26 August 2011

Understanding Name Discrepancies on Headstones

This Wednesday I had the pleasure of chatting with the sexton of the largest municipal cemetery in the United States: Salt Lake City Cemetery. With over 120,000 graves inside, it’s quite the area of responsibility to look after and care for. The sexton was very open to sharing some of his experiences with me, and there was one aspect of his work that I found interesting: sometimes the name on someone’s headstone is not the name they went by, or even their official name.

This name discrepancy can even exist within cemetery records—sometimes the sexton has the official name recorded, but the “unofficial” name gets put on the headstone. Most of the time this isn’t the case, but the SLC sexton has known it to happen often enough that it’s worth mentioning.

The reason behind these discrepancies is that what goes on the headstone is 100% the surviving family members’ decision. What the family puts on the headstone is what makes the most sense to them, and sometimes that means using a personal, in-the-family name on the grave monument.

This makes sense. However, if you’re looking for hard facts to put into your family tree, it can cause you a bit of a hiccup if the headstone record doesn’t match the other sources you already have (or other sources you find further down the research road). Even so, having these not-so-official names (or official names that defy what the deceased individual was called in life) can give you an interesting peek into the family relations or traditions of your ancestors. You can learn about a nickname, understand a personal quirk, or uncover a family dispute (the sexton said that sometimes, sadly, he’ll see mourning families divided over what to put on the headstone because everyone feels so close to the deceased).

Knowing what’s on someone’s headstone gives you a glimpse at his or her circumstances in the last times of their life. It can help you see them as a person instead of a name on a chart, or understand family dynamics from the past. This is part of the reason why photos are such an integral part of BillionGraves. Abbreviated records (or official records) may not capture the same character and personality that many headstones can portray. When you can see the actual stone, just as though you were in the cemetery yourself, you can gather information and impressions you couldn’t get from just a name and a pair of dates.

Name discrepancies in old records can be frustrating, but even when your sources don’t completely support one another, each one can add to the past-filled family portrait you try to paint with your family research. When it comes to getting to know your family, every little bit helps.

The headstone photo was taken in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Turning the headstone into a sort of mountain sculpture adds character, don’t you think?