Tips for avoiding mistakes in Find-a-Grave memorials

When using Find-a-grave, only rely on information you can see on a picture of the gravestone. Why? A gravestone is a primary source document: shortly after (or before) the deceased passed away, someone who knew them, probably a close family member, ordered the tombstone. Everything in a Find-a-grave record that isn’t on the tombstone came from another, unknown source, and is potentially unreliable.

Find-a-grave is probably the largest, crowd-sourced genealogy tool out there. What do I mean by crowd-sourced? It means a huge crowd of people contributed to its creation—in this case as volunteers. No corporation such as paid people to transcribe the information.

At its root, Find-a-grave collects transcriptions from gravestones or grave register, and even the most basic record should give you three key pieces of information: name, year of death (or burial), and place of burial. Depending on the gravestone (and how much information the volunteer transcribed from the gravestone) you may get birth dates. Occasionally, you’ll even get a place of birth and/or a relationship such as “wife” or “son” to a person buried close by.

The catch is that Find-a-grave doesn’t distinguish between information transcribed on a tombstone, and information that a user has added from other sources.

Let me give you an example: James Fitzgerald, who is buried in St. Mary’s cemetery in Maple Park Illinois. His gravestone notes that he was born in 1867 and died in 1929. But Find-a-Grave gives exact dates, places of birth and death, and links to his parents and wife—information which isn’t on his gravestone, and probably wouldn’t be recorded in the cemetery’s files.

How do I know that information is accurate? I don’t, unless I find other documents related to James.

When I look at a Find-a-grave record, I make two assumptions. First, the person who created it had good intentions, so they’re not fabricating facts out of thin air. Second, despite their best efforts, they’re human and will make mistakes both honest and careless.

Someone must have known enough about James Fitzgerald to fill in all these details. Now, James is my great-grandfather, but if he were unknown to me, I would only enter in the information from his tombstone as facts, and the rest of the information as notes to help me accelerate my search.

This may seem overly cautious, but let me show you a few examples where this matters.

Consider the Find-a-grave entry for Elizabeth Ironmonger, who died in 1675. There’s a lot of detail in the record, but I am immediately suspicious, not only because there is no picture of a gravestone, but I know from experience that the custom in Colonial Virginia was to inter family members in a plot on the family land. Don’t believe me? Consider Hugh Jones’ 1724 book The Present State of Virginia, which notes that

“The parishes being of great extent (some sixty miles long and upwards) many dead corpses cannot be conveyed to the church to be buried: So that it is customary to bury in gardens or orchards, where whole families lye interred together.”

But let’s put custom aside: Maybe Elizabeth was an exception. Then I have to ask whether the church was even in existence in 1675 for Elizabeth to be buried there? The church’s website suggests the parish was founded around 1652, but that the current structure, which dates to sometime between 1690 and 1718, wasn’t in the same location as the church Elizabeth would have attended. All that’s left of the original structure is the remains of a brick foundation and a single gravestone. On top of that, according to the website’s notes about the cemetery, the first known burial at the church was in 1723, nearly five decades after Elizabeth died, and several years after the current church was completed. Some family cemeteries were later moved and re-interred on church grounds, but the earliest such re-interment was for a man who died the 1690s.

It’s possible that Elizabeth Ironmonger was buried at Ware Church, but the odds are exceptionally long. So… back to assuming good intent, I’ll assume that whomever created this record was just trying to make an educated guess—maybe they have some evidence she attended that church, and assume she was buried there. But… if they were willing to make this educated guess, how many other guesses are here. Were they guessing about her place and year of birth? Her father, spouse or child?

Who knows, but I’m not going to rely on the record.

Of course, sometimes you can’t rely on the tombstone. Take Jacob Slough, buried in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1826. Find-a-grave has two tombstones. One is faded and barely readable, though a DAR report of the inscription supports the birth and death dates. The other—with the inscription Private 8th Class, 2nd Battalion, Northampton County Militia—looks brand new, and doesn’t even have grass growing around it’s edges. It must have been added by living relatives to honor Jacob’s military service in the Revolution. Except that this Jacob Slough didn’t serve. Norriton is about forty miles from Northampton County, where another Jacob Slough appears in contemporary military records. I know forty miles doesn’t sound far, but it took George Washington’s troops most of the night to trudge 13 miles from Trenton to Princeton in 1777.

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