Tombstone Inscriptions


  Tombstone inscriptions are a possible source of three types of genealogical information: (1.) the individual’s birth date, (2.) the individual’s death date, and (3.) the individual’s relationship to someone else buried in the same cemetery (e.g. wife of ..., son of ..., etc.). Unfortunately, not every tombstone bears all such information. And in many cases, if the tombstone was carved from a piece of marble, it is probably worn down so much by the actions of the constantly changing weather that it is unreadable.

  The first thing that is necessary for you to do in order to obtain information from a tombstone inscription is to locate the tombstone. Tombstones have a way of disappearing, as a result of either human or natural causes. Sometimes the tombstone is stolen off the cemetery lot by people who have no respect for the deceased, but simply want nice flat stones for their patio or walkway. Sometimes the stones are removed from a cemetery by the landowner, perhaps to increase his farm acreage. Landowners who do not want to be bothered by people traipsing over their land might remove the stones in an attempt to camouflage the area. Despite the fact that you might think it is morally wrong to destroy a cemetery by removing the tombstones, the laws currently do not protect cemeteries from such desecration by the landowner. Stones also may fall over from natural causes, break into pieces, and eventually be removed by the cemetery custodians. This is especially true of gravesites of individuals for whom there are no living relatives. And sometimes the tombstones simply sink into the ground. It is amazing, but it takes only a few years for sod to spread and grow over a tombstone that has fallen flat onto the ground.

  Old tombstones carved in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries from soft, dark slate had a tendency to wear away and to split into layers and crumble as a result of extremes of the weather. Later bluish grey slate was used for tombstones which tended to remain crisp and readable. More recent types of stone used for tombstones included granite and marble. Granite stones are difficult to carve with fine lines and wear away fast. In regard to granite, the stone’s texture lends itself to being carved with raised, rather than incised letters. The raised lettering, though, sometimes gets worn down and is as difficult, if not moreso, to read than that of incised lettering. Marble stones are the worst for deterioration; as the surface becomes weathered, the glassy smoothness of the original carved surface is washed away and the surface becomes pitted. The legibility of the inscriptions will be affected by the lighting, both the amount and the direction.

  A problem that compounds the difficulty of reading tombstones regardless of the natural deterioration is the font used in the carving. During the period ranging from the 1820s to 1850s, tombstone carvers began to use a form of italic font. The italic form of the letters make it more difficult to decipher and separate 4’s from 7’s and 3’s from 8’s and so on.

  Genealogists have developed tricks to bring out the inscriptions without harming the stone itself. Those tricks involve covering the surface with a temporary coating of a powdery substance, such as cornstarch or facial powder. The dusting over the surface will create greater contrast if the stone is photographed. It is also possible to make rubbings of the stone’s inscription be placing a large piece of paper over the surface, and then rubbing across the surface of the paper with a piece of chalk or artist’s charcoal.

  In regard to the inscriptions themselves, the researcher should be aware of certain language that was used during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. The phrase consort of, when found on a wife’s tombstone, usually indicated that the husband was still living at the time of the woman’s death. The word relict meant ‘widow’, but sometimes it also was used on the widower’s stone. The phrase In memory of is usually found on a tombstone that is placed in the cemetery, but not necessarily over the actual gravesite of the person it stands for. In some cases, where a person’s actual place of burial is not known, the relatives would be permitted to place a stone in a local cemetery in order to have a place to focus their memories. When a small child died, it was not uncommon for the parents to have only the child’s initial letters carved onto the tombstone. Such single letter stones might also simply serve as markers for the boundaries of the family plot within the cemetery.

  The WPA project which included the transcribing of tombstone information usually recorded only the name, birth and death dates and relationship to another person in the cemetery. In some instances, though, the person who was collecting the information would write down all the information in the inscription. If a particular tombstone is illegible, you might consider trying to locate the WPA records for the cemetery in order to see if the transcriber was able to see, at that time, something that you cannot at the present time.

  The validity and accuracy of the information found in tombstone inscriptions can be considered fairly reliable. Because of the expense that the carving of a tombstone would cost a family, you would assume that correct information would be desired. The researcher, though, should be aware that a family might have wanted to hide some dark family secret, and might have spared no expense - even that of the tombstone carving - in order to keep the secret hidden. Therefore tombstone inscription information should be cross checked against other records to ensure accuracy.

  The chart that follows explains how birth dates can be determined from tombstone inscriptions that provide only the death date and age of the deceased individual.

How To Calculate Birth Dates From Tombstones
     If the dates on the tombstone are in given only in years, simply subtract the age number from the year of death. For example: If the tombstone is etched with the death date of 1832, and the age is given as 59 years, you would subtract 59 from 1832 to get a calculated birth date of ca 1773.
(-) 59
     If the death date on the tombstone is given in years, months and days, and the age is given only in years, subtract the age number from just the years portion of the death date. The exact date of birth, even though the death date is exact, cannot be calculated; therefore the birth date can still only be assumed, and should be noted as circa. For example: If the tombstone is etched with the death date of 1832, and the age is given as 59 years, 2 months and 14 days, you would, like in the foregoing example, subtract the 59 from 1832 to get a calculated birth date of ca 1773.
(-) 59
     If both the death date and the age on the tombstone are given in years, months and days, an accurate birth date can be calculated. Note: This date will be as accurate as the information provided on the tombstone. In other words, if the dates on the tombstone were incorrect when it was carved, then the calculated birth date will also be incorrect. The dates should be compared with other public forms of documentation.
     To obtain the calculated birth date, subtract the age numbers from the death date numbers according to the following. You should first write out the death date numbers in the following order: years months days, with the month converted to its number. Then below that write out the age numbers in the same order.
     For example: If the tombstone is etched with the death date of 3 September 1832, write it out as: 1832 09 03. If the age is given as 59 years, 2 months and 14 days, write it out as: 59 02 14. Now simply consider the two numbers as a simple arithmetic problem and subtract the bottom number from the top one.
1832     09    03
(-) 59    02    14
     As you can see, you can’t subtract the 14 days of the age from the 03 days of the death date. As with any arithmetic problem, you might have to borrow an amount from one column to be able to perform the subtraction for the adjacent column. You need to remember, though, that you are not working with numbers in the familiar ‘base ten’ format. In regard to the month’s column, you are working with groups of either 30, 31 or 28/29 units since the length of the months vary. So, to subtract a larger "day" amount from a smaller one, you must borrow either 30 or 31 days from the month’s column (or 28 or 29 if the month is February) and add it to the day’s top number. If you are attempting to subtract a larger "month" amount from a smaller one, you simply need to remember to add 12 to the month’s top number because when you borrow one unit from the year’s column, you are actually borrowing twelve months.
     Since the month in our example was September, you should use 30 days. Remove the month’s worth of 30 days from the month number of 09, leaving it to be 08, and add the 30 borrowed days onto the day number of 03. Your new, adjusted top number should be written as: 1832 08 33. Now you can subtract the 14 age days from the 33 death date days to get a remainder of 19 days. Then subtract the 02 for the age months from the 08 for the death date months. Lastly, subtract the 59 for the age years from the 1832 for the death date year. You will end up with a calculated birth date of 19 June 1773.
1832     09    03     -->     1832      08     33
(-) 59    02    14     -->     (-) 59     02    14
                                      1773      06     19