Genealogy How Tos

10 hints to improve your chances of finding a grave marker

Here are the top things I wished I’d known before visiting my first cemetery looking for ancestors. To paraphrase your favourite realtor, it’s location, location, location.

For examples, I’m going to use my local cemetery, Woodlawn Cemetery, Saskatoon.

  1. Where is the cemetery located and what are its hours? I didn’t actually think cemeteries had hours, but with the recent spate of vandalisms, I guess it’s a way of trying to keep the wrong people out.
    Location marker. © 2018 Past Presence. All rights reserved.

    Where is the grave in the cemetery? Is there a cemetery map available? The best information is the plot ID, which will give the section and plot number. For example, this is from Woodlawn: 27RC-L024-W1/2. The “RC” means it’s Section #27 in the Roman Catholic section, plot #24. Here’s the map, too. (Hint: download or print a big copy for your visit and have it handy, because it’s nice to park near your section.)

  3. What is the full name of your person? You’ll need as many details as possible. It’s common to have people with similar names buried in the same cemetery, so middle names and nicknames are helpful.
  4. What is the year of death? It may be that the only distinguishing feature between Mary Jones, grandmother, and Mary Jones, granddaughter, both buried in the same cemetery, is the year of death.
  5. Who is nearby? While you’re visiting the cemetery and walking around the section, keep an eye out for other members of the family.
  6. Is there an app available for your cemetery? Woodlawn uses iCemetery, and it is an amazing tool to help narrow down the location of your person. It’ll help you find the right general area, if not the exact plot.
  7. Is your marker covered in leaves? Bring a small brush, else you may be forced to clear flat markers with your hands.
    Overgrown marker. © 2018 Past Presence. All rights reserved.
  8. Is the office open if you can’t locate the marker? If y ou’re visiting during cemetery office hours, ask for some help locating the grave.
  9. Do you have a smartphone with you? Bring your smart phone with location enabled. It’s so helpful to be able to upload photos of the grave and GPS coordinates to Find a Grave or your preferred service.
  10. What else should you know? Check out hints from other people, like this great post from Amy Johnson Crow: 5 photos you should take at the cemetery.

Some stats

I joined Find a Grave 4 months ago, and yesterday was my 8th visit to Woodlawn, so I decided to run some numbers:

  • 172 memorials updated or added to Find A Grave
  • 279 photos added
  • 28 volunteer photos added (these are photos that have been requested)
  • 3 cemeteries: Woodlawn (Saskatoon); Lumsden, SK; Regina (city)
  • 11 separate cemetery visits
  • 1 bottle of mosquito repellant
  • 2 cameras
  • 1 laptop
  • average time spent per visit: 2 hours
  • average time spent successfully locating a marker: 1 marker/hr

Conclusion: even if you’ve got all the tools – map, app, plot ID, good weather, smartphone, spreadsheet – it still takes a heckuva long time to fill a cemetery request.


Finally, did you know I’m running my first ever genealogy contest? I’m looking for a Saskatchewan family to research for my summer project. Check out the details here (link removed).


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