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The Name of a Cemetery

by Steve Paul Johnson
November 14, 2001

The name of a cemetery is too easily taken for granted.

When creating a cemetery transcription, transcribers are not doing the "due diligence" to verify the actual name of the cemetery. This is particularly the case with cemeteries in rural areas, or abandoned cemeteries.

The trouble occurs when someone uses a transcription to determine the burial location of a relative or friend. If the correct name is not identified on the transcription, it can lead people into an endless search.

It can also cause headaches in trying to identify one transcription from another.

For example, St. Raymonds Cemetery in Bronx County, New York is a very well known cemetery. But there are actually two of them, both located close to each other. One is referred to as "Old St. Raymonds" and the other is referred to as "New St. Raymonds". Sometimes, New St. Raymonds is just referred to as "St. Raymonds".

When people submit transcriptions for "St. Raymonds Cemetery", we have to ask for clarification as to which one they are referring to. If we didn't put any effort into asking for clarification, can you imagine the gross inaccuracies that would result? We'd end up with records for the old cemetery published in the new cemetery, and vice-versa. People would be misled to believe their ancestors were buried in one place, when in fact they were buried somewhere else.

Even when two cemeteries have different names, the same problem can occur if they are adjacent to each other. Long Island National Cemetery and Pinelawn Cemetery are adjoining cemeteries in Farmingdale, New York. We noticed people referring to the "National Cemetery in Farmingdale", when in fact they are really talking about Pinelawn. People didn't realize that there are two separate cemeteries there. They think the whole area is the National Cemetery.

All throughout the United States, there are two or more cemeteries located adjacent to each other, and are often not separated by a fence, or any other noticeable borders. It's easy to understand why one could be mistaken, but if you're going to create a cemetery transcription, you must take the responsibility of knowing the subject.

Another source of confusion is old names and new names. During my own genealogical research, I found references to a cemetery where my ancestors were buried. I found these references in death certificates, which were issued in the late 1800's and early 1900's. I didn't stop to think that the cemetery may have changed names. I figured the cemetery carried the same name back then as it did now. So, when I called the county courthouse to lookup the plot numbers, they said there was no such cemetery by that name. I didn't understand.

It wasn't until several months later that I discovered the cemetery was now operating under a different name. If you find an old cemetery transcription, or old death certificates, and you want to compile them to create a burial listing, then you should be aware that the name of the cemetery may have changed. It can save your intended readers some grief.

In my own cemetery adventures I find many that have no apparent names. There is no sign indicating the name of the cemetery, nor is there any name listed on maps, and nor do any of the locals know of a name. If you can't find a name through any of the easy channels, contact the local historical society. Historical societies are devoted to studying the history of the local area.

I've sometimes found that the historical society will not know of a name. At that point, I'll often coin a name after the town the cemetery served. Thus for example, the cemetery in Ludlow, California, would be named, "Ludlow Cemetery".

Some might argue that it is inappropriate to coin a name, because that too would mislead people into thinking that that's the correct name. But there could actually be many cemeteries within the confines of a county that don't have names. In San Bernardino County, California, there are perhaps as many as 50 cemeteries and burial sites throughout the Mojave Desert that don't appear to have any official names. If they were all identified as "cemetery" or "unnamed cemetery", it would be difficult for people to identify which cemetery transcription they would need. If the name of the town or area is tied to the cemetery name, it could at least guide people to the right transcription.

The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is published by the United States Geological Survey as an attempt to create a national index of geographic features. It's common for people to refer to the GNIS as the official source of names. After all, the federal government created it, so it must be official, right?

Well, the problem is that many of the features identified in the GNIS are out of date. Even though the GNIS is continuously revised, each feature is not examined continuously. There are cemeteries that were first added to the GNIS in the 1980's, and have never been reexamined since. So, while the GNIS has a name for a cemetery, it does not mean that that name is still current.

Furthermore, much of the names found in the GNIS were extracted from the USGS 7.5 minute maps. Many of these maps were created in the 1960's and 1970's. So, the names found in the GNIS come from sources as much as 40 years old.

The bottom line is that the transcriber of a cemetery must take responsibility in correctly identifying the cemetery. The people who will use that transcription will assume the transcriber has extensive knowledge of the cemetery, and will accept the transcription as evidence of fact.

Creating a cemetery transcription is more than capturing the tombstone inscriptions, or copying the sexton records. It includes many elements, and among them is the official name, including any other nicknames and prior names.

- Steve Paul Johnson

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