Pursuing the Past
a monthly column by Pat Biallas
Early on in my ancestor sleuthing, after initial success in finding some family graves, I began to get a little cavalier about my finds.
You know the drill: choose a name; get a death certificate; drive to the cemetery; stop in at the office for a map; head over to that section of the cemetery; then hoof it across the rolling expanses of well manicured lawn to look for the grave of interest.
Well, that’s not so hard, I thought back then. One bit of information begets another, and with a little perseverance you find what you’re looking for, right?
Well, not always. Beginner’s luck waned pretty quickly after my first few successful finds. Some examples:
Delighted to have located my grandparents’ graves on the south side of Chicago three years ago, my confidence was bolstered to seek out my other grandpa’s grave, which I knew was on the north side of town. With map in hand, I set out for a little tombstone reading in the proper section of All Saints cemetery: “Hmmm… Should be around here someplace… Can’t seem to find him… Where is he?… Is this map right? … There aren’t many markers in this area… Wait, what?… Could it be there’s no gravestone?…”
BINGO! My hypothesis was confirmed the following Monday during a call to the cemetery office. (Clear sign of a budding genealogist.)
Lesson learned? Just because you have a paper document proving that a particular person is buried in a particular spot in a particular cemetery doesn’t mean there’s proof above the ground in the form of a marker or gravestone.
I asked myself why this grandpa, who died in October 1929 didn’t have a marker. The answer? The economy, of course! It was the start of the Great Depression. They were poor! He was probably lucky to get a spot at all in this potter’s field, which appeared to have an extensive area of unmarked graves in the back part of the property. No hills, trees or curvy paths for Gramps. He couldn’t afford the prettier parts of this burial ground.
What disappointment. After all my efforts to track down his grave, all I had was a piece of paper to prove that this naked section of grass was where he was laid to rest. I felt cheated!
I moved on. Time to find my great grandfather William Donar who was buried in Calvary on the city’s north side in 1899. Oh, and just to keep things interesting, it seems his son William Donar, (yes, same name), was also buried there a few decades later. Off to obtain a map of the grounds.
Not again…really? No headstone? And his son has no headstone either? What gives? The cemetery office was still open so I stopped in to see if I could get a little direction. After a quick look at their records I was told that the graves of both Donar men were located in Section P over by the fence. “And, by the way,” I was further informed, “the son is buried right on top of his father.”
What?! I was appalled! Can they do that? Again, genealogy neophyte that I was at the time, I didn’t realize this was a common burial practice during a certain era. Experienced grave hunters would not have been surprised at this news.
Lesson Learned? It’s okay to question things you find out, but make no assumptions. If records indicate something that seems a bit odd to you, chances are, unfortunately, it’s probably true.
Last year I decided to try to find the grave of my beloved Aunt Grace who I realized was buried in the same cemetery as her parents, apparently right next to them, according to the records. That shouldn’t have been surprising to me, I just hadn’t started looking for her yet and never bothered to examine the graves adjacent to my grandparents to see if there was anyone else in the vicinity I might be related to. Had I done so I would have found my Aunt Grace and found her a lot sooner, right?
You see, Aunt Grace’s husband, James Holland, beat her to the grave by some 30 years and, as it turns out, Grace’s name had never been engraved on their double marker. Why?
I thought about the circumstances of her life. She’d been a widow for 33 years. She’d had one child, a son, a Jesuit priest who, at the time of his mother’s death in 1972, was pastoring a parish on the south side of Chicago. I imagined him conducting the services for his own mother at the funeral home, celebrating her funeral Mass in his church and officiating at her graveside service. It seems, though, that he dropped the ball when it came time to get the other half of his parents’ stone engraved.
Perhaps due to his duties as CEO of a thriving Chicago parish, my cousin Frank, simply never got around to it. Thus, while Aunt Grace does have a stone and is buried next to her husband, that marker does not proclaim that, yes, she once lived on this earth. Again, disappointing, but at least I know where she is.
Lesson learned? Once you verify a gravesite as belonging to someone on your family tree, peruse the immediate area to see if other nearby graves may belong to a family member as well. You just may (literally) strike pay dirt!
Another early discovery that I’m happy to report did not result in a family find occurred during my quest for great grandparents Jeremiah and Mary Desmond, whom I later learned were not even buried in this state. (I was a baby genealogist at the time and hadn’t done my homework, so I didn’t realize that as I eagerly sought out the gravestone of another couple bearing their same names.) I found the marker I was looking for all right, one row over and about eight graves down from Al Capone’s grave—the most notorious gangster in Chicago history who terrorized this city in the early 1930s!
Lesson learned: Research a little more thoroughly before spending the time, gas and mental energy seeking the grave of someone who may not even be related.
(So glad I was wrong about the burial spot of those great grandparents. I’m sure they’re resting much more peacefully in upstate New York right where they belong!)
My final surprise actually had its beginnings over 20 years ago, well before I had any interest in genealogy and ancestor hunting. It began during the funeral procession of my father-in-law, Karl Biallas, on the ride through the cemetery gates. I remember looking out the car window and seeing a very tall monument located in the shape of a simple cross bearing the name “Lawder” in big block letters on all four sides of its base. “Lawder,” I thought. That name seems so familiar.” Out of sight, out of mind, the funeral procession moved on. We had a family burial to attend to.
Fast forward a couple of decades. By then I’d learned that “Lawder” was indeed a name that belonged on my family tree. After the usual sleuthing and searching I found myself six months ago standing at the base of this massive monument I had passed 23 years ago at the entrance to Holy Sepulchre.
The discovery? My uncle, Ralph Desmond, a man who had died before I was born, was buried right there under that cross, on the corner, under the stop sign, at the first main intersection of the cemetery. Couldn’t possibly miss it.
There he was in his wife’s family plot along with a dozen other Lawders – a family he had married into some 90 years before. I had no idea back in 1989 as I passed that monument on the way to my father-in-law’s burial that I was also passing the grave of my own uncle, a man I had never met. It seems the secret of just where Uncle Ralph ended up was buried right before my eyes—I just didn’t know it.
What I’ve learned since my first endeavors as a cemetery sleuth has proven thrilling, disappointing and mystifying in turn as I successfully found some graves I was determined to find, discovered others where I never expected to, and was led to others by sheer luck. And though I may not always have found what I was looking for, I always found something worthwhile to add to my family story.
So for those just beginning their cemetery sleuthing I offer this bit of advice: remain curious, be open-minded and just keep hunting. You never know what (or who) will turn up as a result of your detective work. (Let’s just hope it’s not the remains of someone like Al Capone!)
© Pat Biallas 2012
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of The In-Depth Genealogist. Receive The In-Depth Genealogist free by subscribing HERE.