace their roots, we go the other way.”  An economist from the University of Limerick, Steven Kinsella, who is involved in the project added; “The people who left Ireland were in some sense the best part of us, they were the most dynamic, the most ambitious, the most willing to succeed, and we did not give them the conditions where they could succeed.”

Once again success is proving elusive to Ireland, especially since the financial crisis. Five years ago unemployment was a mere 4%, today it has risen to over 14%. Unfortunately that has led to another mass migration of the Irish, as again they head for places like Australia and New York. Talk about history repeating itself – but no one is more aware of that than the Irish. The numbers of Irish leaving today are much smaller than they were of course during the Great Famine, but the fact that net emigration has quadrupled in the last couple of years evokes memories of Ireland’s barren past in those old enough to remember it.

The goal of IRO is to establish itself as the central database and web-site for other such reverse genealogy centers which they hope to establish around Ireland. They have enlisted a number of local historians whose knowledge of their communities, local and regional histories, and even the destinations of many emigrants from their area, make IRO quite a formidable Irish genealogical resource. Of course Ireland Reaching Out wishes stimulation of the economy to be a beneficial side effect of helping people trace their Irish Ancestors, but anything that brings together families, and puts bread on their table at the same time, is alright in my books!

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July 30th, 2012

4 Fun Ways to Leave a Family Legacy

After investing years of time and energy in the research of your family, you’ll want to ensure the story you uncover stands the test of time. Future generations of your relatives will enjoy and take pride in their heritage, but only if it’s there for them when you no longer are. Our family histories are treasures, and should be preserved as the valuable items they are. Maybe you’ve even used research done by another relative who preceded you. What if they hadn’t left that data behind? If we don’t take steps to preserve our family histories, there is a chance they may fade away. That would be a loss to our legacies, as well as family members who come after us.

Anyone of the following ideas can help you to preserve your family heritage; I use several of them myself. Have a look through them and choose a method or two that best suits your personality and your particular family history. Doing so will ensure that your family legacy is not just an accumulation of data, but a colourful story of your family’s heritage that will be around for generations.

Start a Family Scrapbook

A scrapbook can be a family history in itself, limited only by your imagination and creativity. Scrapbooks can contain photos, documents, family heirlooms, personal letters and whatever else you feel helps to tell the story of your family. You can even scrapbook by subject; a cemetery scrapbook containing photos of tombstones and inscriptions along with obituaries, photos of your ancestors, and their birth and death certificates would be a genealogical treasure in itself. Or you could do a scrapbook focusing on family reunions. If you have a family reunion; take as many photos as you can, and write in all of the information you can get your hands on about the people in them. As I said before, you are only limited by your imagination, but if you need a little inspiration, read our article on Great Tips and Tools for Building Scrapbook Family Trees.

Preserve Family Interviews

In the course of compiling your family history you will interview many interesting relatives who will have numerous entertaining tales to tell about your ancestors. Make sure that you preserve those interviews in an orderly, easy-to-understand format. If you are using a digital recording methods, backup and save copies of your interviews on CD ROMs. Perhaps you could keep them in a decorative case, with the interview transcriptions and notes about your relatives and ancestors accompanying the recordings. Again, there is no limit to what you can add to any of these projects, and if you need a little guidance on how to conduct interviews with relatives you can download our Insider Guide which contains everything you need to know about the basics of tracing your family history.

Transcribe and Digitize Diaries, Journals and Personal Letters

If you’ve been fortunate enough to inherit an ancestor’s journal, diary, or even personal letters, you’ll want to make sure they are carefully preserved. One way is to transcribe them yourself onto acid-free paper, or make copies of them on the same. Because we are living in a very technology oriented society, we can safely assume that any relatives who come after us will do much of their research and family history charting on computers. Saving or making digital copies of them in several formats will ensure that they are around for years to come, and remain accessible to relatives who may wish to pursue your family history further.

Leave Your Own Story Behind

A great way to help future relatives to continue your family legacy is to leave your own story behind. You could write your own life story; where you were born, who your parents and siblings were, where you worked, went to school; anything you can think of about yourself that may help others to pursue your family history. You don’t need to be an eloquent or practiced writer to do so. Writing in your own words and style will help your descendants get a better idea of who you are as a person, and getting to know our ancestors on a personal level is one of the true joys of genealogy, so pass it on!

If you find writing your life story a bit daunting, try writing a daily journal, but include as many genealogical facts as you can in each entry. If you’re writing about something as simple as having coffee with your cousin, include who their parents were, where they lives and went to school or work. All of that kind of information can help future generations get to know those who came before them better, and preserve your family legacy at the same time!

Hopefully you will find these ideas fulfilling and fun. They are creative, fun ways to help preserve a family history. Not only will they provide future generations with important genealogical data, but entertain them as well!

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June 25th, 2012

10 Steps to Fashioning Your Family History

We’ve had quite a few new genealogists joining us here at, and I wanted to welcome them with a brief recap on how to formulate a family tree. We as experienced genealogists remember (I hope!) how daunting a task tracing your family history seemed at first. Where do I start? Who do I look for first? Where do I look? These are just a few of the questions that revolve around your brain when first considering a genealogical project. If you are new to genealogical research, or considering a family history project, following these ten steps, and using the many free resources we provide for researchers, will help you to master the basics you need to build your family legacy. Ready? Okay, let’s get started.

1. Gather Resources From Around Your House
You may not know it, but you could already be sitting on top of a genealogical gold mine! Many researchers have found documents, family heirlooms, and other valuable genealogical information from scouring their basements, attics, old boxes stored in garages form their own homes and those of their relatives. Many older relatives may have kept a family bible; I know my grandmother did, and she had birth dates, death dates, marriage and baptism dates (and sometimes accompanying certificates) stored in hers. You could also find diaries, journals, letters, photo books, all of which can contain important genealogical material.

2. Interview Your Relatives
The collective wisdom of your relatives can help to build a firm, fast family tree. But don’t just barrage them with a bunch of questions designed to accumulate data. Facts are important, and do write them down, but rather talk to your relatives, asking them about their own lives and those of the ancestors they know about. A good idea is to record your conversations, that way you can transcribe them later, separating the facts from the family stories. Before you begin your interviews, read some of our tips on Interviewing Family Members to help you prepare. Whatever you do, make sure that any “facts” you record can be backed up by official documentation. This brings us to our next step – writing the information down.

3. Recording the Information
After gathering all of that information, you’ll need to record it in an organized, efficient manner. You can begin with one of our Free Family Tree Templates. We have them beginning at three generations right up to ten or more generations, but we recommend beginning with one of between three and five generations. A three generation chart will include information on you, your parents, and grandparents, while a five generation chart will take you right back to your great-great grandparents. You can download them for FREE, and all the instructions you need can be found in the instructional article located conveniently on the download page.

4. Pick a Target
You will undoubtedly have spaces in your family tree chart the further you go back in time, and once you have recorded all the ancestors you can, it is time to pick one of those empty spaces in your family tree and fill it! This is where your research begins, but to be successful research has to be focused. Choose one ancestor and don’t move on to the next one until you have found the one you’ve selected. There are times when you may reach a dead end, but our Free Insider’s Guide – The Basics of Tracing Family Genealogy can help you to overcome them.

5. Begin Your Search Online
An online search can help you to find out if there are records of your ancestor somewhere; you may even be able to view some of them from the comfort of your own home on your PC. You can search huge databases on many websites, and many are completely FREE! We have recently updated our database, and now have links to 82 Absolutely Free Genealogy Resources and Records you can begin with.

6. Visit Your Local Library
You don’t want to limit your research to online sources; in fact you can’t complete your family history without visiting brick and mortar institutions. One such valuable genealogical repository is your local or state library. Many local libraries are tied into the database of the state or national libraries, and many have subscriptions to the large commercial genealogy websites which you can use if you’re a member. The US Government maintains a large online database of Government and Public Libraries in the United States while Collections Canada has a similar listing for Canadian libraries. Libraries for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales can be found at the UK Public Libraries website.

7. Visit Your Local Family History Center
The LDS Church (Latter-day Saints) has established more than 4,000 Family History Centers around the world, containing the largest genealogical database in existence. Their Online Directory can help you to find the Center nearest you.

8. Copy and Study Genealogical Documents
When you find a record of your ancestor at a library, family history center or online, you’ll want to make or download a copy of it so that you can examine it closely for clues to other ancestors, confirm the existing facts you have, and to preserve it for future use. Locate and make copies of as many birth, death, marriage, and baptism certificates as you can, and then you’ll need to update your Family Tree.

9. Update Your Family Tree
The new information you find will help you to full in those spaces in the family tree chart you began in Step 3. You may need to move on to a bigger chart, but whatever you do, don’t throw away the one you started, Transfer the information from that chart onto your new one, and file it in a folder along with any photos or copies of documents you may have for the ancestors included in it. You may need to refer to that chart again, or make copies of it to give to other relatives who might be interested in your family history.

10. Broaden Your Horizons
As you’re compiling information on your ancestors, you will begin to develop a personal interest in them, or curiosity about them. You might like to visit the land they immigrated from, or the village where they used to live. You will begin to learn of other sources like court records and church records, and may need to visit the repositories at which they are held. This is the stage when you’ll begin to realize just how much fun genealogy can be. As you develop your family tree, you’ll realize that research is not just about gathering facts, but about getting to know your ancestors as people. There’s no better excuse to go for a pint of Guinness in the pub in Ireland your ancestor used to love! You never know, you might meet someone who knew them!

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June 18th, 2012

Turn the Page to Another Chapter in Your Family History

There’s nothing more satisfying than finding your ancestor in a digital database, archive or other record collection, especially if the document you found is packed with valuable genealogical data. That is indeed cause to celebrate, but some researchers are content to stop there. Many documents and databases have hidden information however, and if only you learn to “turn the page,” you could begin another chapter in your family history. What I mean by turn the page is simply to look deeper into the record collection or index you are researching. This could be as easy as clicking the “next” button in an online index or other database, or turning a document over to see if there are any additional note on the back. There are actually many examples of record collections I have come across that yield that kind of information, both online and off, where simply turning the page I discovered more ancestral information. One such collection is Ship Passenger Lists.

Just because your relative’s information isn’t listed in chronological or alphabetical order doesn’t mean it’s not in the place you’re looking. I have discovered that when researching in Ship Passenger Lists or Manifests, where the first page will show the passengers name, but the second page contains additional information such as deaths or disturbances that may have caused passengers to be “secured” for the duration of the voyage. Always check the second page with Ship or Passenger Manifests, as that is where your ancestor may be hiding.

I was fortunate to learn early in my research that the 1830 Census of the United States contained not one, but two pages. If you are viewing the 1830 Census Online at, you’ll discover that each name listed is associated with two separate images – one for each page. Make sure that you view both pages; the one containing your relative’s name, and the image associated with it, as the second page contains additional information, as the 1830 Census was the first to include data regarding those who were deaf, dumb or blind. The additional page will also list any “free colored persons” or slaves who were members of the household.

The 1830 census also went farther than previous reports to include a breakdown of the ages of members of the household, as well as to include people who were a hundred years old or more. This helps to illuminate the life spans of people during this period, which can help you to track down death and birth certificates. The additional information regarding those who had hearing, speech or visual impairments allude to the fact that there may be institutional or guardianship records which could reveal further ancestors or information about those you’ve found. The 1830 census also listed foreigners if they were present in the household, and if so, you could do well to search in immigration and naturalization papers.

The above are two major examples of how you can find ancestors by digging a bit deeper, or broadening your genealogical research. The theory holds true of any type of genealogical record, and so it’s good practice to always look for clues to additional records, or search a page or two on either side of the ones you’re researching. Learning how to interpret genealogical data takes time and experience, but experience only comes with practice. If you make such n integral part of your research, you’ll inevitably become a better researcher, but you may also end up finding additional ancestors or at the least additional family facts.

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June 11th, 2012

A Picture (or Symbol) Could be Worth a Thousand Words

After recently attending the funeral of a friend, I spent some time reflecting and walking amongst the graves looking at tombstone inscriptions. One can’t help but wonder when viewing tombstones what kind of a person the deceased was, what they did for a living, what their family life was like and that sort of thing. At least I can’t anyway, and if you’re even a bit like me, you might also wonder what some of those illegible inscriptions once said. A tombstone inscription can tell you much about a person’s ideals or character, and they can also contain important genealogical information. Many of the tombstones I was seeing also contained various symbols, and of course they got me to thinking about their meaning.

Yes, much information can be deduced from the inscriptions carved on headstones, even the placement of a person’s grave within the cemetery can tell us something about them. But symbols and artwork on our ancestors’ tombstones can tell us even more. Perhaps a symbol’s meaning can shed light on a deeper level of our ancestors beliefs or personality, even reveal if he or she was the member of a particular, or more interestingly, a secret society! Perhaps they may reveal nothing at all, merely that our ancestor liked a particular design or animal. Yes, the interpretation of symbols can be a daunting task, and though many have specific meanings, many do not, and were placed on the headstone simply because the deceased fancied it.

Those that do have a specific meaning however, can reveal a person’s religious affiliation, ethnic identity, membership of an association, or reflect the culture of the era or location. Symbols used in one place might even mean something completely different in another, and so knowing and understanding the history of the area is important. Certain designs and symbols may also be the trademark artwork of the person who fashioned the headstone, so the true meaning may never be known. This is no reason to discount them however, as even if the symbols are merely of an artistic nature; many are a pleasure to admire. Some can reveal information about our ancestors though, and every bit of genealogical information we can glean from them helps to complete the profiles of our relatives.

Some of the Meanings of Gravestone Symbols

I am quite intrigued what specific symbols might mean, as several of my own ancestors have quite elaborate designs on them, and so I started searching for those meanings. I did indeed discover that they could be quite revealing. The tombstone of one of my ancestors was decorated with a type of long staff with some contraption attached to it. The item turned out to be a Cross Staff – a seamen’s navigational instrument from the 16th century. It turned out my ancestor was a seaman. This revelation inspired me to look for the meanings of additional symbols, and the ones I was able to determine I’ve listed below.

Angels – Denote spirituality and watch over the tomb of the deceased.
Bible – The person was a Christian
Crescent – The person was of the Islamic faith
Heart – Represents Christ’s suffering for our sins
Menorah, Star of David – The person was most likely Jewish
Arrow – Mortality
Candle Being Extinguished – Loss of life
Broken Column – Loss of the Family Patriarch or Head
Bowl and Razor – The person was a Barber
Rake and Spade – The person was a farmer
Skull and Crossbones – Represents Death, or the possibility that the person was a pirate
Hourglass – Time has run out
Bird, especially Flying Bird – Eternal Life
Wreath or Garland – Symbols of glory
Flame, Lamp, or Torch – The eternal spirit
Horns – The person believed in the Resurrection
Rooster – Awakening, Resurrection
Ivy – Immortality
Awl – Shoemaker
Hammer and Anvil – Person was a Blacksmith
Butterfly – The person died young
Dog – The person was a good Master and worthy of love
Palm Branch – Stands for Victory and Rejoicing
Rose – Deceased died in the prime of their life
Urn with Flame – Unending Remembrance
Two Joined Hearts – Represents Marriage
Cherub – Signifies Innocence, often found on the graves of children
Laurel – Symbolizes worldly accomplishment and heroism
Lion – The person had great courage
Broken Ring – Represents severing of the family circle

These are just a sampling of the many symbols I have come across in graveyards or in Photographs of tombstones. They more often than not have something to say about the person who is buried there, and methinks, are well worth considering. If you are ever visiting your ancestor’s cemetery, take the time to photograph their tombstone, especially if it contains some symbols in the artwork. That way you can do some investigation when you get back home, and perhaps get to know your ancestor on a deeper level.

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