To Learn About Life, Start in a Cemetery


I have long been fascinated by cemeteries. Take me to any European city and I’m likely to meander through the old burying grounds. I find the church graveyard as interesting as the church itself. I suppose it’s because the marked grave is often the last remnant of life. I’m intrigued by the stories, many unknown, of the deceased from generations upon generations before us. How did they live? Who did they love? How did they die? I see cemeteries as works of art, like those containing the moss-covered Celtic cross ubiquitous in Ireland, or pristine headstones standing at attention in our own Arlington National Cemetery.

Rock of Cashel Cemetery
[1] Intricately carved, moss-covered Irish high cross on the northern side of the Rock of Cashel Cemetery in Ireland, marking the final resting place of Ellen Fitzgerald. Photo credit: Melanie Nelson, 2014.
Arlington National Cemetery
[2] Arlington National Cemetery on the grounds of Arlington House, once the estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Photo credit: Melanie Nelson, 2009.

Older headstones sometimes yield significant clues for the genealogist by providing a short biography of the interred – similar to one I found in the medieval cathedral ruins of St. Andrews, Scotland. It read:

Here Lies the Body of Thomas Halyburton.

Minister of the Gospel.

He was Born at Duplin Dec. 25, 1674,

And Ordained Minister of ceres

May 1, 1700.

In April 1710 He was Admitted

Professor of Divinity

In the New College St. Andrews

And on Sept. 23, 1712.

At 7 in the Morning He Fell Asleep

In Jesus.

St. Andrews Cathedral in Scotland
[3] The medieval churchyard of the once spectacular St. Andrews Cathedral in Scotland, the largest building in the country when it was consecrated in 1318. Photo credit: Melanie Nelson, 2014.

When my sweet great-grandmother wasn’t serving delicious creamed chicken over biscuits, she was reciting family history. That’s how I knew her parents were Charles Flansburg and Ella May Chapman. Armed with names and locations, I dug into my Flansburgs and Chapmans by researching Maplewood Cemetery in Henrietta, New York. The town burial site contains graves of the “rich, poor, famous and unknown” from the mid-19th century. Using a quick download of Maplewood Cemetery records, I found dates, relationships, and even some maiden names; and then pieced together the tree structure to hypothesize even more generations. In one evening, I had tracked both families to several fifth greats born in the 1700s! I had the first pedigree charts of my Nelson ancestors. 

Charles Henry Flansburg
[4] Charles Henry Flansburg standing on his side porch in Henrietta, NY, circa 1925. Photo credit: Unknown.
Ella May Chapman Flansburg
[5] Ella May Chapman Flansburg, circa 1900. Photo credit: Unknown.

Born in 1777, my fifth great-grandfather, Henry Chapman served as a corporal in the War of 1812 with the New York 21st Cavalry in Companies L and F. Then he moved his young family from Vermont to western New York, purchasing land in the early 1800s on a prominent corner in Henrietta. He built the large family home which also served as the first hotel in town.  Family history suggests the Chapmans hosted community parties in the second-floor ballroom, providing entertainment for denizens and travelers in the newly-formed town. While standing in Maplewood Cemetery, I considered his story from proud details etched in the stone. Henry became my family’s first known pioneer into New York, and now, our first connection to Vermont.

Over time we’ve lost story-telling through gravestones as they have merely become markers containing a name, birth date, and death date. As I ran my fingers across the cool limestone, I felt fortunate to “hear” Henry’s story at his final resting place. 

Henry Chapman’s gravestone
[6] Henry Chapman’s gravestone in Maplewood Cemetery, Henrietta, NY. Photo credit: Melanie Nelson, 2016.

What stories have you learned in a cemetery? Tell us in the comments below.

About Melanie Nelson

Florida Gator, avid sports fan, music enthusiast, expert traveler, genealogy buff, novice photographer, Auntie La to five cool nephews. She joined FGS Tampa in 2020.