A Simple Guide to Genealogy: Church and Cemetery Records

Church and Cemetery Records

Personal interviews, local and state histories, directories, and other books are not the only source available for the genealogist. Sometimes church and cemetery records can be your most beneficial and reliable source of information. The Catholic Church has records in Europe that date from the Middle Ages, and in the Jewish synagogues, the records date from the mid-seventeenth century. For the Protestant Church, the records date from the Reformation (16th century).

Some of the records available to you from church and cemeteries are: marriage, baptism or christening, and burial records. Some church records may even contain membership information, which sometimes can give names of entire families. Some cemeteries have burial plots of families for generations and written information for each one. It was not uncommon for a particular family for generations to all be buried in the same cemetery. Always check all entries of the same name. You may find these entries to be those of cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. These records may also give you direction as to other areas your relatives may have lived.

In the early days of America, many cemeteries were connected directly to the church. So if you find the church your relatives attended chances are you will find a vast storehouse of family information. By visiting the cemetery or church you may also be able to take pictures of tombstones and photocopy records. If you are not able to visit these areas personally, you may write the church or cemetery and request information from them. Some charge a nominal fee, while others do not. A letter of inquiry may be the ticket to a generation gap of twenty to one hundred years or more.

What to look for:

1) The religious affiliation of your ancestor is important. Your present religious affiliation is probably the same as your ancestors. Family bibles, diaries, letters, sometimes, death or marriage certificates, and obituaries may help in determining your ancestor’s faith. Depending on the area your ancestors lived, sometimes a will may give information in the form of–who will perform the burial, where the burial will take place, and in the case of the Catholic faith, there may be a reference to a particular Catholic Church to perform mass.

2) Parish or church attended and general idea of city, state, county, etc. Once you know the faith of your ancestor you must find out the general or specific location of habitation. This can be discovered also from bibles, diaries, letters, etc.


In America the main churches were: Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Mormons, Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, and Methodists, German Reformed, Congregational, Episcopal, and Jewish. Particular areas of New England were strong in certain denominations and people of that faith seemed to live within that general area. New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania carried a heavy population of Dutch and German Reformed Lutheran, Catholic, Quaker, and Presbyterian. Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts were mainly dominated by Congregational, Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians. The southern states maintained the faith of England (Church of England) and then later by the Protestant Episcopal Church. There also seemed to be a mixture of Quakers, Baptists, Moravians, Presbyterians and Catholics.

A question you may ask is: Could the origin of my ancestors help determine their religious faith? The answer is yes. Following is a list of the most definite religions and their dominant countries.

1) England: Congregational, Church of England, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, and Baptist.

2) France: Most likely Catholic or French Huguenot.

3) Scandinavian Countries: Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, and Reformed Lutheran.

4) Germany: Either Catholic or Lutheran depending on whether from the south or north.

5) Switzerland: Pietist groups that later became known as the Amish, Moravians, and Mennonites.

6) Russia and Poland: Jewish or Catholic.

7) Italy and Spain: Mainly Catholic.

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