Ancient burying grounds

gravestone-1 Find a Grave image for Ebenezer Paddock (see Note 5 below).

Because of the dedication of our many volunteers, we at the New England Historic Genealogy Society have the opportunity to continually expand the range of databases we provide to family researchers. Recently we have made a lot of progress indexing cemetery transcriptions from NEHGS manuscripts, creating a database complete with accompanying images. You may wonder why we are bothering to index these old manuscripts when there are so many other sources of cemetery information widely available on the Internet today.

I am sure that many of us have taken advantage of free internet resources to extend our family histories with invaluable cemetery information. The most well-known providers are probably Find a Grave and Billion Graves. Find a Grave currently reports having over 154 million records online.[1] Billion Graves declares that they are “the world’s largest resource for searchable GPS cemetery data.”[2] It can be wonderfully satisfying to go to one of these sites and track down an actual image of the gravestones of your ancestors, especially when they are geographically distant.

Of course, NEHGS is not trying to compete with sites like these. Those sites have their own volunteers capturing pictures and posting them every day. However, there is still an important value in publishing the information from the NEHGS manuscripts. The simple reason is that we are losing gravestones every day. Unfortunately, in many places you can visit a cemetery and find that many old markers are severely worn or damaged. On many once-beautiful slate markers the engraved surface layers have completely flaked away, and all that remains for us to see is a blank grey slab of stone.

This is not a new problem. In 1899 the NEHGS Council started recruiting members to record cemetery inscriptions in the ancient burying grounds in New England.[3] Members responded by visiting their local cemeteries and donating the results of their hand-written or typewritten work to the NEHGS manuscripts collection. These manuscripts dating from the turn of the last century can be invaluable when markers have been buried, broken, or faded away.

Given this value, this we have recently made available a database titled North American Cemetery Transcription from NEHGS Manuscripts.[4] This database has all of the names and dates indexed, and includes access to images of the original manuscripts.

One enterprising author augmented their manuscript, which was written in 1909, with some photographs. This particular volume is titled “MA, Barnstable: East Dennis – Paddock.” One of these pictures provides us an excellent example for the value of transcriptions dating back over 100 years. The first picture, above, shows the image available today from Find a Grave for one Ebenezer Paddock. You can see that maker had broken. In addition to the weathering and lichen on this stone, a rather crude attempt at repairing the diagonal crack with cement makes it rather difficult to read anything at all.

gravestone-2The next image is the manuscript photograph from 1909 (at the bottom of the page). In this image, we can see that the marker has the same split, but there is much less wear and the engraving is not obscured by the repairs.





gravestone-3Then in the final image we have the hand-written transcription of Paddock’s marker, complete with a simulated crack running through the transcription.

Photographs are a rarity in this database, but the real value is the text from the thousands of markers that have been painstakingly transcribed. These are available to us today, even for the gravestones that are no longer available.

I’d like to send my thanks both to the NEHGS volunteers who undertook the task of capturing so much information over a hundred years ago, and to our modern-day volunteers whose careful indexing of these records makes them available to everyone.


  1. Find A Grave,
  2. Billion Graves,
  3. Helen Herzer, Tiptoe through the tombstones, at Vita Brevis
  4. NEHGS, North American Cemetery Transcriptions from NEHGS Manuscripts
  5. Find a Grave entry for Ebenezer Paddock
Don LeClair

About Don LeClair

Don is the Associate Director, Database Search & Systems, at NEHGS. He first got involved with genealogy while in college and spent many a day in the NEHGS library tracing his ancestors through New England and New York. Don also did volunteer indexing work for the library before joining the staff in 2016. Previously, Don had a 30-year career in the software industry working in and leading engineering and product management teams focused on IT Management products. Don has a B.A. and M.B.A. from Boston University.View all posts by Don LeClair