Seeking Cemeteries Without Tombstones

Written January 4, 2020. Updated 13 Feb 2021.

Many people today, assume that a cemetery in rural Virginia without tombstones must be a slave cemetery. But this is a misunderstanding. Most people could barely afford to feed their families and pay their mortgages. The cost of a tombstone could not even be a priority. It was not considered a practical use of money, which was scarce. At first glance, it might seem impossible to learn anything about field stones. I have learned much more about the people and the land with newer tools such as mapping on satellite images and adding GPS coordinates of cemeteries to that map. The majority of my ancestors in Mecklenburg County, Virginia did not have tombstones. Burials at churches (or with tombstones) did not happen for most of the people I know about there, before World War I. Tombstones were not very common in this areae until after World War II when the economy started improving. Tombstones were also often put up much later by descendants, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and Daughters of the Revolution. I talked to Stephen Lambert Jr & Sr in August 2004 about the cemetery with Nellie Brooks and Frederick Jones. Lambert descendants knew which burial plot was Nellie’s and which was Frederick’s because of a drawing of the cemetery that used to be kept in the Family Bible. The tombstones were placed there about the early 1960’s, approximately 145 years after Frederick died.

Tombstone of Frederick Jones

When I first began visiting Mecklenburg, in January 2003, I printed every tombstone picture I took and put it in a photo album. Of course I was teased about that. But I wanted the few stones I found to be in a book, so that each time I visited, I could show my book to people and ask questions about the person with that tombstone. I wanted to know where they lived, who were they related to etc. Some relatives didn’t know a headstone had existed until they saw my book. When they last saw the cemetery as a young child, it was just field stones. Each visit to Mecklenburg, I asked everyone if they knew about family cemeteries. I also visited whatever cemeteries I could find marked on 1960’s USGS topographical maps. I have discovered many long forgotten cemeteries with a lot of help from people who live there.

The maroon colored upside down letter “T” is the symbol I use on my map for cemeteries. I thought the symbol looked closest to a tombstone. The churches are a marked by a cross, the same color if there’s a cemetery at the church. Most of the cemeteries I’ve visited are not visible from the road. Many cemeteries are in areas that haven’t been farmed for at least 20 years, so there are often many briars, small trees and brush to get through. I visit Mecklenburg more frequently in the winter to look for cemeteries.

This summer (2019), I went to a cemetery relatively close to old Robert Joyce, Kidd and Cannon lands. I took a picture with GPS coordinates (an app on my phone), typed those coordinates into the map, and saw that this cemetery is on land which used to belong to Samuel McKinney and Elizabeth Newman. I have no idea who is actually buried here, and I don’t know anyone who can tell me any old family stories about this land. But I can theorize, that it is highly likely the people who owned the land were buried on heir land at this time. There were fence posts and a fence still visible in some places.

These are 2 GPS pictures I took of this cemetery with what we estimate to be about 45 graves. Some places we could see head and foot markers for 6 burials in a row. I only found this cemetery because someone knew about it, knew I was asking about cemeteries and took me to see it. There were rocks (field stones) marking head and foot areas. Some land depressions. No names or carved information anywhere.

What can a cemetery without tombstones tell us? If there was a family of 12 children, but only 3 burials, I know I haven’t found the whole family yet. If for example, John B. Kidd had 7 parcels on his plat south of Nellie Jones Rd which he gave to his children, but I have only found cemeteries on 3 parcels then I expect to find cemeteries on the 4 other parcels. If I get a GPS coordinate and don’t know who used to live there pre-1900, then I start looking through deeds. If I hear about a cemetery of field stones, I want to see if any descendants possibly added tombstones. I have found mentions of cemeteries, in both deeds and chancery cases. Twice I’ve seen someone buried in the cemetery mentioned by name in the land record. One cemetery I’m currently searching for is mentioned in a deed, with an acre lot. That cemetery is larger than any of the family cemeteries I’ve visited before. I have only heard reference to one slave cemetery, because the man’s mother showed him where it was, to protect it. That’s another cemetery I hope to visit soon. If you know of any cemeteries, whether marked or unmarked, please let me know.

Two field stones

If you are looking for cemeteries in Brunswick County Virginia, check out this site

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s