24 August 2011


     No matter how many times I visit family graves, I hunt through rows of markers and stones to find a specific grave. Finding a grave is especially difficult in those cemeteries that allow only markers flush with the ground. No matter how many times I visit the graves of my father and brother, I walk back and forth, sometimes in a panic, wondering where my memory has gone.. All I can see is a flat expanse of ground with no upright markers. I go armed with a cemetery map, complete with landmarks like trees and row markers, but pinpointing the row, especially  in a big cemetery, is often difficult.
My great-grandfather's unmarked grave,
found with the help of
a kindly groundskeeper
      I have often had to request the help of cemetery employees to help me locate a specific plot, especially at huge urban cemeteries. While I must admit to a few less than favorable encounters with genealogy-phobic front office personnel, the groundskeepers I have met have gone out of their way to help me locate specific plots. One groundskeeper went so far as to look up plot information that the front office clerk, citing bogus privacy concerns, would not reveal to me. This wonderful man then drove me, in his truck, to my ancestor's grave. At a another cemetery, a groundskeeper stayed a half hour past closing time to help me find my great grandfather's unmarked grave.  Once, at an old Philadelphia cemetery, three cemetery workers, none of whom spoke English, took time from their chores to find the location of my Magee family graves, all unmarked. They joined in my moment of prayer and reflection as I placed flowers on the plots.
    I have also been helped by those in the genealogical community who share information they have collected from cemeteries. There are many family researchers who are devoted to transcribing names and dates on headstones. Many of these transcription collections are now available online. These dedicated people are of great help to those of us who cannot travel to distant cemeteries.
      Many researchers upload information to Internet cemetery projects such as Find A Grave or Resting Spot. Find A Grave contains inscription information and a place to leave online flowers or notes. Some of the pages provide photos of the headstone. Resting Spot is a new online project that uses GPS technology to pinpoint the location of plots--a great service for those of us who "lose" their ancestors' plots. Using a GPS function on a cell phone, a family historian can send the GPS coordinates of a cemetery plot to the Resting Spot project and have it recorded for future use and also for the use of fellow researchers. The app is not currently available for all cell phones, so check the Resting Spot web site to determine if you can participate in this project.
IRISH GENEALOGICAL PROJECT  (some of the county projects have cemetery records)

17 August 2011


     Themes of genealogy and family history have been examined in recent books and movies (see my earlier posts on the topic via the links below). One novel that deals with family history and family secrets, Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, has been released as a movie this summer. The Oscar buzz is already circulating about the movie and about Kristin Scott Thomas' performance.
     While the plot revolves around a journalist's search for the truth behind a round up of Jews in Paris during July of 1942, the deeper themes deal with the personal costs of hiding family secrets and burying family history. The book raises these questions:
Do we know who we are if we do not know our family's history?
Do hidden family secrets affect subsequent generations?
Why do families keep secrets?
Why is the search for a family's history so unsettling to some people?
Why do some people not care at all about their family history? Why do others care so much?

11 August 2011


     I have written previously about the importance of preparing well for a research trip. I wanted to update my advice after being contacted by two researchers who were totally unprepared for their upcoming trips to Ireland. Much of the advice is applicable to any destination.   
     Many family historians waste valuable time and effort on research trips, especially trips to Ireland, by not educating themselves beforehand about the genealogical resources at their destination. If you go to Dublin thinking you will find all the records you need at the National Library of Ireland (NLI) or "the archives," you are bound to be disappointed. I've known frustrated researchers who spent valuable vacation time in Dublin researching records that they could have obtained online or at a local Mormon Family History Center near their home. Others have wasted a day walking from one Dublin facility to another, searching for the correct repository. The following checklist will help you plan any research trip wisely, whether you are visiting a historical society in Pennsylvania or the NLI in Dublin..
1. Review your notes and family records. Pinpoint what information you need (birth date for great grandfather Harry? Marriage date for Ann and John Row in Carlow?). Don't simply carry a family chart with you, hoping that a librarian or archivist will help you pinpoint what records you need. Some facilities have ample workers and volunteers to help patrons, others are understaffed. Always be prepared to do your own digging.
2. Determine what sources might contain that information. Church records? Civil vital records? Census? Freeholder's List? Valuation map?
3. Determine where these sources are kept for the location you need. For instance, if you need baptism records for the parish of Clough, determine if they are available online, at a resource near your home such as a Family History Center, in a Dublin repository, in a County Kilkenny library, or at the local parish church. Know before you go!
4. Determine if those records are available for the time frame you need. For Irish records, James G. Ryan's Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History is a great help in this regard. Most repositories have online catalogs of their holdings--knowing before you go has never been easier!
5. Research the location, hours, and visitor requirements of the repository you plan to visit before you make your travel plans. When I worked at a local historical society, I was amazed at the number of researchers who had traveled a great distance, only to arrive on a date or at a time the society was closed. I also encountered several visitors who brought cameras or copying equipment despite the society's restrictive policies. A quick phone call or a check of the web site saves disappointment (and arguments and tears in public).
6. Know exactly what facility or repository you need.  Don't assume that every record you need is at the "library."  Don't assume that there is some vast "archive" in Dublin. Know theproper names for the facility you need and will visit. There are "archives" and "Archives." I know several researchers who lost valuable time visiting the National Archives in Dublin when they really needed to be at General Register Office (GRO).
Preparation is the KEY to a successful research trip!

04 August 2011


     Today was a very sad day for me. I attended my last Irish American Family History Society (IAFHS) meeting before moving to Toronto. I know it will not be my last meeting ever with these wonderful people, but missing even one meeting will be hard for me. I have learned so much from everyone in the society--I have stolen many, many ideas from the members as material for this blog and for my talks!
     The IAFHS meetings are unique. We don't sit in rows facing forward. Rather, we sit in a modified Camelot fashion--in a rectangle or in rows facing each other as much as possible. King Arthur knew what he was doing when he instituted his round table. Face-to-face meetings promote discussion and familiarity. The group is the most convivial group I have ever joined. Not only do I leave each meeting with knowledge in my noggin, I always leave with a smile on my face. I like to think it is because we all have a wee bit of the Irish in us! Great craic!
     I would like to thank each and every member, but I am so afraid of leaving someone out. So I say THANK YOU to you all--you know who you are, and you know how much you mean to me.
     I will miss giving my genealogy talks and classes in the tri-state region. The people I have met through this wonderful world of genealogy have been a blessing to my life. They have uplifted my spirits, made me laugh, made me think, and shared personal stories that I will treasure always. The are many angels in the world disguised as family history researchers.
     In particular, I would like to thank the following groups and institutions for hosting many of my talks. As with the IAFHS meetings, I learned more from the audiences than they did from me.
National Archives, Mid-Atlantic Branch, Philadelphia, PA
Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania
Mid-Atlantic Family History Conference
Genealogical Society of Bergen County, NJ
Gloucester County Historical Society, NJ
Central Jersey Genealogy Club
Leisure Village West Genealogy Club, Manchester, NJ
A Family History Event, Wilmington DE
Cherry Hill, NJ, Recreation Department
Cherry Hill, NJ, Library
Mount Laurel, NJ, Library (a special thanks to Stefanie and to great audiences at Mt. Laurel)
LDS Family History Center, Cherry Hill, NJ (special thank you to Paul and to the volunteers)
Old York Road Genealogical Society (PA)
Brehon Law Society, Philadelphia
LAOH Pottstown
Salem County (NJ) Genealogical Society
RCA Lunch Club
Join a genealogy group! If you can't find a local group, start one! Don't give up, even if you have only one or two others at a meeting. The benefits to your research will be enormous; the camaraderie, invaluable.

OLD YORK ROAD GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY (Bucks, Montgomery, Philadephia Counties, PA)