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Y Questions and Answers Y

 

Cemetery Project
Below are questions that have been asked of me or I have seen posed over the past couple of years. If you have any of your own questions, please submit them to me via the Museum's e-mail address, i.e. postmaster@museumoffamilyhistory.com. I may post your questions on this page along with my answers.

  1. I have found a surname that I am interested in on one of your unique surname lists. How can I find out more about the people with this surname who are buried in these society plots?
  2. How can I find the location of a relative's burial plot if I don't know what cemetery they're buried in? I think they used to live in Brooklyn, New York, or Manhattan.
  3. Why can't I find my relative in a certain cemetery's searchable database even though I know for sure they're buried there?
  4. I am interest in a particular surname. Where can I find information about this name?
  5. Where can I find the contact information for a particular cemetery?
  6. When is the best time to visit a gravesite?
  7. How can I get a copy of a particular cemetery map before I go to the cemetery?
  8. Will more cemeteries be creating websites with a searchable database?
  9. Will the cemetery take photographs for me of some of my family gravestones?
  10. How come someone's name doesn't appear the same on both the gravestone and on the cemetery's own database?
  11. Why is my relative buried in a society plot that is associated with a town that he never lived in?
  12. What other sources are there besides your Cemetery Project that list Jewish burials?
  13. How do I read my relative's gravestone?
  14. Why did so many of the older gravestones become so eroded?
  15. I went to my grandfather's gravesite and think that the cemetery has not been keeping up with the perpetual care that I've paid for. What should I do?
  16. I noticed that there are some society plots where the vegetation is so overgrown I dare not try to walk inside of it. Why does this happen?
  17. I hear that there can be poison ivy, oak or sumac at the cemetery. I've been warned to take extra precautions so that I am protected? What should I do?
  18. What is the best way to obtain information from a cemetery office of a relative who is buried there?
  19. I will be visiting my relative's gravesite and was wondering whether you would like me to take digital photographs of all of the gravestones in that particular society plot. If so, please let me know the specifics of what you need.
  20. How can I find out what landsmanshaftn or synagogue society plots there are in the New York-New Jersey area that are associated with a particular town that I'm interested in?
  21. How do I clean a gravestone?
  22. Why have so many baby and child gravestones sunken into the ground?
     

1. I have found a surname that I am interested in on one of your unique surname lists. How can I find out more about the people with this surname who are buried in these society plots?

Send an e-mail to the Museum at postmaster@museumoffamilyhistory.com with the following information:
Subject: Gravestone Photo Request
Please list each surname alphabetically, along with the name of the town that you found the surname under. Do not send a surname without a town or list heading attached to it. You must have found this unique surname in one of the lists that appear in my Cemetery Project. I will be pleased to e-mail to you what information I can. Most likely the information will be sent on an Excel spreadsheet (you can download the Excel Viewer for free if you don't have it already on your computer--see my Downloads listing on the Museum's Site Map page). The information I can send to you will include the deceased's surname, given name, the name of the cemetery and the name of the society that owns/owned the plot. I might possibly be able to send a gravestone photo or two to you by e-mail if it is especially important to you.

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2. How can I find the location of a relative's burial plot if I don't know what cemetery they're buried in? I think they lived in Brooklyn, New York, or Manhattan.

You should first ask any relatives who might know the location or at least can confirm or deny that the deceased is really buried in New York. Perhaps they know the name of the cemetery, but if not they can often tell you what borough the cemetery is in or perhaps they can recall what the nearest highway or street is to the cemetery and you can take it from there.
If that does you no good, look in whatever searchable databases there are for New York and New Jersey cemeteries. Links are provided to whatever databases are available in the Museum's Cemetery Directory page. You should also search JewishGen's JOWBR database. There is also JewishData.com. The Museum of Family History lists unique surnames of those buried in nearly six-hundred society plots, but at least for the time being you must know what town in Europe the society plot is associated with, then look up the name on that specific's town list. Hopefully, in the future the Museum will have a searchable database that will make finding the information you desire much easier. All of the sites mentioned, with the exception of JewishData, can be  freely accessed.
If none of the above sites result in a successful search, you do have other options. You can place telephone calls to each of the cemeteries and, with the name and approximate date of death in hand, ask them if your relative is buried there. Start with the cemeteries with the largest number of burials, e.g. Washington Cemetery (they had nearly 80,000 burials by 1913!), Mt. Zion Cemetery (over 200,000 burials), Beth David Cemetery and Montefiore Cemetery. Mt. Hebron has over 217,000 burials, but they are one of the cemeteries that have their own database, i.e. www.mounthebroncemetery.com. There is also Mt. Carmel at www.mountcarmelcemetery.com and Mt. Zion's www.mountzioncemetery.com . Suggestions for best utilizing the searchable database that Mt. Zion Cemetery has created can be found at www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/erc-scdb.htm .
Lastly, for the most part, if you can get a look at the deceased's death certificate, you can find the name of the cemetery where the deceased is buried. This information is usually located at the bottom of the certificate. In  New York, you can find these at death certificates at either the New York City Municipal Archives, if the death occurred before 1949 in one of the New York City boroughs. If the death occurred in a later year, then you need to contact the New York City Department of Health, furnish proof that you are an immediate family member, and pay the appropriate fee.
 

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3. Why can't I find someone in a certain cemetery's searchable database even though I know for sure they're buried there?

There are a number of reasons why this can happen. Let's assume that this person is really buried there. Firstly, the surname and/or given name could have a spelling that is different from what you believe to be.
Perhaps you are mistaken, though it is more likely a mistake was made elsewhere, somewhere between the coroner's office and the filling out of the death certificate and the entry of the information onto the individual cemetery's database (or cards if the cemetery is not computerized as in Washington Cemetery.)

Let's look at the process that generally occurs, from the time a person passes away to when they are buried. Someone passes away and hopefully the next-of-kin is notified. If not, it could be a different family member, either one who is part of the 'immediate' family, or perhaps one who is not. The notification is often a painful one for the person being notified so it is possible that they give the coroner (who must fill out the death certificate) the wrong name. Perhaps the coroner asks the person to spell the name (oy, maybe they're not a good speller or don't know the spelling) and the name is given incorrectly. Perhaps the coroner is not familiar with Jewish name spellings and can't help or hears it wrong and thus spells it wrong. Perhaps there is a typing mistake or perhaps the handwriting on the certificate is a bit obscure. This can create spelling errors. Generally, "transit permits" had to be filled out when a body was to be shipped from the funeral parlor to the cemetery and this is what the cemetery copied the name and other information off of. So a mistake could have been made when the death certificate or transit permit was written.
Let's say now that everything was filled out properly. When it was time for the person in the cemetery office to enter the data into their books (or computer), they could also have read the name wrong or made a typing mistake.
The next possibility to consider is the fact that the person is buried under a different name, whether it be the given  name or surname. For a woman, occasionally she is buried under her maiden name (whether on purpose or not). Also, for either sex, a person could be listed under their Jewish name and not the name they went by in the United States. You might be looking for Jacob, but Jacob is really listed as Yakov. Often though, as I've mentioned, the spelling is off a bit. That is why it is best to search in the broadest way possible, e.g. if the surname is Levinson, it is best to search first by the actual surname, then if that doesn't work, try Levins. Perhaps the name was entered as Levinsen, even if you know that is not the way the name was spelled.
In conclusion, we should be thankful that there are such searchable databases. Also, if you know what society plot they are buried in, and the cemetery that has the database has a search field that allows it, you can also search by society name and then search for the name of the deceased. Lastly, of course you can actually visit the cemetery if possible and walk through the society grounds yourself and look for the grave. The name on the gravestone might even be different than what's on the cemetery database, but that's another story. There is a webpage that I have put online that discusses the best way to search the Mt. Zion Cemetery database. The direct link is www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/erc-scdb.htm .

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4. I am interested in a particular surname. Where can I find information about this name?

You must first find the surname on the website and there must also be some kind of indication with that name that I actually have more information for that name. This is true especially of the unique surnames lists. However, you must actually find that name on one or more of the lists provided and e-mail me (cf.) with the surnames and associated towns. I can only give you information that I possess and cannot do research for you. Please be specific as to where you found this surname of interest on the website.

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5. Where can I find the contact information for a particular cemetery?

Most of the Jewish cemeteries in the New York and New Jersey metro area are listed in the Museum's Cemetery Directory page. If you find any errors or omissions, please contact the Museum at postmaster@museumoffamilyhistory.com .

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6. When is the best time to visit a gravesite ?

The answer is anytime. There are not enough people who visit their family gravesites these days, so visit when and if it is at all possible. Of course, it is best to visit when the weather is the most pleasant, i.e. when it's not too hot and not too cold and when there's no snow on the ground. Try not to go around closing time. Be well prepared (copy one of the cemetery maps from the Museum's Cemetery Project Map section, use the JGSNY search engine to locate the society before you go) and you should do well.

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7. How can I get a copy of a particular cemetery map before I go to the cemetery?
There's a good chance you can find the map you're looking for on one the Museum's Cemetery Project Map pages. There are maps to the overall cemetery grounds for most of the Jewish cemeteries in the New York-New Jersey metro area, as well as maps for cemeteries in South Florida, Chicago area (Waldheim), Los Angeles and Montreal, Canada. If you have other maps from cemeteries in any state or country (unmarked, i.e. not written on) and can e-mail them to me, please do so at postmaster@museumoffamilyhistory.com .

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8. Will more cemeteries be creating websites with a searchable database?

The next searchable database should be Mt. Ararat Cemetery in Lindenhurst, New York, perhaps by late August 2006. Later this year, Mt. Judah Cemetery in Ridgewood, New York. There are no plans, at least as far as I know, to create searchable databases for such cemeteries as Beth David, Montefiore or Washington, the latter of which does not even have computerized records. There are probably other searchable cemetery databases elsewhere, but my main knowledge in this matter is about New York and New Jersey cemeteries.

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9. Will the cemetery take photographs for me of some of my family gravestones?

Most will, some won't. Some will charge you a fee, some won't, though if they don't charge you a fee you should still offer to make a donation to the cemetery as a matter of courtesy and good form (and do it if they accept). Some cemeteries will take a Polaroid photograph of the stone and send it to you by regular mail, others will take a digital photo and e-mail it to you. Some cemeteries you can telephone with your request, others would prefer you send your request in writing. Either way, please give them what info you have on the deceased so they can have the best chance of finding their gravesite, i.e. surname, given name, date or year of death, society name, etc.
Especially during planting season (when the weather is nice), cemeteries are very busy. Whether it is the person in the cemetery office or one of the workers who goes to the site of the gravestone to take the photograph, odds are they will be busier during this time and might not have time to do it or at least not right away. Also, whether you pay them or not, it is not good form to tell them you are doing genealogical research and would like them to take many photos of gravestones for you, especially if there is no charge. You really have to contact the specific cemetery office and ask what their policy is. Normally, most cemeteries are most willing to take gravestone photos for someone whose family member is interred in their cemetery and is elderly or infirmed, or lives much too far from the cemetery to visit the gravesite in question, e.g. in another state or country.

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10. How come someone's name doesn't appear the same on both the gravestone and on the cemetery's own database?

As stated in the response to question 3 above, the name could be wrong in the database the cemetery office uses. Or the person who gave the information to the monument dealer gave a different name, either by volition or not. Sometime this person decides that the family would prefer that the deceased would have a name on the stone that is his or her Hebrew/Yiddish name or an abbreviation of their given name, e.g. Sam instead of Samuel, Abe instead of Abraham. Sometimes they use a nickname. The deceased's name could have been Isaac or Ike and been called Sonny by all who loved him. Any of these names could have been used. Sometimes a women's maiden name was carved into the stone and not her maiden name. If it wasn't a mistake, perhaps the woman was divorced or separated, the husband was already deceased and had no say in the matter, and since they both co-owned the plot, she was buried there but the family insisted that her maiden name be used. I have also seen cases where I think that the person who carved the name into the monument was careless or was a poor speller and made a mistake. Also sometimes the width of the stone, i.e. the space where the full name is to be written, is not wide enough and the name must be abbreviated or an initial must be used, e.g. the name on the stone may just use the first initial of the given name and (hopefully) the full surname. Lots of possibilities, aren't there?

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11. Why is my relative buried in a society plot that is associated with a town that he never lived in?

There are plenty of possibilities. The society that purchased the plot could have been associated with their spouse's hometown, or maybe they wanted to be buried in a plot adjacent to a plot that a loved one was buried in, or perhaps they just needed a place to be buried and that plot was available. Also, a person from one town in Europe could just have joined a society from another town and eventually been buried in one of their society plots. Maybe this person didn't like the politics of the group or its members. Perhaps the society that existed for his hometown had too many or too few members to their liking. Maybe their friends were part of another society and they preferred to attend a meeting with a friend (perhaps a member of a society whose town was near their own back in Europe). Perhaps it was a matter of convenience and a particular society met in a building that was closer to their home. Lastly, it could be that a society was in financial disrepair or rarely if ever met...There are so many possibilities.

We must remember also that most of these societies began a long time ago and could have gone through many changes from beginning to end. As membership began to dwindle over time, many societies needed to raise money to sustain itself, and if it had plots left over after assigning what they had to their members, they sold off the rest. Many societies merged or were taken over by other societies for one reason or another, and sometimes this may have happened many times. It should be noted that sometimes landsmanshaftn plots were taken over by synagogues and not by other landsmanshaftn. The reverse could also have been true.

These are just some of the many reasons. I suppose the only way to know with any kind of certainty is to visit the gravesite and look at the Hebrew names of the deceased and the father and the various dates, or write/call the cemetery and ask them to photograph the matzeva (gravestone) and mail the photo to you. If you have the time and the where-with-all to do a little research, you can go to YIVO in New York City and look through the society's papers. YIVO receives all the papers for the societies that have become defunct, after all the deeds have been issued and the society has been liquidated.

It's far easier to be emphatic about it all and say unequivocally that this or that person could not be the one you're looking for. I know that "never saying never" opens up the possibilities a great deal, and you might spend an inordinate amount of time searching for info on people who will turn out to be unrelated to your family. Perhaps you will have to do more legwork than you are comfortable with, but it's also good in a sense because it opens up the possibilities a great deal and allows for a greater chance for eventual success.
 

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12. What other sources are there besides your Cemetery Project that list Jewish burials?

See the answer to question 2 above.

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13. How do I read my relative's gravestone?

Some answers may be provided at http://www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/tombstones.html.

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14. Why did so many of the older gravestones become so eroded?

Many of the oldest gravestones were made of sandstone, a material that is susceptible to changes in the weather. The surfaces of such stones can flake (delaminate) and fall off. The stone will also be susceptible to air pollutants such as soot and can blacken. Other stones are made of marble or limestone. Nowadays granite is used most often. Marble was the material of choice back in antiquity. However, marble is composed of both calcium carbonate and is susceptible to the effects of acid rain. All of these deleterious environmental conditions (let's not forget wind) and the composition of the material used created a problem for us many decades later when we try to read the stones fully. Limestone was often used for the smaller stones used at children's graves or those of stillborns. That's why the majority of these small stones can be nearly impossible to read (not to mention the fact that, because they are small and not too tall, they are often swallowed up partially or fully by the ground beneath them.)

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15. I went to my grandfather's gravesite and think that the cemetery has not been keeping up with the perpetual care that I've paid for. What should I do?

Just call or visit the cemetery office and mention this to them. Ask when care was last given to the grave in question. If you are not sure what "perpetual" or "annual" care entails, ask. Also, remember that it doesn't mean that the grave site is attended to every week, etc. Perhaps the vegetation is trimmed twice a year, once at the beginning of the season and once toward the end. It's always best to ask what perpetual or annual care entails and what you will be getting for your money.

I found this explanation: "Perpetual care includes the cutting of the grass and grooming the grounds at reasonable intervals."
 

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16. I noticed that there are some society plots where the vegetation is so overgrown I dare not try to walk inside of it. Why does this happen?

Weeds can grow to more than six feet high when left unattended. Graves and even paths can be obscured, not to mention the faces of gravestones and their surrounding areas. You really don't want to try to walk through these plots for fear of poison ivy, oak or sumac, insects, not to mention the fact that you could be traipsing around blindly and could either run into an obstacle that is harder than you are or can trip, fall and hurt yourself.

Generally speaking, a cemetery will not care for a particular gravesite or society plot as a whole if there are no funds to pay for it. There are many society plots that go unattended because the society that owns or used to own the plot is defunct and there are no funds available to pay for its upkeep. It is rare to find one or two people that will pay for care for an entire society plot, though I have found the occasional society plot with many burials but just a few graves cared for. Visiting such plots can be challenging whether you are visiting a gravesite that is cared for or not.

Most societies did not have the foresight to envision that they would need to establish funds in perpetuity to care for their member's plots. They could not always predict the demise of their society and the drying up of funding. Even if they did, there might be a question of what actually happened to the money allotted. Sometimes this money that might have been set aside was used for more urgent reasons while the society was still active but struggling. Anything is possible.

Many grandchildren of those who are buried in graves that are uncared for do not (or cannot) pay for annual care (perhaps the majority). Many do not even know where their grandparents (or great grandparents) are buried. Of course, many couples had no children (or even if they did are no longer alive) and there are no surviving members to pay for care. There are no doubt others who probably didn't care whether there was upkeep on their graves once they were deceased.

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17. I hear that there can be poison ivy,  oak or sumac at the cemetery. I've been warned to take extra precautions so that I am protected? What should I do?

Take extra precautions, of course. Go on a few websites that display photos of what these plants look like and learn to recognize these plants. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, it's hard to be sure and best to operate on the side of caution. Also, the leaves don't always look the same in the Fall as they do in Spring. Dress with long sleeves and long pants and leave as little of your skin exposed before you go traipsing through all the vegetation. Wear proper gloves. Much of the toxins exist in the stems and not in the leaves as much. Also, these toxins can stay on clothes for quite a while, so be careful! I have been to cemeteries at least two-hundred times (in two years) and have never had a problem. Either I was careful enough, lucky enough (or a combination of both) or am not susceptible to such toxins (this is possible, though I would never assume so, just hope that it's true!) Lastly, watch where you are walking, not just because you want to see what plants you might be stepping on, but because the ground is not always solid. There are uneven grounds and obstacles that could make you stumble and fall. Sometimes at certain points around a gravesite the ground is not stable and your foot could break the surface and fall into a hole. Just be careful and smart. Many cemeteries have no appreciable poison ivy, etc., especially in the areas of the society plots, but you never know. One website with photos of the plants mentioned is http://poisonivy.aesir.com/view/pictures.html . I'm sure that there are many others. Good luck!

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18. What is the best way to obtain information from a cemetery office of a relative who is buried there?

Be prepared with the given name and surname of the deceased. Have at least an idea of the year they died. Try to be sure that they are actually buried there and if not, tell them you're not sure. Of course, be courteous and respectful. As to what information they will be willing to give out, this all depends on the cemetery and the sometimes the person who speak to (and often how busy they are at the time). Sometimes you will only get the info (especially if you are asking about multiple burials) if you submit your request(s) in writing to the cemetery. Remember that the mailing address is not always the street address. You can visit the Museum's Cemetery Directory page for many of the mailing addresses and phone numbers, etc.
Sometimes the cemetery will give you the name and phone number of the person listed as the contact for the particular burial (many of the older burial records have no contact information), but usually you must be related to the deceased to receive said information. Try not to saddle them with more than a few names at one time if they indicate to you that they are busy. Also, importantly, for the most part it is not a good idea to tell them you are a genealogist or are doing genealogical research as many cemetery offices feel that doing lookups for these purposes is an undue burden for them. I can't tell you what percentages of offices feel this way, but the range of cooperation or lack thereof runs the full gamut. There are some cemetery office folk who are very helpful, and we should all be very thankful (and thank them) for it.

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19. I will be visiting my relative's gravesite and was wondering whether you would like me to take digital photographs of all of the gravestones in that particular society plot. If so, please let me know the specifics of what you need.

If you would like to do this, please contact the Museum at postmaster@museumoffamilyhistory.com .

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20. How can I find out what landsmanshaftn or synagogue society plots there are in the New York-New Jersey area that are associated with a particular town that I'm interested in?

Please use the JGSNY search engine. Here, you can search by the name of the town or by a keyword and receive a listing of each society plot, i.e. society name, town association (if any), cemetery and plot location, and what type of society owned/owns the plot, e.g. landsmanshaft, synagogue, family circle, etc.

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21. How do I clean a gravestone?

One good source of information is www.gravestonepreservation.info .

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22. Why have so many baby and children's gravestones sunken into the ground?

One of the obvious reasons is that over the many decades, the ground softens up a bit and the stones just sink further into the ground. Years ago, many of these small stones/markers were placed a foot into the ground with dirt placed around it. It wasn't until years later that many cemeteries gave these small stones more of a foundation by adding some cement around the bottom of the stone to keep it from sinking.

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