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Beginning Genealogy Lessons
by Don B. Dale

Lessons To Help You Get Started & Sometimes To Keep Going

Lesson 9: Church, Cemetery, and School Records

Lesson 9 is courtesy of Jean R. Legried, copyright 1996. Her work is available at: www.rootsweb.com/~newbie. Used with permission. Note: Lessons with"added notes" italicized are added "Net Notes" (N2) by DB Dale.
CHURCH RECORDS         Church records are some of the best genealogical records since they can pre-date vital records by as much as 200 years.  They are among the most under-used records, however, because it is often difficult to determine in  which denominational records to search.  There are hundreds of denominations  in America, plus the fact that the religion now practiced by your family may not be the one practiced by your ancestors. It is helpful to know some of  the historical background of yourancestor's church to help you to determine  what type of records might be available for research.  There were two types  of churches in Europe: the state church and free or "gathered" churches:         STATE CHURCHES were the established church and considered every         Christian in the state or kingdom a member.         FREE OR "GATHERED" CHURCHES rejected this inclusive view of         belonging from birth and only those who were "born again" were         considered members.  These were the Anabaptists (baptized again)         and includes Mennonites, Hutterites, many smaller groups         associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch, and Baptists.
    For Church Archives available on the Internet go to

        Because Anabaptists saw the most important event in a person's life
as their rebirth/rebaptism, their records reflect this view and don't show 
any information on a member until the rebirth/rebaptism as an adult.  In 
contrast, those denominations that descend from the State church (Lutheran,
Presbyterian, Episcopal, Congregational, Reformed, Roman Catholic) record an
infant's birth and baptism.  In the state church the pastor/priest was a 
quasi-public official who was the recorder of births, marriages, and deaths.  
Before the American Revolution these establish churches functioned as a 
state church in America.  It was the writers of the Constitution who saw fit
to separate church and state.
Types of Church Records
        Baptism/Christening -- These records will, at least, give the name 
of the individual and date of baptism, but may include the date of birth or
age, parents' names, residence and birthplace, and sponsors'/witnesses' names.

        Marriage -- These records can include the marriage date, names and
ages of the couple, their birthplaces, current residences, parents' names 
and birthplaces, witnesses' names, where the wedding took place, and the 
pastor's name and residence.  

        Confirmation -- These records are often overlooked as just a list 
of names but they can include the confirmation date, person's age, baptism 
date and place, parents' names, and interesting insights into your ancestor's
study habits and learning abilities.

        Funeral -- Again, this record can be just a name, death and/or 
funeral date and place of burial, but can also include age, place of birth 
and parents' or spouses' name.

        Membership List -- If these records are kept up-to-date, they are a 
good source for finding when a family moved into and out of a community.  

        Communicant List -- These records would be similar to the Membership
 List, but it might be easier to track an individual on this list.  If one 
member of a couple suddenly ceases to commune, does that mean a death has 

        Finding the church records can be a challenge!  There were often 
church mergers or splits and where the records went may not be easy to 
determine.  Circuit riding pastors took the records with them so they can 
end up in quite unexpected places. If you find the records in a church, 
you may be able to go there to search them.  You should call ahead to set 
an appointment with the pastor or parish secretary.  This is especially 
important in a small country church because the pastor may not keep regular 
office hours.   
       A lot of church records are being published in various periodicals or 
books or are being collected into the denomination's  archives and microfilmed.  
You may be able to borrow these microfilms for a fee.
Some will allow you into the archives to
view the films and other resources.  (This would be comparable to researching
in a library/archives as was discussed in Lesson 2.  It is especially 
important to call ahead to determine hours and availability of records since
these archives don't always maintain regular hours and have limited room and 
equipment for researchers.)  
                There is a listing of denominational archives in THE SOURCE,
edited by Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry 
Publishing, 1984 or the new just-out edition).  If you don't have access to 
THE SOURCE, check your library or one of the on-line libraries.

        Grave markers or cemetery records are sometimes the only records 
available on an individual, especially a child.  There are four types of 

     1)  Church burial yard -- Most churches until World War II were
constructed on a lot large enough to accommodate a cemetery, both country
and city churches.  Then the need for land became more pressing and burial 
grounds moved to the suburbs.  Sometimes the graves were moved and sometimes
     2)  Public or Municipal cemeteries -- These are maintained by a city,
county, village, town or township. 
     3)   Family burial plots -- These were common in the 19th century and
earlier but have disappeared in the 20th century.  Many are unknown and 
are hidden on property formerly owned by the family.  If such a plot can 
be found, it can be a wonderful source of information.
     4)   Commercial memorial parks -- These commercial, non-sectarian
burial grounds have become popular since the mid-1940s.

Types of Records
        Church burial registers -- Churches which have affiliated burial 
grounds usually maintain records of interments.  These records were 
mentioned in the section on Church Records.  Today, however, the church 
and cemetery may be separate entities with the cemetery keeping record
of the burial and the church keeping record of the funeral.  
        Sexton records -- No matter what type of cemetery, there is most 
likely a board of officers, including a sexton.  This officer maintains a 
register of burials and plots available for sale.
        Cemetery deeds and plats -- These are legal documents describing 
the cemetery as a whole and each plot as it is sold.  In the early days 
graves weren't dug in any order.  Later, plats were drawn and attempts 
were made to record the location of these burials.
        Burial permits -- Since the 1920s health departments have regulated 
burials.  Burials must be done by a licensed mortician.
        Grave opening orders -- Most cemeteries keep a record of all grave 

        Family Bible -- The family Bible can be a primary source (sometimes
 the only source) for a home burial.  A Bible might still be in the hands of
 a family member or it may have been transferred to a museum or archives.
        Monuments and Memorials -- These can tell a story of the buried 
person if you study the placing of the stone, the ornaments and words 
engraved on it, and the condition of the stone.  Several books have been 
published about burial customs and the artwork on grave markers.
        Funeral home records -- These records are hard to find for early 
years and now they are often available only to relatives.  The information 
used in a newspaper obituary and on the death certificate is usually 
submitted by the mortician so that can be found in these records.  Burial 
plot information can also be found here. If you go to a cemetery to search 
for a specific burial, be systematic about your search so that you don't 
miss any markers.  Rubbings can be made of the inscription on a marker to 
better read it. You should learn how to do a rubbing before going to the 
cemetery, however.  Some things can be bad for the marker and the 
environment. Be wary of an old date on a new stone.  This can mean that
the stone has recently been placed on the grave, so both the death date and 
bhirth date become secondary resources.Tombstone data has been transcribed
by many historical and genealogical societies.  This data may have been 
published or is available for searching at the local historical or 
genealogical society library, public library, or, in some cases, at the 

        The records for the one-room, rural school are hard to find.  As 
these schools were closed, the records were deposited with county and/or 
state repositories that may or may not have kept them.  A local historical 
society could be a good source of information on the location of school 
        Year books, school newspapers, alumni registers, directories and 
who's who volumes are good sources for college, university and private 
school research.  (ADD: Check for a college archivist,  and /or archive 
library:  many of the colleges and universities now have one, sometimes 
through the alumni assocication.) 

        For any research in school records, you may encounter unavailability
 because of privacy laws

Beginning Genealogy Lessons Parent Directory. Originally posted: 08-May-97. Update: 10 June 2005.