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 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
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