I have learned a lot about cemetery research from a mysterious headstone that bears the name of my great-uncle James McCaskey, who was killed in the Civil War. After much searching, I found this marker in the same Pennsylvania cemetery where many of my other McCaskey ancestors are buried. It reads:
April 12, 1839
June 16, 1862
James Island, S.C.
Those details are all correct; the military action on James island was the Battle of Secessionville. The problem is that the notification of his death says that his body was never found. The official records say that the Confederate troops buried the Union soldiers killed in the battle (some 509 of them) in unmarked graves on the battlefield. North Sewickley Cemetery records indicated that the headstone was placed in 1875, after Mrs. Jane McCaskey purchased three adjoining plots and ordered three matching stones — one for her recently deceased husband John, one for herself, and one for her missing eldest son James.
Sure enough, the marker next to the one for James marks the grave of my great-grandmother Jane McCaskey. But on the far side of her grave, the ground has been cut away, and a gravel road lies several feet below the resulting ledge. So where is Great-Grandpa John? There is no sign of him or his tombstone at all. Was he ever there? Did an earthmover carry him away when the road was put in? Or is he in the plot marked with his son's tombstone? At this point the solution to the problem becomes too macabre to consider, so I am willing to accept what I THINK I know without further investigation.
Lesson Number One: A tombstone does not always equal a real burial. Obviously, James's headstone marks an empty grave, a not uncommon phenomenon during a war that swallowed up so many young men on distant battlefields. The Grand Army of the Republic honors James McCaskey's service every Memorial Day by placing a flag on the grave site, but even their records stop short of stating that he is actually buried there.
Lesson Number Two: The lack of a headstone does not necessarily mean that no grave ever existed. As time passes, stones crumble, weeds take over, land subsides, new demands for grave sites force owners to change the layout of their cemetery plots. In this picture, you can see that Jane McCaskey's stone now teeters dangerously close to the edge of the cut-away bank. In fact, it is largely supported by the roots of the tree in view just behind the stone. John's grave would have been on the far side, since wives were nearly always buried to the left of their husbands. John has disappeared, but we know from court records and other documents that he was buried in that location in 1875.
Lesson Number Three: Burial practices change over time. While I was planning this blog post, I received a message from another genealogist, a distant cousin of my husband's, who had found the graves of my husband's grandfather and great-grandfather. I was astonished to learn that both men were buried in the same grave at St. Mary Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio — one above the other. The cemetery records show John Christoph Schreiber (1845-1889) in section A, lot 48 North grave 4 E.D. (which stands for extra deep, or at about eight feet). His son, John C. Schriber, Jr. (1867-1928) is in section A, lot 48 North, grave 4 O.T.(on top, or at about 4 feet).
Cemeteries can tell us a great deal about those whose lives we are researching. Sometimes, perhaps, they tell us more than we really wanted to know!
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